Outlines and Sequence
The first step in any writing assignment is to develop an outline. Outlining helps to clarify and organize not only your writing, but also your thinking; it therefore makes the actual writing much easier. An outline clarifies the shape of the whole, the purpose of your report, the relationships between main points and supporting details, and the relative weight that should be assigned to each section or idea. Reviewing your outline with a critical eye will allow you to identify gaps in logic and to decide whether you need to add or omit information or ideas.
Though your outline may be rough at first, only touching on the fundamentals (as in the sample below), you can ensure that you stay on track throughout the writing process by gradually fleshing out ideas and adding examples as you develop each section. Kotz and Cals (2013) provide an excellent step-by-step guide to the outline-based writing process:
- Use single-word topics or one-liners indicating the main message of each paragraph to create a logical and convincing storyline within the section (these headings later become the “[topic] sentences” of your paragraphs).
- Gather key publications related to your paper and add notes under each heading with appropriate citations.
- Replace the notes with rough sentences to build a paragraph (of approximately 6—8 sentences).
- Rewrite the sentences until the whole paragraph reads well.
- Check whether the paragraph has a “head” (i.e., a [topic] sentence that summarizes the essence or the paragraph) and “tail” (i.e., a bridge or final sentence that connects with the next paragraph).
Kotz, D. and J.W.L. Cals. 2013. Writing tips series: effective writing and publishing scientific papers. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 66:359-360, 397, 585, 702, 817, 945, 1064, 1197, 1198.
Sample Outline: Lab Report
- Role of nutrients on plant growth
- Question about my specific nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus
- What have others found? – improve growth – in what way?
- Hypothesis and predictions
- Study site and organism
- Procedure (include materials)and Treatments
- ANOVA; P=0.05
- Treatment 1, 2, 3
- Hypothesis and predictions– supported or rejected?
- Do the findings make sense?
- How do the findings compare to results of others?
- Smith et al. 2013!
- Why don’t some of my results align? Possible experimental issues? New information? Different methodologies? Issues with other studies?
- What would I study next? Would be interesting to know how reproductive capacity is affected by these nutrients!
Why you shouldn't start with the introduction
Although it is tempting to dive into writing the lab report by beginning with the introduction, writers often find that this is the most difficult section to compose; you may therefore benefit from a more strategic approach. Many researchers find it easiest to begin by writing the methods section as this information is right before you: you will summarize information from the lab manual and the notes that you took during the lab. Next, move on to the results, including tables, figures, and appendices, and then to the discussion.
Because the discussion dictates the scope of the paper (it is here that results are analyzed, compared, and discussed within an appropriate and relevant context), you will have an easier time writing the introduction once it is complete. Although the title is the first thing someone will read, it should be the last thing that you write. Once you have completed your lab report, you will have the best sense of what is essential to include.