Writing Reports and Essays

General Style and Format

Page from recent ECOLOGY

Page from recent ECOLOGY

Follow the general style used by articles in the journal Ecology (http://www.esajournals.org/loi/ecol). Base your formatting on a PDF version of a paper from this journal, not a “Full Text” version—thus, figures and tables should appear close to the text that refers to them (see page to the right, from a recent paper by Dr Martin—click on it to enlarge). The PDF versions of papers in ECOLOGY have the text in two columns, which is nice but not required. The formatting details to pay attention to are the placement of captions, table style, and the reference styles both in the text and in the Literature Cited at the end of the paper.

Format your document with 1” margins, and use a serif 12 point font (e.g. Times New Roman, Cambria, etc). When paper copies are required, use double line spacing; when PDFs are required, use single line spacing.

For the courses that Dr Eckert teaches, he provides a list of words and phrases to avoid, available here as a pdf. This is list a handy guide, not a set of hard and fast rules.

Topic sentences

To write well, it is useful to focus on topic sentences both to help organise your writing and to be as clear as possible. Here is some advice from the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences

Begin sections and paragraphs with topic sentences containing generalizations that lead readily to the particulars. Giving a conclusion first and then supporting it not only improves readability but also facilitates assessment by other scientists. Failure to give the most newsworthy generalizations first is one of the most prominent shortcomings in the presentation of manuscripts.

Assure that everything in each section is relevant to the heading and that everything in each paragraph is relevant to the topic (opening) sentence.

Before writing any paragraphs, try writing the topic sentences for all of them and arranging these in appropriate order.

Lab and Research Reports

Title Page

Example title page

Include the following, either on a separate page, or above the Abstract (see example to the right):

Header: student name and number on left, page number on right)

Rest of Title page:

  • student name and student number
  • lab section or time and room number (if relevant)
  • TA’s name (if relevant)
  • course number
  • date submitted
  • Title
    • should be descriptive but specific (should not exceed 14 words)
    • should refer to main objective and, if relevant and possible within the word limit, the findings of the study, the species involved and/or the location of the study
  • Abstract: a brief (< 300 words) description of your report which briefly summarizes:
    • the objective of the study or statement of the problem
    • the main details of the methods (usually no more than one sentence)
    • the most important results
    • the main interpretations/conclusions of your study


State your motivation in conducting the study and provide the reader with context. The Introduction is best organized into 3 parts (these could be separate paragraphs):

1. why was this study conducted? what is/are the broad question(s) being asked? why is there an interest in this topic?

2. what is currently known about this topic?

  • this is usually the longest portion of the introduction
  • provide a concise review of relevant and current research
  • provide details regarding species used, specialized methods involved, if relevant

3. how does this report contribute to the body of knowledge on this topic?

  • briefly describe the question(s) being investigated and the findings that will be presented
  • state your purpose or the hypothesis being tested
  • state testable predications that arise from the hypothesis

Materials and Methods

This section provides all the methodological details that a competent biologist (working in the same field) would need to be able to reproduce your study. Justify the experimental design and sampling details.

Points to remember when writing this section:

  • write in the past tense, in complete but concise sentences and paragraphs
  • briefly describe what was done and how (and, if relevant, include other details such as  why, where and when the study was done)
  • if statistical methods were used include information on sample sizes, methods of sampling and statistical analysis programs used (including version number)
  • indicate all necessary materials but only indicate the source (e.g. company name) if those precise items need to be used or if the materials are relatively unknown and thus the source might be useful to the reader
  • specify equipment details (company and model number) for any brand name equipment that might differ in quality or performance between companies


This section presents the findings of your study with figures and tables as well as text.

Points to remember when writing this section:

  • present data in a straightforward manner without engaging in extensive  interpretation/ discussion
  • include statements of statistical significance that indicate the direction of the pattern you found (e.g. “the mean of sample 1 was larger than the mean of sample 2″) followed by parenthetical statements describing the confidence limits or the statistical test used, the sample size and the P-value (e.g. t test, t=6.35, n=12, P=0.03)
  • use figures and tables to summarize the most important data and findings (especially patterns or trends)
    • without being redundant regarding specific details, enough information should be provided in the text such that the reader would be able to understand the results of each experiment without looking at the figures and tables
    • figures and tables should be placed on the same or next page after they are referred to (e.g. “Figure 1”) in the text

Figures and Tables

  • data are only presented in a figure or a table but not both
  • figure captions begin with a descriptive statement and are located beneath the figure
    • table captions (or headings) are located above the table (refer to examples in the journal Ecology)
  • captions should be informative enough that the figure/table can be understood without reference to the main text
  • graphs must have properly labeled axes (with correct units) and, if useful, an appropriate legend to identify different data symbols


This section provides interpretations of the results obtained in your study, relating back to the questions and hypotheses posed in the Introduction and to the relevant current literature.

The Discussion may be organized into 3 sections:

1. introduction to the discussion – briefly revisit points first brought up in the introduction to tie everything together

2. analysis and interpretation of results

  • this is usually the longest portion of the Discussion
  • introduce a result, or some aspect of a result with respect to the hypothesis being tested; do not just reiterate the results as were presented in the Results section, rather you should focus on a key aspect that you wish to interpret
  • provide an interpretation of the result based on your data combined with background scientific knowledge
  • does your result/interpretation agree with the literature? does it open up new questions?-  possible breakdown of each paragraph within this section

3. summary

  • summarize any conclusions you have drawn from your study and discuss potential implications with regard to the broader question(s)
  • include suggestions for future work
Points to remember when writing the Discussion:


  • writing should be concise, the paragraphs should flow logically from one to the next, and your argument should be easy to follow
  • the bulk of the discussion should be the analysis of (but not a repeat of) your results, not a review of what is already present in the literature; citations are meant to play a supporting role only and should be included only if they are relevant to your arguments
  • all of the main results should be discussed, even (especially) if they were unexpected and appear not to agree with your other results or with what is presented in the literature
  • some instructors will ask that problems encountered during your experiment(s) be discussed, especially if they hamper firm conclusions

Literature Cited

This is a listing of all the references you have cited in your report.

  • use the referencing style in the journal Ecology and pay attention to details such as order of authors (alphabetical, by last name of first author), capitalization, punctuation, abbreviation, indentation and text emphasis (e.g. no bold or italics); include journal volume number but not issue number also refer to Ecology for examples as to how citations should be inserted within the body of your report
  • be sure to include all (and only) the works cited in your text

Points to consider when selecting and listing references:

  • include enough references to substantiate (or contradict, as the case may be) your arguments but not so many that your text looks like a “cut and paste” of citations
  • attempt to include the most recent and relevant works
  • in most cases references should be exclusively primary literature; reviews (secondary references) should only be cited to indicate that work has been done in a certain area, to make note of commonly held ideas or theories, or as a means to provide the interested reader with a source of additional information
  • do not include textbook, encyclopedia, general web site references or anything that is general knowledge; only in certain circumstances should you include anything other than peer-reviewed publications
  • do not quote extensively from any other work; summarize findings from other studies in your own words


In general, all of the guidelines listed above, apply to essays/reviews that you write for a course in Biology, with the exception that essays usually have a somewhat different organisation, lacking Materials and Methods and (usually) a Results section.

Except for very short essays (1-2 pages) it is almost always a good idea to use headings and subheadings to help guide the reader. Also you should pay particular attention to the logical flow of ideas, arguments and facts, such that the reader can easily follow what you are talking about.

I've spent more time than many will believe [making microscopic observations], but I've done them with joy, and I've taken no notice those who have said why take so much trouble and what good is it?

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

It's a parts list... If I gave you the parts list for the Boeing 777 and it had 100,000 parts, I don't think you could screw it together and you certainly wouldn't understand why it flew

Eric Lander

What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant

Jacques Monod

The world becomes full of organisms that have what it takes to become ancestors. That, in a sentence, is Darwinism

Richard Dawkins

Shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life?

Erasmus Darwin

Nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it's impossible to determine the line of demarcation


Cells let us walk, talk, think, make love, and realize the bath water is cold

Lorraine Lee Cudmore

In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history

Charles Darwin

It is my belief that the basic knowledge that we're providing to the world will have a profound impact on the human condition and the treatments for disease and our view of our place on the biological continuum

J. Craig Venter

Imagine a house coming together spontaneously from all the information contained in the bricks: that is how animal bodies are made

Neil Shubin

A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die - which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct

Charles Darwin

The stuff of life turned out to be not a quivering, glowing, wondrous gel but a contraption of tiny jigs, springs, hinges, rods, sheets, magnets, zippers, and trapdoors, assembled by a data tape whose information is copied, downloaded and scanned

Steven Pinker

We wish to discuss a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid. (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biologic interest

Rosalind Franklin

We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget

Mary Roach

The systems approach to biology will be the dominant theme in medicine

Leroy Hood

I've always been interested in animal behavior, and I keep reading about it because it's so surprising all the time - so many things are happening around us that we neglect to look at. Part of the passion I have for biology is based on this wonderment"

Isabella Rossellini

Because all of biology is connected, one can often make a breakthrough with an organism that exaggerates a particular phenomenon, and later explore the generality

Thomas Cech

Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution

Theodosius Dobzhansky

Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century

- Freeman Dyson

Nothing can be more incorrect than the assumption one sometimes meets with, that physics has one method, chemistry another, and biology a third

- Thomas Huxley