Why Writing Works

Disciplinary Approaches to Composing Texts

Writing in Environmental Science

by Dr. Emily Deaver

Writing is one of the primary forms of communication in Environmental Science. It is important to be able to express yourself clearly regardless of the type of writing you are doing. It is also important to understand what audience you are writing for - a scientific audience or the general public. Communicating results of research by writing papers is critical to advancing the field. You may do Nobel Prize winning work in the lab, but if you never publish a paper on that work then the research will be unknown and essentially worthless. Communicating clearly is also important and relevant to environmental regulations and protection of natural resources, both in terms of advocating for a particular position, educating the general public about natural resources or for proposing specific legislation. 

Types of writing in the field

Writing in the Environmental Science field includes a wide range of styles as well as writing geared toward different audiences. Scholarly writing published in scientific journals is the primary way that researchers communicate and is critical for exchange of information.  These journals are increasingly available online prior to publication in a print format, or even exclusively online.

Environmental writing includes investigative pieces which may focus on discussions of emerging problems, or exposing illegal or unethical practices. These pieces often include facts and data in an effort to communicate new information to the public, or may be more human interest stories that describe specific environmental problems. These stories can be published by newspapers, magazines or broadcast outlets such at National Public Radio. These may be short news style pieces or longer documentaries.

There are numerous environmental magazines like National Parks Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Science, National Geographic and Discover magazine that present news and features stories for the general public in a less technical format and typically include lots of pictures with the articles. There are also a huge number of environmental blogs on the web. Most are designed to provide information as well as encourage readers to become involved in protection and care of the environment (i.e. 

An additional type of writing would be pieces written for nonprofit conservation organizations like Nature Conservancy, or the World Wildlife Fund. This type of writing often describes a particular landscape, habitat or group of organisms with the aim of getting the reader emotionally invested in the topic. Writing for research stations, such as the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, would be writing that includes reporting on technical research data for the scientific community, but also presenting research data in a less technical way to the general public, with the aim or gaining continued support for their work. 

Federal government agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) produce many different types of writing; very technical reports related to research projects, guidance or policy documents on regulations and protection of environmental resources, informational documents to educate the general public, and news releases. Clear written communication is so important that the EPA even has its own writing guide ( Much of this information is available in print form but they also have extensive websites with research reports, information on popular topics and news releases easily accessible. A good example of most of these types of writing can be found at the EPA page on Climate Change ( Similar types of writing are done by state (i.e. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, MN Department of Natural Resources, MN Board of Water and Soil Resources) and local agencies (Lyon County Environmental Office) as well. Utility companies (i.e. Marshall Municipal Utilities or Duke Power) and publically owned wastewater treatment facilities produce similar information and types of documents.  

Writers may also work in some type of industry and write industry newsletters and press releases or do technical writing for equipment or consumer products writing procedural manuals, or tutorials and help pages. There are also numerous professional magazines (i.e. Chemical and Engineering News) that report on new technologies and industry news.

A different type of writing in the environmental field would be nature writers. These works can be environmental fiction (novels or poetry) that describe nature or have plots involving environmental issues (i.e. Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard),) or nonfiction accounts of the wilderness (i.e. Rick Bass and Sigurd F. Olson), writing as an environmental activist (i.e. Lester R. Brown) or  exploring relationships to nature and culture (i.e. Terry Tempest Williams).

Scholarly writing published in scientific journals is the primary way that environmental scientists communicate. All students in Environmental Science should be familiar with, and be able to write in this format. Reporting on scientific information in a less technical fashion to help the general public understand complex scientific issues would be the 2nd most important type of writing. This information is increasingly important in both paper and electronic formats. 

Writing in the classroom

Depending upon which course they take, students gain experience doing technical writing such as lab reports, research proposals and research papers. These works allow students to practice writing in the style of a published journal article, which is one of the primary forms of communication in the field.  Students also learn to create annotated bibliographies, which teaches them to find and read journal articles and to summarize information from those articles for later reference. This is particularly important when gathering information for research projects. 

Many of the things Environmental Science students and scientists write are lab reports, research reports, and journal articles. A lab report (or journal article) is an example of technical writing, which is different from prose or expository writing (for an English class, for example).  The goal of a lab report is to state facts, procedures, processes, and concepts as clearly as possible. The writer’s opinions or feelings about the process are NOT included, and should be concealed in a scientific paper.

Good technical writing is: clear (not diffuse, vague, or general), accurate (data honestly gathered, accurately reported, edited and proof-read to ensure that it is error-free), concise (not wordy), conventional and consistent (following accepted patterns for reporting information consistently throughout), mechanically correct (proper grammar, spelling and usage), and interesting (has enough stylistic character to be interesting as well as informative to the reader). 

Some of the keys to good scientific writing in general are:

1. Avoid sentence fragments and run-on sentences.

2. Keep tense, person and number consistent within sections.

3. Avoid long words when short ones will do the job equally well. Avoid wordiness, redundancy, clichés, jargon (gobbledygook), overblown phrases and misused words.

4. Keep ideas together within paragraphs of moderate length and make clear transitions between paragraphs.

5. Write naturally while remaining detached from the subject (objective).

6. Concentrate on clarity and coherence.

7. Use graphs for clarity, simplification, emphasis, or summary.

8. Do not excuse, diminish or find fault with the study. Let the reader judge the quality and significance of the study. 

Parts of the Lab Report, Research Report or Journal Article

The elements of the laboratory report (or journal article) are: title (and author), introduction, methods, results, discussion and literature cited (references) sections. Occasionally a lab report may include an abstract and acknowledgments section.

The introduction describes what you planned to do and why. It includes a statement of the problem or question to be studied, and an explanation of why the knowledge gained by this research is of interest and to whom. An introduction includes a hypothesis, or educated guess, as to the process by which the phenomenon under investigation operates. Available background references are used (and cited) to indicate the importance of the research, and to provide information that allows the author to predict an outcome. You should also define any terms in the introduction section.

The methods section is a concise description, written in the past tense, of the procedures used. It describes the equipment used and how information was collected: by laboratory or field experimentation, surveys, or literature review. This section contains the most explicit (exactly described) statements of how you did the experiment or study. The methods section should contain enough detail for someone else to repeat the study based on the description in the paper. The methods section does NOT include a list of the materials used. Any equipment and materials used are described along with the procedures. 

The results section describes what you found out. This section is a presentation and organization of the information (facts, data, and measurements) collected in the study. Often the data is organized into tables and graphs. Graphs and tables are never presented alone - they are used in addition to the text, or descriptive paragraph of the results. The results section simply presents the data, but no explanations or statements about why the researcher thinks the results occurred as they did are provided (that is given in the discussion section).

The discussion section includes explicit statements of what the results mean in a logically unfolding pattern. This section includes statements about why the researcher thinks the results occurred as they did (based on literature or previous studies), and what the results reveal about the way nature works. The discussion section also contains any conclusions or recommendations. It may also include statements about particular sources of error in the study and what the next set of experiments would be to gain further information on this topic.

A laboratory report should contain all of the sections discussed above plus a title that describes the experiment or study. Following the title is the author’s name. References are used to substantiate statements made in the introduction, methods or discussion sections of the lab report. Any references used need to be cited correctly - both in the text of the report (author and year) and at the end of the report in a literature cited section (see the handout on citations for details on the format to use).


Environmental Science Disciplinary Perspective
Documentation in Environmental Science
Research in Environmental Science
Reading in Environmental Science