C. Lon Enloe, Associate Professor
Kenneth M. Keesee
Integrated Science and Technology Program
James Madison University

The authors wish to thank the many faculty of the Integrated Science and Technology Program at James Madison University who contributed their thoughts to this document. We hope that this document realizes the goal of capturing, in a short, easy-to-use format, the essence of effective technical communications across a wide variety of disciplines. We welcome your comments! Please e-mail them to Prof. C. Lon Enloe at enloecl@jmu.edu.

Last Revised: January 8, 1999 This latest revision includes an example laboratory report that covers each of the report elements described in this Style Manual.

Material on this Web page copyright ã 1998, 1999 by Carl Lon Enloe and Kenneth Michael Keesee. Web pages to which this document links are the copyrighted works of their individual authors. Excelâ and Officeâ are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.

 

Contents

Introduction

The Written Word

Report Formats

The Title Page

The Abstract

The Introduction

The Materials and Methods Section

The Data and Analysis Section

The Discussion Section

The Conclusion

The References

The Acknowledgements

Mathematics as Language

Use of Tables

Graphics The X-Y Plot

Multi-dimensional Data Plots

Diagrams and Schematics

Other Graphics Tools

The Technical Presentation The Written Word for Presentations

Graphics for Presentations

 

 
Introduction: The Importance of Technical Communication

Science and technology are human endeavors. They are about people learning about the physical world, and using what they learn to change that world. Centuries ago, it was possible for one person to know much of what was known about the physical world. Those days are long past. Today, science and technology advance as teams of people pool their knowledge and understanding to take on increasingly complex problems. To succeed in this world, it is not enough just to know an important fact or have a good idea. You must be able to communicate your ideas to others.

Technical communication is in many ways like other forms of communication. To communicate well, you need to be clear and precise. Technical communication, however, uses some tools that are different than what you will find in everyday writing and speaking. This document will guide you in preparing technical documents. Some of what you will find in this document is slanted toward the writing of an undergraduate laboratory report, but the skills you will learn as you use this guide will serve you well in whatever field of science or technology you choose as a career.

 

The Written Word

Most of the laboratory exercises you will do in your courses will require you to turn in some kind of written report. When you graduate, you will find that most of your technical communications will be in writing. Being able to effectively communicate in writing is a skill that you can develop now that will serve you well throughout your professional life.

Good technical writing is at its heart good writing. All of the usual rules of grammar apply as much to technical writing as to any other form of written communication. There are some additional considerations, however, that make technical writing unique, such as heavy use of equations and other mathematical expression in some disciplines and the use of graphics for communication rather than merely for decoration.

 

Report Formats

Your courses will require you to write up your laboratory results either informally or formally. The informal document you will be asked to produce is the laboratory write-up. The formal document you will be asked to write is the laboratory report. Your laboratory write-up may have some of the same elements as a formal laboratory report, or it may have items, such as questions, specific to the write-up alone. For laboratory write-ups, follow the instructions your instructor gives you, and use this Style Manual as a guide where appropriate.

The formality of the laboratory report makes it much closer to the type of writing you will do as a professional. Regardless of the discipline you are studying, the laboratory report consists of several important elements:

Title Page

Abstract

Introduction

Materials and Methods

Data and Analysis

The Discussion Section

Conclusions

References

Acknowledgements
 

Each part fulfils a specific purpose; these are discussed in detail in the following sections along with guidelines for writing each of these sections.

 

The Title Page
 Example

For any formal laboratory report that you write, include a separate title page. Include all of the following information in your title page, in the following format. In a large course, it is especially important to include your section number and instructor's name on the title page:

 

Title of Report or Number and Name of Laboratory Exercise
by
First Team Member
Second Team Member
Additional Team Members
 
Course Number and Title
Section Number
Date
Instructor: Dr. Laboratory Instructor

 

A couple of other rules to keep in mind are as follows:

 
 

The Abstract
 Example

Winston Churchill once said, "Please be good enough to put your conclusions and recommendations on one sheet of paper at the very beginning of your report, so that I can even consider reading it." This is called writing an abstract. An abstract is nothing more than a brief summary of the main sections of your complete paper. It is a mini-version of what is to come.

An abstract allows the readers, be they your supervisors or the editors of a scientific journal, to quickly identify the basic content of your report, assess its relevance to their concerns, and determine the necessity of reading your report in its entirety. Good scientific writing requires the communication of information accurately and quickly. A good abstract lays it all out up front, telling your reader what to expect. The downside is that your reader may examine your abstract and never look at the rest of your report. The goal of scientific writing, however, is not to have all audiences read your paper from start to finish, but to inform or persuade your audience as efficiently as possible.

The type of abstract you will be writing for your lab reports is called an informative abstract. It should briefly state the problem considered, the methods used to examine the problem, a brief description of the laboratory results, and an accompanying conclusion. This is the common form of abstract used in scientific journals.

In writing your abstract, keep in mind these general rules:

 

The Introduction
 Example

The introduction to your lab report is where you define the subject of your examination. It should outline the scientific purposes or objectives for the research performed and give the reader sufficient background to understand the rest of the report. While the introduction should provide the reader with enough background information to evaluate the report without having to refer to outside sources, care must be taken to limit the included material to that which is pertinent to the experiment. Be as clear, direct, and concise as you can.

Always keep in mind that you are writing to convey information. Think of the introduction as your opportunity to justify why the reader should take the time to finish reading your report. Think of the questions the reader might ask. What is the specific purpose of this study? Why was this study performed or why is it important? What is needed to understand this work? How is the study to be presented? Effectively answering these questions minimizes the chance the reader will dismiss your work as unworthy of attention and potentially, in the real world, money.

In addition, a good introduction will include another short statement of the results and conclusions of the study. Conclusions are important enough that you will actually mention them three times in a good lab report: in the abstract, in the introduction, and with the most detail in the Discussion section. A good technical report does not read like a mystery with the outcome carefully concealed until the last page. Rather, the introduction should read like a road map, explaining where you're going, why you're going, why you've taken a certain route, and where you ended up.

In writing your introductions, keep in mind these general rules:

 

The Materials and Methods Section
 Example

Reproducibility is the cornerstone of all science. The foundation of the scientific method holds that before any experiment can be regarded as good science, the results of that experiment must be capable of being reproduced. This means that before your examination can be called a true scientific experiment, you have to tell others exactly how they can recreate the results. The scientific community is a very skeptical one. Why should we believe you when you claim you've turned lead into gold or that you hold the key to nuclear fusion? You have to show us and we'll only begin to believe you after your experiment is successfully repeated again and again and again.

The Materials and Methods section of your lab report is where you will describe in detail how you conducted your experiment. This section should read like the recipe from a cookbook and, as with a recipe, precision is crucial. If you ever submit a research paper to a scientific journal, your materials and methods section will be scrutinized very closely. If there is any doubt as to whether your experiment can be reproduced on account of a lack of precision in your report, it is equally doubtful that your report will ever be published.

Remember the following guidelines when writing the Materials and Methods section:

 

The Data and Analysis Section
 Example

This section of your lab report is where you'll present your collected data. This section is the core of your report. Like the Materials and Methods section, what you put in the Data and Analysis section is limited. First, you should begin your section with a brief description of what your data show. Give your reader a context in which to view the data. Second, you should present the data, using graphs and tables for efficiency and clarification. Finally, you should analyze your data mathematically, showing any equations you need and their derivations, if they are not common knowledge. Do not discuss the ramifications of your experiment--save that examination for the Discussion section of your report.

Sometimes, you are performing an experiment to test a particular theory. It may be better in such cases to put your derivation of the theory of the experiment before presenting the data itself. You may even break up this section into two parts: "Theory" and "Data." Choose the structure that best presents your case.

Keep the following guidelines in mind when writing your Data and Analysis section:

 

The Discussion Section
 Example

 The Discussion section of a lab report is sometimes the most difficult to write. This is the section where you will explain your results and their ramifications. You will be bringing it all together in this section, detailing the principles, relationships, generalizations, and consequences of your experiment. You must completely understand your investigation and corresponding results before you can expect your reader to fully understand your report.

The primary purpose of your Discussion section should be to present the relationships between observed facts. Your Discussion section is best understood as an interpretation of your results. Now that you've collected all of your data, what does it mean? Always relate your discussion back to your objectives stated in your introduction. How do your data answer your original questions or problem? Additionally, you should discuss the significance of your results. What is the final implication suggested by your data? You don't have to have earth-shattering results, but you should at least indicate that some worthwhile information came out of your experiment.

The following general guidelines apply to writing the Discussion section:
 

 

The Conclusion
 Example

The Conclusion section of a lab report is the one section that should almost write itself, if you have done a good job on the other sections of the report. The purpose of a Conclusion is to summarize, for the convenience of the reader, the major points of your report. You do not have room in a Conclusion to cover every detail, so you must include only the broadest description of your work and the most important results. One way to write a good conclusion is to ask yourself, "If I had one minute to explain to someone what I did and what it meant, what would I say?"

The following general guidelines apply to writing the Conclusion section:

 

The References
 Example

You need to include references in your technical writing for several reasons. For one thing, you have a professional and moral obligation, codified in the university honor code, to document your sources; that is, you must give credit where it is due so as to avoid a potential charge of plagiarism. Beyond this, by including references, you place your work in context for the benefit of the reader. You not only tell your reader where your quotes, ideas, theories, data, or illustrations originated, but you also provide the reader with secondary sources should she wish to research your topic further. It is not necessary that you cite sources for general information or common knowledge (avoid cluttering your reports with general information easily located in many sources), but if you are directly quoting or paraphrasing a source you must cite that work. If you are ever in doubt as to whether you should cite a source, err in favor of documentation and give the citation.

This Style Manual will describe one method for using references. There are as many variations on this as there are scientific disciplines and technical journals. If you are writing for a journal, or if your instructor in an upper-level course wishes you to use the style of an important journal in your particular specialty, by all means do that. Submitting an article for publication to Journal "A" using the citation style of Journal "B" lets the editors of Journal "A" know that their journal wasn't really your first choice, or that you couldn't be bothered to look up the details of their requirements. You will start off with (at least!) one strike against you. If you learn the principles outlined in this Style Manual, however, you will be able to easily follow any more-specific formats.

The format for references described here is based on the "humanities style" described in The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition published by the University of Chicago Press. For a very detailed look at formats of citation, see this excellent reference. The examples given here cover only the very basics of citing books, journal articles, government reports, and Web pages.

You will list your references at the end of your paper, organized alphabetically by the first authors' last names. This is similar to compiling a bibliography, but merely listing the sources you used at the end of your report finishes only half of the job! Such a collection of cited works only tells the reader in general where you found your information. References in technical literature, however, are linked to specific citations in the text. You should point to a reference immediately after introducing material that is not yours. Again, there are several ways of doing this. For materials that you are turning in for class, the mothod you will use is when citing from a source, refer your reader to that source through a parenthetical reference in the text. The format for the reference, if it is a journal, technical report, Web page, etc. is

(Author's Last Name(s), Year), or if it is a book,
(Author's Last Name(s), Year, Page Number).
If you are using more that one reference from a particular author in a single year, use the date reference "1998a" for the first one, "1998b" for the second one, etc. There are two places you may put the reference: either before the punctuation at the end of a clause or sentence, or right after the location where the information appears. Use the former location if the idea in the sentence is someone else's. Use the latter location if the idea in the sentence is yours, but the specific detail (perhaps an equation) your are using is found in your reference.

The following example illustrates both cases:

You find Einstein's famous equation on page 123 of one of your textbooks, Modern Physics by Susan Smith, published by Scientific Press out of New York City. The copyright date of the book is 1995. Then, you find a journal article by John Jones titled "Equations Everyone Knows" on pages 14-17 of the Journal of Popular Culture. The date on the journal is August 1998, but because it is a professional journal it also carries a volume number, in this case volume 45.

Here is a sentence using the equation from the book and a quotation from the journal article:

Here are what the entries in the "References" section look like: Another source that you might use is a government or a corporate report. If the report doesn't mention an author, use the government agency or the corporation as the "author" in the text. The citation here looks similar to a book (this looks redundant, but the company here is both "author" and "publisher." Finally, a couple of notes about Web pages: first, don't use them in place of "archival" books, journals, and reports. Web pages are easy to get to (especially in the wee hours of the morning the report is due, when the library is closed) but Web pages come and go, and even if they stay in one place they get changed at the whim of their author. Second, if you do use them, don't just cite the URL. Web pages have authors and titles just like journals and books. Most importantly, give the date you accessed the site, in case it gets changed or disappears later. An example is:  
 

The Acknowledgements
 Example

The Acknowledgements section of a lab report should be short. Simply acknowledge and thank the people that helped you with the substance of your report. Include here any person (or organization) that helped pay for your work, if you are doing funded research.

The following general guidelines apply to writing the Acknowledgements section:

 
 

 Mathematics as Language
 Example

Unlike articles in the popular press, technical communication integrates the language of mathematics with the traditional written word. There is one key to remember when integrating equations and text: treat equations just as you would any other word in a sentence. Just as you could say, "Albert Einstein is probably the best-known scientist in the world," you could say, "The equation is probably the most famous mathematical expression in the world." This is an example of an in-line equation because it appears in the line of text. You use the in-line form when the equation is short and when you don't need to refer to it for later calculations. The other way to use an equation in a sentence is to break it out from the sentence. You write an equation in this way to make it

stand out from the rest of the sentence, but it's still a part of the sentence as far as punctuation is concerned. You break out large equations and equations you want to refer to again. In order to refer to an equation, you give it a number in the right-hand margin, in parentheses. For example, you could say that, "Einstein developed the equation
 
  (1)
to describe the relationship between energy, E, and mass, m. In this equation, c is the speed of light." The Microsoft Officeâ suite of products has integrated with it a powerful Equation Editor that lets you typeset equations quickly and easily. There is no longer any reason to write SQRT(x^3) when you can write . Equation (1) also illustrates more of the following guidelines for using mathematics as a part of written language:  
 

Use of Tables
 Example

Tables are useful for two kinds of data: small data sets and groups of different kinds of data. The former is an easy call. Once your data set gets to be larger than about half a dozen data points, put the data on a graph. It's much easier for a person to visualize a trend than to pick it out of a column of numbers. The latter kind of data is usually a list of parameters. See for yourself which is easier to understand:

"We used two bars of metal in our experiment. Bar A was made out of aluminum and had a diameter of 1.2 cm. Bar B was made out of copper and had a diameter of 9 mm. The length of bar B was 12.0 cm, while the length of bar A was 11.5 cm."

or

Table 1. Parameters for metal bars used in the experiment.
 
 
Bar A
Bar B
material
aluminum
copper
diameter (cm)
1.2
0.9
length (cm)
11.5
12.0
As this example shows, a table organizes these  parameters visually. There is one other instance in which tables are the preferred mode of expression: when you really need to convey information to a high precision (in other words, a large number of significant figures). There is a limit to how precisely you can read a graph, but there is no limit to the number of decimal places you can include in a table entry.

There are only a few simple guidelines for tables, as follows:

 
 

Graphics
 Example

One aspect of technical communication is the importance of graphics. Unlike the popular press, where pictures and graphs are decoration, effective graphics are central to communicating technical topics. If ever the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" were true, technical communications would be the setting. Computer programs from spreadsheets to computer-aided drafting (CAD) packages have made the task of creating high-quality graphics enormously easier than in the days of pen and paper, but high-quality graphics consist of more than laser-printer output. By following the guidelines in this document, you will learn to create graphics that communicate effectively with your reader or audience.

There is one thing you need to know that applies to all types of graphics in a technical paper:
 

 
 

The X-Y Plot

One of the most versatile graphic elements is the x-y plot, which is a graph of one quantity with respect to a related quantity. Such a graph shows quickly trends and relationships between elements. A high-quality technical graph shows as much information as possible as clearly as possible with the minimum of wasted space and effort. Unlike a graph in a newspaper, it is unnecessary to decorate a technical graph. The data should speak for themselves.

The following is a graph of some data of distance versus time. It is the kind of data you would expect from an object in uniform linear motion. This graph was created in Microsoft Excelâ using the spreadsheet's default setting for a graph, and pasted into this document. Although this graph looks better than one drawn by hand, it is not acceptable for a technical report.

Figure 1. A graph of distance x versus time t created using the default setting of the Chart Wizard in Microsoft Excelâ . Several elements of this graph need to be changed to bring it nearer to professional standards for a technical graph.

 

The graph shown in Figure 2 was made from the same data using the same software, Microsoft Excelâ . It is a much more professional product. Fortunately, it took just a few clicks of the mouse to turn Figure 1 into Figure 2.

Figure 2. Distance x versus time t shows a linear relationship indicating uniform motion in one direction; that is, the acceleration a is zero.

Compare Figure 2 to Figure 1 and you will see how applying some of the following guidelines makes for a much more presentable product:
 

 
 

Multi-dimensional Data Plots

The most common data plots that you will make will be two-dimensional graphs of one quantity as a function of another. Sometimes, though, it will be necessary to describe how a quantity varies with two or more related inputs. For example, you might want to plot the concentration of some pollutant versus location on a map. The techniques for presenting such multivariate data are many. One of the best ways to determine how to present your data is to take a look at professional technical journals and books and see how others have presented similar data. Figure 3 shows only one example of how data in multiple dimensions can be presented.

Figure 3. This example of a plot of two intersecting exponential peaks shows one method of presenting data in more than two dimensions.

There is one overriding guideline for multidimensional plots:

 
 

Diagrams and Schematics

There are in general two types of line drawings that are useful in technical writing: Schematics and diagrams. Schematics are drawing that follow formal rules to describe electrical, mechanical, architectural, geological, or other types of systems. Each discipline has its own standards for symbols and how to use them. Usually these standards are maintained by professional organizations. You can learn the basics of reading and writing electrical and mechanical schematics in a relatively short time, but you can also spend much of your professional life perfecting these skills and learning sophisticated software packages for making these drawings.

Technical diagrams, on the other hand, are much more free-form. You can find examples of good diagrams in most of your textbooks. Although there are a wide variety of techniques that are useful in making technical diagrams, there are principles that apply to most instances. Figure 4, indicating the workings of a solar-powered microwave oven, illustrates many of those principles.

 

Figure 4. A microwave oven driven by a set of solar panels. The solar panels need to be physically large to collect sufficient power from the sun. An inverter turns the DC voltage from the solar panels into an AC voltage, so that the transformer can step the voltage up to match the requirement of the microwave oven.

Keep the folloing principles in mind when preparing and using technical diagrams:

 
 

Other Graphics Tools

Data plots, diagrams, and schematics will serve to convey most of the information you will need in a technical report. Other graphical elements are used occasionally in technical writing. One example of other types of graphical elements is the photograph. In a professional journal, photographs are produced by a different (and more expensive) process than are line drawings. Use photographs sparingly. A photograph of your laboratory equipment is usually not worthwhile. On the other hand, photographs that depict data, such as the difference between a healthy plant and one exposed to high levels of pollution, can be effective and worth including in a technical report. Overlaying a photograph with annotations such as a length scale, or arrows that point out key features, can also be effective. Using a photograph for mere decoration, however (such as on the title page of a report) does not add to your report. You are much better off using your time to refine your data analysis.

 

 The Technical Presentation

At times, in school and the corporate world, you will be asked to report technical information orally as well as in a written report. You may be asked to deliver an oral presentation to a class or conference, instruct or lecture students, or report to a committee or supervisor. It is therefore necessary that you give some mind to honing your skills as an orator as well as a writer. How well you prepare and deliver your presentation may have important consequences. A good delivery will get you noticed favorably. A bad delivery may cut you out of a higher grade, funds for a project, or even a job.

This Style Manual assumes that you will be using visual aids for your presentation. Not only will you be using visual aids to support and clarify the substance of your presentation, but you will also be using them to attract and focus your audience's attention. There are a variety of visual aids from which you may choose for your presentation. The most common visual aids are chalkboards, slides, videos, charts, overhead projection, and computer presentations. There are benefits and disadvantages to each. Before you choose a particular visual tool, keep in mind the nature and purpose of what it is you wish to display. For example, if you're looking to present a complex table of research data, it is unlikely you'll find the chalkboard a convenient visual tool.

Visual aids will include both words and graphics. The most important piece of any presentation, is however, you the presenter. Whatever visual aids you use, it is important to keep several principles in mind to make your presentation effective:

 
 

The Written Word for Presentations

When you are preparing written material for presentations, the overriding principle is to have just the right amount of verbiage on your visual aids: not too much, and not too little. Remember that visual aids are just what their name implies, devices to help the listener to understand you, the speaker. Visual aids give your audience clues to how you have organized your thoughts. They give someone who has drifted away for a moment a chance to get back into the flow of your presentation. As useful as they may be, however, they should never detract from you, the speaker.

Probably the most common error is to use too many words in your visual aids. Frankly, words are easy to put into visual aids, especially with software tools such as the Microsoft Officeâ suite. Just type and type and you've got slides for your presentation! Graphics and equations take more effort to produce, although the level of integration in products such as Microsoft Officeâ helps this process considerably. Nevertheless, most of the material in the visual aids you bring to a technical presentation should be in the form of graphics rather than words. Graphics are simply more information-dense. Most of the words that are in a technical presentation should come from you, the speaker.

There is one very important rule for technical presentations:

Figures 5, 6 , and 7 are examples of slides that have too few, too many, and just the right amount of verbiage for a technical presentation.
Figure 5. This presentation slide contains too few words to be effective.
 
Figure 6. This presentation slide contains too many words to be effective. It would be tempting to merely read this slide to the audience, which would make a very ineffective presentation.
Figure 7. This presentation slide contains the right number of words to tell the audience something about the topic, but still leaves enough room for the speaker to fill in the details.

 

Graphics for Presentations

Most of the visual aids you will use for your presentation should consist of graphics. Graphics can communicate a lot of information in a short time, if you use them effectively. The same principles that apply to graphics for written reports apply to graphics used for presentation. There are, however, some specific things to keep in mind when you are preparing a graphic for a presentation: