Chapter 2 Excerpt From The Craft of Scientific Writing

Writing Guidelines
Writing Exercises
Writing Courses

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 4

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When discussing the organization of documents, Aristotle said, "A whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and ending." This approach is a good way to examine the organization of general scientific documents, such as reports and articles.

The beginning of a report or article serves a specific purpose--it prepares readers for the middle, which is the discussion of the work. In preparing readers for the middle, the beginning fulfills certain expectations of the readers. These expectations include defining the work, showing why the work was done, giving background for understanding the work, and revealing how the work will be presented. The middle, often called the discussion, simply presents the work. The middle states what happened in the work and states how it happened. The middle presents the results, shows where they came from, and explains what they mean. The ending of a scientific document then further analyzes the work presented in the middle and gives a future perspective. While the middle presents each result separately, the ending looks at the results from an overall perspective.

Beginnings of Documents

The beginning to a scientific document has one task: to prepare readers for understanding the document's middle. The beginning to a scientific document is important because it determines whether the audience will continue reading. In a sense, the beginning is a make-or-break situation. The beginning of a scientific document includes the title, summary, and introduction.

Creating Titles. The title is the single most important phrase of a scientific document. The title tells readers what the document is. If your title is inexact or unclear, many people for whom you wrote the document will never read it. Consider a weak example:

Reducing the Hazards of Operations

What is this document about? Only a psychic could know. This document could be about anything from using catalytic igniters in a nuclear power plant to using new plastic gloves during operations on AIDS patients. Would you search the library stacks for this document? Probably not--your time is too valuable to spend on such a search.

Ideally, a strong title to a report or article orients readers in two ways: first, it identifies the field of study for the document; and second, it separates the document from all other documents in that field. A good test for a title is the way it reads in a list of titles recovered by a computer search. A strong title will meet the two criteria; a weak title will not.
A strong title identifies the field of study for the work. Consider an example that does not succeed:

Effects of Humidity on the Growth of Avalanches

Although this title is more specific than the first example, it still does not meet the first criterion. On the basis of this title, you might assume that this document is a geological study of rock or snow avalanches in a mountainous terrain. Actually, this document is about electron avalanches in electrical gas discharges. Therefore, the title should be revised to reveal the field of study:

Effects of Humidity on the Growth
of Electron Avalanches in Electrical Gas Discharges

Just because a title names the field of study does not mean the title is strong. Naming the field of study gets your audience to the right ballpark, but your audience still doesn't know who the teams are. In other words, you have to address the second criterion, which is to separate your work from everyone else's. Consider the following example:

Studies on the Electrodeposition of Lead on Copper

Although this title orients the audience to the area in which the work was done--plating of lead onto copper--this title is still unsuccessful. Somehow, the writer has to distinguish this work from other work in the area. For the work that this paper discussed, a better title would have been

Effects of Rhodamine-B on the Electrodeposition
of Lead on Copper

Now this title orients readers to the area of work and gives a specific detail ("effects of rhodamine-B") to distinguish this work from other work in the area.

In a title, an audience can absorb only three or four details. More than that--things begin to blur. For that reason, giving too many details is as weak as giving too few:
Effects of Rhodamine-B and Saccharin
on the Electric Double Layer During
Nickel Electrodeposition on Platinum
Studied by AC-Cyclic Voltammetry

There's just too much information given here. In a strong title, you must balance each detail's contribution against the space it acquires. If the principal aspect is the use of the new technique (AC-cyclic voltammetry), then a stronger title would be

Use of AC-Cyclic Voltammetry to Study Organic Agents
in the Electrodeposition of Nickel on Platinum

Without being too long, this title emphasizes the unique element of the research: AC-cyclic voltammetry. Ideally, you want your title to identify your work so that it stands apart from any other work on your mountain. Often, though, you cannot achieve this goal in a phrase that is both clear and precise. Nonetheless, you can usually find a title that indicates the most distinctive aspect of your work. What about details of secondary importance? Those you can present in the summary or introduction.

When writing titles, many scientists and engineers fall in love with big words and forget about the importance of the small words that are needed to couple those big words. Unfortunately, strings of big words are difficult to read.

10 MWe Solar Thermal Electric Central Receiver
Barstow Power Pilot Plant Transfer Fluid Conversion Study

What is this report about? Perhaps we can guess that some kind of solar energy plant is involved. But does this title orient? No, it overwhelms. Many details are included, but we have no sense of the relationship of those details. This particular document proposed a new heat transfer fluid for Solar One, the world's largest solar power plant. Given that, a stronger title would have been

Proposal to Use a New Heat Transfer Fluid
in the Solar One Power Plant

Notice how this revised title contains short words--"to," "a," "in," and "the"--interspersed among the bigger words. These smaller words serve as rest stops for the audience. Notice also that this document was a special situation, a proposal, as opposed to the typical situation of a report or article. By identifying special situations such as proposals and instructions in the titles, you orient the audience to the specific perspectives of those documents.

When writing a title, you should consider your readers. What do they know about the subject? What do they not know? In a title, avoid phrases that your audience will not recognize. If readers do not understand the title, they will often not read any further in the document.

Use of an IR FPA in Determining
the Temperature Gradient of a Face

Although most readers will realize that the engineer determined temperature gradients in this work, most readers probably will not recognize the acronym "IR FPA." Perhaps readers might realize that IR stands for infrared, but what about FPA? Another problem with this title is the ambiguous use of the word "face." What kind of face? A crystal face? A mountain face? In this engineer's case, the face was actually a human face, a detail that in the work was relatively unimportant. What was important here was that the engineer had developed a new way to measure temperature gradients. For that reason, a better title would have been

Determining Temperature Gradients
With a New Infrared Optical Device

In this revision, you give enough information to orient, but not so much information that you confuse.

(break in chapter)

Middles of Documents

The middle, or discussion, of a scientific document simply presents the work. In the middle, you state what happened as well as how it happened. You state the results, show where they come from, and explain what they mean. What organization problems must you surmount in the middle? In writing the middle, you select a strategy and then convey that strategy to the audience in your choice of headings and subheadings. There are many logical strategies in scientific writing: chronological strategies, spatial strategies, flow strategies, as well as the traditional strategies, such as cause-effect, that you studied in high school. The names of these strategies aren't so important. What's important is that you choose a logical strategy that is appropriate for your audience. Also important is that you reveal that strategy through your headings and subheadings.

Creating Sections and Subsections. For scientific documents that are longer than a couple of pages, having sections and subsections becomes important. Why? One reason is that sections and subsections show readers the strategy of the document. The headings and subheadings act as a roadmap for readers. When the headings and subheadings are well-written, the readers can quickly see the document's organization. Sections and subsections also provide readers with white space. Readers of scientific papers and reports need white space so that they have time to rest and reflect on what they have read. Besides showing strategy and providing white space, sections and subsections allow readers to jump to information that interests them. Along the same lines, sections and subsections allow readers to skip information that does not interest them. Remember: The primary purpose of your writing is not to entice readers into reading every word you've written, but to inform or persuade your audience as efficiently as possible.
How long should your sections and subsections be? As with most questions about style, there is no absolute answer. If your sections are too long to read in one sitting, your readers will tire in the same way that a driver tires from a long stretch of highway. On the other hand, if your sections are too short, your paper or report will appear as a collage of titles and subtitles. The unnecessary white space will cause your readers to make too many starts and stops. The overall effect is that your readers will tire much in the same way that a driver tires from the starts and stops of congested city traffic.
How should you title a section? When creating titles for sections, you should strive for the same clarity and precision that you have attained in the title of a document. Don't resign yourself as many scientists and engineers do to cryptic one-word titles that clue the readers to nothing:
These titles are vague. Because readers often skim through documents to look for particular results, you want your heading titles to indicate the sections where those results can be found.
Coal-Water Slurry
Combustion Efficiency
Combustion Emissions
Dry Pulverized Coal
Combustion Efficiency
Combustion Emissions
When creating titles for sections, you should also consider the parallelism of the titles. In other words, don't write
Mining the Coal
Transportation Stage
Burning the Coal
The second heading is not parallel to the other two. Think of your sections as pieces of a pie. It makes no sense to slice a pie and have one piece be apple and another be pecan. If your first subsection title is a noun phrase, then all the subsection titles of that section should be noun phrases. Likewise, if your first subsection title is a participial phrase, then all the subsection titles of that section should be participial phrases.
Participial Phrase
Mining the Coal
Transporting the Coal
Burning the Coal
Finally, if you break your information into one subsection, you must have a second. Having a single subsection is similar to slicing a pie and ending up with only one piece:
Precombustion Processes
Coal Cleaning
Combustion Processes
Postcombustion Processes
Because "Coal Cleaning" has nothing to be parallel to, this breakdown is inherently non-parallel. You should either include another subsection beneath "Precombustion Processes," such as "Coal Switching," or drop the "Coal Cleaning" subsection:
Precombustion Processes
Coal Cleaning
Coal Switching
Combustion Processes
Postcombustion Processes

(end of excerpt)

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