Painless lab report writing with the Mind Map

Writing lab reports can be difficult, especially when you do not know what to write about or where to start. This confusion can lead to a lot of irrelevant material appearing in somewhat unfocused lab reports. The method suggested here alleviates a lot of the difficulty in generating the focus necessary to produce a good lab report. Believe me, it works!

  1. Take a large piece of paper (~1 m2) and spread it out in front of you.
  2. Start in the center of the paper and write the first thought that comes into your head (relative to the lab). Now write all over the paper things about the lab: facts, ideas, techniques, details, interpretations, thoughts, questions, gaps, data, linkages, references, etc. Write everything that comes into your head, whether you think it will be relevant or not. This is call brainstorming. Put each element wherever you think it fits, such as near a similar thought. Now is not the time to decide what will go in your paper. Leave that for later. The result is a "mind map" or "thought plot."
  3. Draw lines between thoughts that are linked. Which items belong in each section of the paper (introduction, materials and methods, discussion)? This can be a good way to link thoughts and makes writing the paper easier later on. Don't worry about how it looks.
  4. Put priorities on your statements by numbering them: 1 for the most important bit, 2 for the second most important, and so on.
  5. What is your main message? Now it is time to make something from many things. Your readers will remember little of your paper after reading it. A lab report must not only describe what was done and what results were obtained, but why it was important to do, how it advances the state of knowledge and how it will make the world a better place. The latter three are by far the most important, but often go unstated. Use your numbered statements to write an explicit statement of the main message. Your main message should be a sentence of 25 words or less.
  6. Test your main message against your readers. Bounce it off your friends to see if the main message clearly tells them something valuable. Redraft your message until it does.
  7. Use your main message--or not. A shortened version makes a good title for your paper. The message itself can appear in the introduction and/or discussion (but in different words if in both). The main message may not be easily shoe-horned into any section of the paper, but may provide a focal point. Does every paragraph in your paper relate directly to your main message? If not, that portion may be irrelevant.
  8. Write a title for the paper.
  9. Write an outline of the paper. Use the linked statements to organize by section. Then organize each statement within each section. Rewrite to make each paragraph smooth. Add transitions between paragraphs if necessary. Now is the time to throw out statements that do not belong. Decide based on whether they address the main message (or are otherwise required by the guide to lab reports).
  10. Use the thought plot to keep track of all aspects of your paper. Write down any statistics or references there. Write down questions to be looked up later, such as references. You will not have to sort through a sheaf of papers later-a major inconvenience.

Brown, R.F., D.J. Rogers and A.J. Pressland. 1994. Create a clear focus:

the "big picture" about writing better research articles. American Entomologist 40:144-145.

[ 4/17/2007 jrc]