TAM 224/CEE 210


Guide to Writing Laboratory Reports
Frederick V. Lawrence and Leslie J. Struble

1. Introduction
This guide for students in TAM224/CEE210 makes extensive use of material from a web site on writing for engineering and science students, http:// fbox.vt.edu:10021/eng/mech/writing. The site is edited by Michael Alley (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), Leslie Crowley (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Jeff Donnell (Georgia Institute of Technology), and Christene Moore (University of Texas at Austin). We gratefully acknowledge permission to use material from that site in the section on format and style. Students are encouraged to explore the site for additional guidance on technical writing. Additional information on technical writing is found in The Craft of Scientific Writing by Alley (1996), and information on more general writing is found in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (1979). If you do only one thing to improve your writing, buy one of these books and read it from cover to cover— your writing style will be enormously improved. This guide provides engineering students with some ideas about writing. Because some of you are likely to be intimidated by writing, we have kept the guide as simple as possible. Of course, the guide is neither complete nor foolproof; but we hope it will be helpful.

simple notion “TAP your way to good writing!” may eliminate many false starts in organizing a technical paper.

TAP = Thesis + Audience + Proof
First, you must have a Thesis, that is, a reason for writing. Every paper should have at least one strong “punch-line”. The entire paper should build up to this thesis. Having more than two major points in a paper may lead to an unfocused work; and it is probably advisable to make a second thesis the basis of a second paper. Next, you must have a clear idea of the Audience for whom you are writing. You should generally assume that you are writing for another person like yourself, who is familiar with the basic language of our profession and understands common techniques or can consult standard references. You should also assume that your reader is lazy and very much pressed for time. Thus, you should come to the point as quickly as possible. However you must not be too brief, you must include sufficient facts and information that a competent person can reproduce your experiments and understand your assertions. Third, the goal in technical writing is to marshal facts as Proof of your thesis. In this respect, technical writing differs considerably from creative writing. Technical writers should have a great reverence for facts. Technical papers should be a dispassionate, accurate, and complete assembly of information (facts) that can be used (or reinterpreted) by others. Avoid manipulating the facts. Do not attempt to persuade the reader to your particular point of view. Acknowledge uncertainties or inaccuracies. Identify things you had to guess or assume so that the value of the factual information in your report can be judged by the reader.

2. Why write at all?
Technical writing permits the communication of information so engineers can learn from past experience and so our profession can advance through the slow accretion of knowledge. Although the primary goal in technical writing is to present impersonal facts and provide an objective interpretation of them, good technical writing can also impart the interest and excitement that motivated us to become engineers. Technical writing should be fun and technical papers should be interesting to read.

4. Forms of Writing
There are many forms of technical writing, and each form has its own organization (format) and manner of expression (style). In general, you should use the form most appropriate for the exposition of your thesis (that is to say, form follows function). In this class you will use three forms: formal report, letter

3. TAP your way to good writing!
As with any design process, one begins by defining the problem and the possible solutions. The

Abstract. journals. you should consult a guide such as The Elements of Style (Strunk and White. and. Format and Style Format encompasses the organization and appearance of the document. The abstract should be typed as one paragraph. Title Page. from journal papers to laboratory reports. . particularly. it should not cite figures. In engineering and science. References. but it should not exceed 200 words. rather. For instance. Introduction. the choice of typeface. distinction in scientific writing is between format (the way you place the text upon the page) and style (the way that you express a thought in words and images). It is also useful to note the organization for which the report was prepared (in this case TAM224/CEE210). However. Results. the objectives of the experiment. the formats are much more detailed. but sometimes hazy. why the experiment is important. The background often includes theoretical predictions for the results and briefly summarizes previous published papers on the same topic. Use a serif typeface. a formal report has a relatively formal style. Tables. The opening sentence or two should generally indicate the topic of the paper and the objectives of the investigation. you should consult a guide such as The Craft of Scientific Writing (Alley. Here the format and style are described for each of the three forms used in this class (formal report. Experimental Procedures. The introduction of a laboratory report identifies the experiment to be undertaken. and courses select formats to serve their particular audiences. and occasions. the abstract should be intelligible and complete in itself. Thus. tables. Do not use contractions. Introduction. Its optimum length will vary somewhat with the nature and extent of the paper. Formal reports are written for several reasons. An important. The following is a commonly used organization for formal reports: Title Page. For an analysis of style in general writing. the method of citing references.1 Formal Report The format described here is typically used in a variety of writing. Not surprisingly. 5. Do not use slang. and use of illustrations. and the overall background necessary to understand the report. and presentation. Acknowledgments. What’s important is not that you learn every format that exists. purposes. These guidelines do not attempt to discuss the many points of style.Writing-2 TAM 224/CEE 210 report. letter report. Double space reports for this class and indent the first line of paragraphs. they focus on stylistic points particular to writing laboratory reports. for longer documents such as reports. The objectives of the experiment are important to state because they are usually used in the discussion to analyze the results. This should state the title and authors of the report and the date. or sections of the paper. Abstract. in a laboratory report. language. Discussion. these format guidelines cannot possibly present every format option that you will encounter in engineering and science. and presentation). the organization and arrangement of information into sections. Style comprises the structure. This form has the most detailed format and thus it illustrates a number of key features of technical writing. Rather. When your grade school teachers asked you to write something. Another reason is to archive the work so that it will not have to be repeated in the future. For a more complete analysis of style in scientific writing. Conclusions. companies. Why is that so? One reason is to make the reading process efficient. Keep your writing clear and concise. Given the wide variety of format issues and options. 1996). the format was often simple: double spaced and front side of the paper only. 1979). The author should assume that the reader has some knowledge of the subject but has not read the paper. The abstract presents a concise synopsis of the entire report. Figures. the placement of headings. but that you realize specified formats do exist and that you practice following some format. who often base company decisions on such reports. in the end. Define acronyms and symbols. there is no universal format. in engineering and science. not particularly helpful. This includes the arrangement of type upon the page. having all the information follow a specific sequence makes it easier for readers to locate specific information such as the results. A third reason is to communicate experimental observations and conclusions to ones colleagues. 5. One reason is to communicate the laboratory work to management. An example of each of these forms is provided later in these Laboratory Notes. and Appendices. Such a collection would be cumbersome and.

Moreover. you would want to include those. and ways to proceed in the future given the wisdom of hindsight. and objective. you analyze why not. For that reason. and each conclusion should follow directly from analysis in the discussion section. would be those details that might cause your results to differ from those of your audience. Tables. arranged in the order cited and have descriptive captions. Achieving the proper level of detail when describing laboratory procedures is challenging.TAM 224/CEE 210 Writing-3 Experimental Procedures. What you would want to include. Always identify and reference published sources of information or ideas. In the results section the writer conveys the observations or facts without bias and with a minimum of interpretation. assumptions that proved erroneous and thus troublesome. you should give the reader enough information so he or she could replicate your results. The discussion section is usually organized topically. of course. you should be detached. especially to show trends and relationships. Cite each reference in the text and list each reference in the reference section. The section is written as a narrative as opposed to a set of instructions (that is. you need to provide more detail. whether directly or indirectly. but separate these sections when it is useful to discuss the results as a whole after all results are reported. The conclusion section is largely a repetition of the conclusions drawn in the discussion section. They should be numbered. In the discussion. Graphs a common type of . The discussion is the most important section. Results. arranged in the order cited and have descriptive titles. admission of writer bias. and they may be numbered. Figures. and subjective statements are appropriate in the discussion. Usually you examine the objectives mentioned in the introduction to determine whether the experiment succeeded. In general. then. Consider as an example the procedure for using a manometer and strain indicator to find the static calibration of a pressure transducer. be noted. the significance of the results is analyzed. In the discussion you should analyze the results and discuss their implications. Speculation. When the procedure is not standard. Much care must be given to the development of the tables and figures. do not use the imperative mood). Figures are another useful way to present data. Documenting the procedures of your laboratory experiments is important not only so that others can repeat your results but also so that you can replicate the work later. The conclusions should be very brief. The experimental section describes how the experiments were performed. during your measurements. particularly when they are reinforced by the facts reported in the results section. Discussion. It is appropriate to give credit to those who contributed to the work. first in narrow terms. both their origin and their significance to the conclusions. Each table should be adequately described and explained in the text where it is first cited. avoid subjective evaluations and avoid forcing conclusions on the reader. Tables are a useful way to present data. then in increasingly general terms. Build the results section around tables and figures. Well designed tables and figures convey the essence of the paper (almost) independently of the text. Let the facts speak for themselves. Obvious large differences and big surprises should. In writing the conclusions. Because the equipment is standard. such as unusual ambient temperature. It is also appropriate to discuss facts you wish you had been able to collect but did not. Such details might include the model number of the pressure transducer and the pressure range for which you calibrated the transducer. each subsection of the discussion is a small essay in which specific results are discussed and appropriate conclusions are drawn. that is. you can assume that your audience has access to details such as possible arrangements of the valves and tubes. The heart of a laboratory report is the presentation of the results and the discussion of those results. Doing so will not detract from your originality but will greatly strengthen the proof of your thesis. Should you have any anomalies. Acknowledgments. Figures should also be numbered. discuss any errors that existed in the experiment. combine these sections when the discussion of your first result is needed to understand your second result. Conclusions. For instance. you should include those details that affect the outcome. which may be combined or presented separately. References. if the need arises. and if the objectives were not met. dispassionate. Each figure should be adequately described and explained in the text where it is first cited. but tables and figures should always be described and discussed in the text. perhaps including theoretical justification for the steps.

the date. Because people read business letters quickly.. then the visuals become an excellent handout not only for the people who attended the presentation. particularly in the creation of visuals. how do you motivate the reader to repair the damage without alienating or antagonizing? The answers are not simple. Appendices simplify the text and spare the reader. update management on progress. and present results to their colleagues. you should consider its effect on the audience. A good test for the design of visuals is how well they stand on their own.” Because these phrases are not natural or straightforward. they inject an undesired attitude. Therefore. Much writing goes into a presentation. and conclusions. usually arrogance. you should concentrate on being clear and precise. development of concepts of secondary importance to the thesis. When designing a visual. and a salutation. They try to discern what is being projected and how this projection fits into the words they are hearing. how do you talk about your accomplishments without sounding boastful? Or in a letter complaining about faulty workmanship. get to the point in the first paragraph—the first sentence. and insert any comments that are necessary for understanding the material. the signature. Space your letter on the page so that it does not crowd the top. In formatting visuals. are discussed in a separate chapter in the Laboratory Notes. For instance. What information do you place on visuals? Note that the visuals in the example include both words and images. straightforward wording. Instead of using plain English. Single space your letters and use a serif typeface. The use of slang. However the style of a letter is somewhat less formal than the style of a formal report. People read business letters quickly. In other words. Visuals include transparencies. When a visual works effectively. you go “on stage” before your colleagues and critics. In a letter. When some people sit down to write a business letter or memo. Material that is useful but not necessary to understand your conclusions may be put in an appendix. as in any technical report. because additional pages are often not read. and any special notation to indicate enclosures or copies. Consider carefully the tone of your letter. experimental procedures.). engineers and scientists lose control of tone by avoiding simple. is usually too informal for a business letter. Send copies to anyone whose name you mention in the letter or who would be directly affected by the letter. When you project an image on the screen.2 Letter Report A letter also has a very distinct form (see the example). no more than one page if possible. Often. first choose a type size that people can easily read (sizes between 18 points and 36 points work well). You should title each appendix. Second. and computer-generated images. posters. 5. It is permissible to use the first person wherever appropriate and to use contractions. Final paragraphs should tell readers what you want them to do or what you will do for them. separate documents that are mailed with the letter. use shorter sentences and paragraphs. Skip a line between paragraphs. the listeners break their eye contact with you and look at the image. A letter should be very short. Lengthy derivations. place a heading on each table. Appendices.3 Presentation Presentations are integral to engineering and science. The letter ends with a closure. Sentences should average fewer than twenty words. It starts with the name and address of the writer. 5. Each visual (except for the title visual) has a headline at the top that orients the audience to its purpose. Every time you make a presentation you place your professional reputation on the line.g. but also for those who did not. In other words. do so in enclosures. etc. they use convoluted phrases such as “per your request” or “enclosed please find. they change their entire personality. data. a rather common situation. however. Another test is how easily a colleague can use those visuals to give the presentation should you be unavailable. Engineers and scientists make presentations to secure funding. and information included only for archival completeness are examples of such material.Writing-4 TAM 224/CEE 210 figure. if possible. state what you want up front. If you need to provide more detailed information (e. into the writing. These are followed by the body of the letter. the name and address of the recipient. in a job application letter. When you design visuals that show the presentation’s organization. results. choose a sans serif . it orients the audience quickly to these two points. and paragraphs should average fewer than seven lines. place a caption beneath each figure. slides.

• • • • The writing process should always consist of two steps. and make sure paragraphs. 1) development of a first draft and 2) revision to finalize the report. . “We measured . Do not extend text from one visual to the next. Finally choose a professional color combination that is both pleasing to the eye and easy to read. Focus each visual on one discrete issue. You should not write each section in the order it falls in the report (Abstract. Write the abstract and the introduction last. Avoid being vague. However. sufficient that both the presenter and the audience understand the content. it is important to break the process of writing into individual tasks and to perform these tasks in a logical sequence. If you routinely review and revise your writing. Third. If the audience isn’t sure in what order to read the information on the visual or if the audience is overwhelmed by the amount of information projected. avoid being subjective.” than to write “The site was prepared with earth-moving machinery. Do not presume that a report is finished just because you have written your first draft. do not change it. Hints • Use effective and correct punctuation. . it is much clearer to write “We excavated the cellar with a bulldozer. Once you have established a term. use both upper and lower case (no typographical aspect slows the reading more than using all capital letters). Go through your paper and throw away as many words as possible. A technical report is most easily written in an order quite different than the order in which it is read. because you never need to agonize over specific • . and the overall report are organized clearly and logically. etc. Remember that you will fill in additional words during your presentation. “We measured the temperature. Procedures. The style for visuals is extremely concise and succinct. Try to replace several long words with one short one. serious writing cannot begin until the tables and figures have been prepared.). is as important as the first. It’s much clearer to write. Make sure every word does its share of the work. sections. words or sentences during that initial writing. The second step. A good test for the format is how quickly and easily an audience can read and understand the visuals. Use a dictionary to check the exact meaning of words and always let the dictionary be the arbiter of what a word means. Be precise in your use of words and do not assume that the meaning of words is defined by their context. then the visuals have formatting problems. • 6. A technical report is written around its tables and figures. uncomplicated writing. Do not waste precious space on the visual by writing whole sentences or by using unnecessary words. It is during revision that you should verify spelling and grammar. Write the discussion and the conclusions together. you make the job of writing the first draft much easier. as they are closely linked.” is too subjective. and hence. ask yourself aloud. . and accomplished writers allow ample time for this second step. Introduction. ask yourself whether particular words and phrases convey just the meaning you intended. A concise summary of the rules of punctuation is contained in an appendix to the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Pat yourself on the back each time you can eliminate a word. you can focus on getting your thoughts down on paper. repetition is encouraged in technical writing. such as white letters against a dark blue background. The following are some important points: • • • • Prepare tables and figures first to help you decide where you are going with your report. When you get snarled in your own syntax. and write down what you said before you forget it. reviewing and revising what you have written.TAM 224/CEE 210 Writing-5 typestyle such as Arial Bold that projects well. . “What am I trying to say”? Answer yourself aloud in the simplest possible terms. The reader will thank you! Talk to yourself. The visuals should only provide key words.” Writing in the first person is being rehabilitated because it leads to direct. 7.” Try to use as few words as possible. Anything that graphically reinforces the structure of a sentence and helps the reader absorb information quickly and accurately must be good. The Writing Process Regardless of the form of your report. Write the experimental procedure any time. For example.” than to write “The temperature was measured.” is fine but “We feel . Avoid using the passive voice. Many hopeless sentences can be salvaged by reselecting their subject.

M.. Strunk Jr. 1996. Revised 7/17/03 • . One good photograph is worth a million words. White. Use more interesting and descriptive headings such as “Recent Trends in the Use of Structural Concrete” to convey the content of a section.. 1979. At the same time. Procedure. B. New York: Springer-Verlag. • Use the past tense to describe what you did and the present tense to discuss what it means. • • References Alley. avoid using more than two levels of sections and sub-sections. While indefinite references and other vague practices may occur in speech. New York: Macmillan. Check pronouns to ensure that they have definite antecedents. and E. however. you will invariably offend the reader. having to include more than a few photos may mean that you don’t have any good ones. especially when using such pronouns as the subject of a sentence.). Avoid humor. Use the future tense only if you are really referring to the future. 3rd ed. The Craft of Scientific Writing. they are unacceptable in technical writing.Writing-6 TAM 224/CEE 210 • Sections and sub-sections need not be given sterile. The Elements of Style. functional headings (Introduction. etc. W. not to make a general statement.

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