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Writing Lab Reports: Writing

Overview of writing lab reports

Writing a lab report is a central component of higher education. Scientific and technical advances are conveyed through written documents. These can be research papers, technical reports and newspaper articles. The ability to write effectively is essential for the scientist or the engineer.

Research and project work at university is an excellent opportunity to produce simple, clear and readable reports for a specific audience. You need to learn this skill for study and for future work, and the more you practise the better you will become.

The hallmark of good technical writing is clarity. If you are able to present your ideas clearly, you are also training yourself to think clearly. This guide will help you to master the process of writing - which is difficult for all of us - and to identify the contents of each section of a report.

Guide contents

The tabs of this guide will support you in producing a lab report. The sections are organised as follows:

  • The lab notebook - advice on maintaining a notebook to support your laboratory work, and using the notebook to prepare for writing up.
  • The writing process - steps you can work through as a writer to plan, draft and edit your report.
  • Sections in detail - specific information on the most common sections of a lab report (Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, and so on).

Scientist writing in a notebook on a table alongside a microscope and beakers.

The lab notebook

As an engineering or science student you will be carrying out work in the laboratory. Any good professional scientist or engineer is expected to keep information logged in the lab notebook.

  • You should complete your lab log during your lab session so you can record observations and any key data as it occurs.
  • Make sure you come to a conclusion at the end of every experiment.
  • Your lab log should be a hard-backed book that will serve as a diary for all your lab sessions.
  • Remember to record all observations accurately.

Sections of Lab Notebook

Title in Lab Notebook Brief Description
1. Table of contents List experiments and investigations, with page numbers.
2. Description of your work Briefly state what you did in a few sentences.
3. Experiment Give it a title, then write down the question you are trying to answer and your hypothesis.
4. Materials and equipment List everything you need to carry out this experiment.
5. Methodology Say how you carried out the experiment and add diagrams.
6. Data Prepare data tables beforehand and explain what the data represents.
7. Results  Identify key data that relates to your hypothesis, analyse and summarise the data, and present it in clear graphs or tables.
8. Brief discussion Consider whether your results support your hypothesis, state what you have learnt, and discuss how you could improve the experiment.
9. Date Don’t forget this!

Checklist for lab notebooks

  • Write with a pen not a pencil.
  • Give your lab session a date and title.
  • Write simply and clearly so that someone else could repeat your experiment from your notes.
  • Prepare data tables beforehand and complete them during the experiment.
  • Put a line through mistakes and make clear corrections. Explain what changed and why.
  • Make drawings where necessary.
  • Record your results carefully, make conclusions, offer suggestions and evaluate any errors.

Overview of the writing process

Writing involves not only your ability to string a sentence together, but also how you manage the process. How do you effectively plan and organize the different stages of writing? How do you create space in your day to sit down and write, and find the time and energy to review? Get the process right, and you will feel a lot more confident.

This page outlines one potential process that you can adapt as needed. It leads you through how to think, plan, draft, edit, and proofread.


Before writing your lab report, answer these questions for yourself:

  • Who is this report for (the reader)?
  • What is the structure of the report (your tutor may have the template for you to use)?
    • NOTE: The fourth tab of this guide, 'Sections in Detail', provides information to help you.
  • Is all the necessary information available (see your lab notebook)?
  • Are there relevant references to place this work in an established area of scientific research (check with your tutor if this is necessary for your report)?

You will probably assume that your reader will be a tutor. However, since your tutor knows this topic, you may feel you do not have to ‘spell everything out’. So, it may be better to imagine writing for a friend who is interested in this topic but does not know too much about it. This way, you will work to make everything clear. Having a reader in mind is very important; it determines how you write.

What does your reader know and what do you want to say? Take a report you will be working on and complete the table below.

What is the purpose/scope of your report?
Who else has done work in this area?
How did you do it?
Where did you do it?
What did you find out?

These are all questions that the reader will want answered when reading your report. You may also prefer to create a mind map at this stage. Use whatever method helps you to answer important questions about your work.


You will need to know the structure of the report you are writing. Check with your tutor as they may have a particular structure for you to use. Also, if you are lucky enough to write a paper for a journal, you will need to check the structure, formatting and referencing style for that particular journal. A typical structure for a report is (bold items typically required)...

  • Abstract.
  • Title.
  • Summary.
  • Keywords (optional).
  • Table of contents (advised).
  • Introduction.
  • Literature review.
  • Method (procedure, equipment).
  • Results and Analysis.
  • Discussion.
  • Conclusion and Recommendations.
  • References.
  • Appendices (large tables of data, illustrations, etc.).


You can begin a plan with the above structure outline, writing a few key sentences for each required section. Putting in place this sentence outline will help you bypass the 'blank white page syndrome' that many writers face.

Once you have some skeleton sentences in each or most of your sections, try building in further sentences in a section you feel most comfortable with. Many writers feel that the Methods section is the easiest place to start as it is the most concrete.

Each paragraph you draft will develop an idea or concept. When you are writing sentence outlines in the planning phase, the sentences will probably express an idea for a paragraph. If you have several outline sentences for a section, this will probably correspond with different paragraphs within that section. In the drafting phase, you need to develop these ideas through supporting sentences.


You must revise your work. You revise your work to check it is making sense, possibly adding or deleting things, and address any 'big picture' issues in how you have expressed yourself. You might want to revise your work after each section, and then finally look at all the sections when reviewing the whole work.

If you leave your write-up to the last minute, then you may find you have no time to do this, so make sure your time management includes revision. Most experienced writers have several revisions whereas beginning writers tend to just produce one draft. Be prepared, therefore, for several revisions.

Editing checklist

  • Revisit the assignment description to ensure your work covers the stated requirements.
  • Is your message coherent and logical within individual paragraphs? What about between sections?
  • Check that paragraphs are a logical 'fit' for the section heading under which they appear. Move them if not.
  • Think of your reader: check you haven't introduced an acronym without an explanation.
  • Check that your results are clearly presented and your figures support what you're saying.


It is best to edit for the 'big picture' or content/structure concerns, above, before moving on to proofreading, which addresses smaller (usually sentence-level) issues in the writing. These issues may include typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar, inaccurate labelling of figures and tables, repetitive word choice, incorrect referencing, and similar.

Proofreading tactics

  • Read your work aloud. This method is embraced by many professional authors because it prevents you from skimming over what you have written and missing things. It helps you hear problems like confusing phrasing, disruptive sentence lengths, and so on.
    • Alternately, listen to someone else read your work aloud. You and a peer can trade reports and do this, or you can use the 'read aloud' function of your word processor to have your computer narrate your text.
  • Use the spellchecker and grammar checker in Word (with caution). These tools aren't perfect, but they are correct often enough to be valuable. Do investigate potential mistakes flagged by your computer.
  • Use referencing software (with caution). Endnote and other reference managers can save time and ensure consistency across your citations, but do double-check the formatting produced.

Proofreading checklist

  • Have you used complete sentences? Edit any fragments you find.
  • Is the style correct for your audience/context?
  • Check your use of passive vs. active voice.
  • Confirm if the first-person 'I' and 'we' are acceptable, or if you will need to write in the third-person voice.
  • Is spelling accurate and consistent? (Remember to set your word processor to 'UK English' unless submitting to a journal outside the UK.)
  • Are citations accurate and consistent?
  • Do all sources used appear in your reference list?
  • Are references formatted/ordered in the correct way? (See our page on referencing for help.)
  • Are you following the correct style guide? (You will probably follow the Harvard system, but first check with your tutor or the journal to which you're submitting your work.)
  • How are your word choices and variety?
    • Eliminate unneeded repetition.
    • Use your word processor's thesaurus to vary language (within reason: don't use strange or archaic vocabulary when a simpler word will do the trick).

Writing the sections of your report

Scientific and technical reports have fairly standard sections. Some reports contain the full set of sections while others a subset. You will need to check with your tutor the sections they want you to include in your reports. This guide gives you some idea of what needs to be included in a selection of the sections.

Scroll to continue reading, or click a link below to jump immediately to that section:


Most writers find it easiest to draft the abstract/summary last, even though it is placed at the beginning of the article or report. This is because it is difficult to summarise the key points until you have actually written them!


This is a paragraph or two giving a clear statement of the purpose of your report/paper, your main findings and conclusions. Note the confidence you have in your findings and any reservations. Information should be in the same order as the report, but you should not make any cross reference to the body of the report. Remember you read the title and summary/abstract of a paper/report in order to see if it is of interest to you. You do not want to read the whole paper and then find out it was not relevant.


An abstract is also the summary of an article in a published journal. The abstract will be published with and separate from the body of the article. So, it can be read without access to the article (e.g. on remote databases and abstract journals). Therefore, it must give you enough information to make a decision on whether you should read the whole article. An abstract is usually about 250 words.


This section sets the scene and contextualises your work by giving the necessary background. This is your shop window (along with the abstract if you write one) so it is important to write clearly and interestingly. This should explain why you are carrying out this investigation and who else has done similar work.

The writing here should be engaging, simple, clear and relatively non-technical.

Checklist for your introduction

This is not a complete list - check with your tutor for any specific requirements they have.

  • A paragraph discussing the topic of your investigation: state any assumptions your work was built on.
  • Some information on any previous work in the field relating to your topic.
    • Key findings from other researchers, and/or
    • Other approaches to tackling this issue.
  • State your hypothesis, if you have carried out an experiment (or, provide a clear statement of a problem you are trying to solve).
  • Cite any references you use in your text and include in your reference list at the end of your report. (NOTE: You may want to have a literature review section on its own. Ask your tutor about this expectation.)


This section should be written clearly enough so that the reader could repeat your experiment if they wanted to do so. This will also help the reader understand how your data was obtained.

Your sentences should be simple and clear. You need to write in the past tense and use the passive. When you use the passive voice, you concentrate on what you DID and underplay WHO did it. This gives your report a sense of objectivity, which is essential in technical writing.

Checklist for your methods section

  • List the equipment used (add diagrams if important).
  • State any conditions of your investigation.
  • State the purity and structure of the materials used (if important to your investigation).
  • State exactly what you did.
  • Describe the techniques used.
  • Use standard abbreviations for names of things.

Results and Analysis

Here you will present your main findings (adjusted and analysed) and identify important trends or information. This section will be full of tables and graphs that will depict all your significant results. Make sure your graphs and tables are well laid out and accurately labelled (informative title, labelled axes, legend - when appropriate, units used, and numerical values along the x-axis). Always refer to numbers and quantitative measures if possible.

You will need some text so that the reader can easily interpret your figures and identify your variables. However, your comments should be short, clear and precise. For example...

Poor phrasing X is quite a lot larger than Y.
Good phrasing  X is 6% larger than Y.

Checklist for your results section

  • Identify key data that relates to your hypothesis.
  • Analyse and summarise this data.
  • Present your data in clear graphs or tables.
  • Briefly comment on the results to help the reader understand your data (but DON'T include commentary more appropriate for the Discussion section).
  • Add key calculations as appropriate.
  • Raw data should be in an appendix - if required.


Before you start this section, get your story straight. What do you want to say about your findings? Here, you need to link your results with your introduction to form a critical view of your work. It is important that your writing here is evaluative: this is the most important section. You need to convey to the reader what your results and findings mean.

Checklist for your discussion section

  • Re-state your purpose and hypothesis (if appropriate).
  • Interpret your data and comment on your findings.
  • Re-state key elements of your experimental design/method in relation to results (experimental error/tolerances).
  • Comment on your confidence regarding the validity and reliability of your findings as a result of your design.
  • Be quantitative whenever possible.
  • Be objective and avoid vague/general statements, such as, 'I felt it was quite successful!'
  • Comment on your results in relation to others' results – expected or unexpected.
  • Cite others’ work as appropriate.
  • Summarise and critically evaluate your research design and findings.


You may include the conclusion in your discussion. Check with your tutor what is needed for your assignment. If you do include this section, you may want to move your critical comments about your research design into this section and then talk about how you could improve it in the future.

Checklist for your conclusion

  • Briefly state what you found.
  • Support this statement with key findings.
  • Comment on how future research could develop this topic.


Typically these include the following – put them in separately labelled appendices.

  • Raw data (as necessary).
  • Calculations.
  • Pertinent detailed graphical information such as NMR, graphical output from tests, etc.
  • Any detailed information about the apparatus/equipment as is necessary.

Formatting your work

It is important to get into the habit of writing professional looking documents: give your hard work a good showcase.

Items to check

  • Font and point size are consistent.
  • Margins are what they should be.
  • Headings (use different style across different levels of headings, but be consistent).
  • Citations and referencing formats that you have to use.

Navigation elements

The document should be easy to navigate, so also check the following:

  • Clearly laid out title and your name.
  • Table of contents (if your document is short this may not be necessary).
  • Numbered sections with titles (adhere to any style specifications indicated in your style guide).
  • Clearly labelled tables and figures (select an appropriate font for these and follow your style guide).