Arts & Sciences 1138.03: Freshman Seminar
The Wave Nature of the Universe
Practical Tips for Scientific Writing


Below you will find a list of some common mistakes found in undergraduate writing.

Much more extensive help on writing, grammar guides, on-line tutorials, and other resources are available at the Writing Center. Please take advantage of both their electronic and in-person writing assistance.

PROOFREAD!!!  You should check your paper to catch and correct these and other common errors.




Abbreviations You should avoid abbreviations by writing out the full word (minimum, October, Virginia, first, temperature, with...). Exceptions include common biological terms like ATP and DNA, units of measure (m, g, cm), and mathematical or chemical formulas. Sentences should never begin with an abbreviation or an acronym.

Acronyms You may wish to introduce an acronym for a term that is repeated often:  if your paper deals with soybeans, Glycine max, you may use the full scientific name once and substitute G. max thereafter. If you are writing a paper about tidal freshwater marshes, the first time the terms appear, you can introduce an acronym:   "Tidal freshwater marshes (TFM) are important transitional zones in the landscape." Throughout the rest of your paper, you would refer to TFM.

Chemical elements are not proper nouns, so do not capitalize them. Only the first letter of the symbol is a capital letter: nitrogen (N), carbon (C), calcium (Ca).

Contractions In formal writing, you should never use contractions (didn't, can't, haven't...).

Data The word "data" is plural, as in "the data were collected on January 21, 2001."

Direct quotes should be avoided, unless you are presenting another author's specific definition or original label. You can usually paraphrase the writing effectively and more concisely, taking care to properly attribute the sources of your statements.

Fluff It is obvious when students do not understand what they are writing about, and their grades suffer as a result. Read and re-read your references. Consult a textbook or another reference to help you resolve any aspects of the paper you do not understand before you start writing.

Footnotes should not be used. See the Introduction or Discussion section of the scientific paper for instructions on in-text citations.

Run-on sentences You should review your writing to make sure that each sentence presents one or two clear ideas. This will also help you organize sentences within paragraphs in a logical order.

Scientific names, consisting of genus and species, should be underlined or italicized, with only the genus capitalized:  Homo sapiens or Ilex opaca.

Significance In science, the word "significant" implies the result of a statistical test. It cannot be used to say, "the number of root nodules on red clover plants increased significantly when nitrogen was added," if you did not perform a statistical test to determine significant differences. You should analyze your results to determine whether they are statistically significant and report the test you used, the significance level (p=0.05), calculated statistic (tcalc), and degrees of freedom.

Slang Do not use slang. Try to use precise, scientific terms where possible (without unnecessary jargon) and avoid colloquialisms and figures of speech: "somewhat" rather than "sort of," "many" or "a great deal" instead of "a lot."

Spell-check Your word processor's spell-check and/or grammar-check function is not error-free. It cannot tell you when to use "it's" and "its," and it cannot tell you that a particular sentence does not make sense. Give yourself enough time to proofread and correct your paper.

Tenses When describing methods and results, you should use the past tense. The present tense is appropriate for accepted facts, such as the background information presented in the Introduction. In addition, you may use the present tense when you discuss your results and conclusions. Looking over other scientific papers may help you answer questions you might have on this topic.

Units All units of measure must be metric or SI (international System).