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Short version: What is an equally informative, but more interesting alternative to typical academic-article-style scientific writing?

Longer version:

I love writing, I do a lot of it – fiction and non-fiction. However, I strongly dislike academic writing.

This is my last year of college before I graduate with an undergraduate degree in physics. To graduate I have to pass a physics course called “Intermediate Lab.” I have no problem doing the physics experiments in lab, but the subsequent “lab report” that we're required to write, essentially an academic article, is torturous for me. I do not intend to go into academia and I'm not particularly interested in the experiments themselves (they're all fairly basic experiments, e.g.: non-linear pendulum, voltage divider, etc.). Having spoken to my professor, he invited me to “break away” from the academic article style.

As long as I am able to convey: a) the setup of experiment performed, b) the data collected from the experiment, c) the physical theory behind the experiment, d) an analysis of experimental error, and e) ideas for future study, I can write my lab report (almost) any way I want.

Can you recommend any good writing, articles, methods, forms or styles that would help me write a lab-report in a style that would be compelling to read and would be enjoyable for me to write?

I'm not looking for an easier alternative to the standard lab-report, I'm looking for a more engaging alternative.

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5 Answers

It sounds like you have a very understanding prof - I'd take advantage of that!

Maybe you could write a children's book about it - how could you simplify the experiment to a level that a child (teenager?) could perform at home, using household objects? You could have a side-panel that explains how it was done in the lab, if that's needed for academic purposes. Then explain the results in a way that a young person would understand, and give examples of the principle that they may have seen in their daily lives. Then publish the writing at Christmas time, and give me half of the proceeds!

Don't like that one? Maybe an allegory - did you ever watch the WKRP episode where Venus explains the atom to his girlfriend's (thirty-year old) son using a story about gangs? I don't know enough about physics to know if it would work, but it'd be cool if it did!

Maybe you're more business-oriented. You could write a presentation in which you explain the ideas to a panel of business-folk who need to understand the principle in order to make the right decision about the area of technology to invest in.

Are you an artist? A graphic approach would be cool. A lyricist? Write a song! Like sci.fi.? Write a story set in the future, where the rules of physics you're 'discovering' are being bent, somehow, by some mysterious force, and the characters are fighting to understand what's happening.

I think the possibilities are extensive, but to some extent, they're going to depend on your own interests and talents, so I'm not sure how much more help other people can be. You don't want to be a physicist, so... what DO you want to do? Take advantage of this opportunity to start doing whatever it is a little early!

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Take a look at creative nonfiction. This approach relies on facts like a journalist, but uses the literary techniques of a novelist.

Lee Gutkind has promoted this genre extensively through Creative Nonfiction magazine and several books. You may be able to find some of them in your library. There's a book by Philip Gerard, also titled Creative Nonfiction, that discusses several examples of this style of writing.

Here's a video where Gutkind discusses how to convey factual information within a story framework.

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There is more than one by "Philip Gerard" on: philipgerard.com/books.html –  Kris Dec 6 '11 at 7:02
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Absolutely. Tell a story if your professor will accept it. I got away with it occasionally in science, computer science, and math courses. I often get bored of the technical writing required of a programmer, so I sometimes use this technique for app store descriptions, technical documentation, and even for version control commit messages. –  Peter DeWeese Dec 14 '11 at 22:52
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In our college days, my best friend used to write his reports as diplomatic communiqués from Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan. Fortunately, the teacher was also a Trekkie, and appreciated the humor. YMMV on that one.

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Joseph M. Williams's Style. It's a book (in about 63 different editions), but there's a short version. It's about how to write so as to match the way readers read.

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One GoogleBooks instance: books.google.com/books/about/Style.html?id=41LhQAAACAAJ –  Kris Dec 6 '11 at 6:26
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I think you should simply try writing the lab report using active voice, simple words, and clear prose. Make Strunk & White proud. Even if you work within the typical headings and content requirements of a lab report, this would still represent a departure from the norm. As an added benefit, other scientists might see the advantages of clear prose, too. I think they would be less likely to notice if your paper was a radical departure from their accustomed format (notwithstanding the occasional Trekkie, I suppose :-)

And, if you'd like to think about how scientific papers are organized, and different ways the traditional paper might be organized, Sir Peter Medawar (Nobel Prize winning immunologist) wrote a wonderful essay called "The Scientific Paper is a Fraud." I make all my students read it. You can find it easily via Google.

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