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University of Minnesota Duluth

Department of Chemical Engineering

ChE 3211Chemical Engineering LaboratoryDrs. Davis and Wang

Laboratory Report Writing Style Guide

A major engineering company gave these instructions to engineers in training:

It is not sufficient that a report be capable of being understood; it is required that a report be incapable of being misunderstood.

Many engineers and scientists find report writing difficult. However, chemical engineering graduates in their first industrial job will quickly realize the importance of good writing and technical communication. The laboratory courses provide students with the opportunity to develop their writing and speaking skills.

All forms of communication utilized in this laboratory class are expected to follow grammatical rules and a formal, technical writing style. A review of the following sources is recommended:

"Engineering Communication" by H. Hart, 2nd Ed., Prentice-Hall, 2008.

"The Elements of Style" by Strunk, Jr. and White, 5th Ed., MacMillan, 2009.

The ACS Style Guide by Coghill and Garson, 3rd Ed., American Chemical Society, 2006.

Comp 3130 Notes

Some general principles of technical writing follow. However, this style guide is not a complete overview of technical writing style. Students should consider other examples of technical writing, such as engineering textbooks and scientific or engineering journals, as they develop their technical writing skills.

Technical writing is dramatically different from creative writing in at least two ways. First, technical writing is concise. Metaphors are kept to a minimum. Information is presented in the form of equations, figures, charts, graphs, and tables, in addition to written descriptions. Second, technical writing arrives quickly at the results and conclusions. The plot usually does not contain a mystery or surprise ending.

Since technical writing involves technical language, it is important that sentences do not run long. Readers may have difficulty assimilating the material written in long, complex sentences. Consider the Fog Index as a test for proper sentence length.

FI = 0.4(words per sentence + polysyllabic words per sentence)

Table I gives the range of FI for different print media. Generally, a FI < 10 is desirable.

Table I. Fog Index (FI) scale.

Written Media




Magazines (e.g. Time, Newsweek)




Literary Magazines (e.g. Atlantic Monthly)


Consider the following sentence composed by J. Willard Gibbs, communicating his ideas on heterogeneous thermodynamics.

Which are capable of only one kind of action upon external systems, viz., the performance of mechanical work, the function which expresses the capability of the system for this kind of action also plays the leading part in the theory of equilibrium being that the variation of this function shall vanish, so in a thermodynamic system, (such as all material systems actually are,) which is capable of two different kinds of action upon external systems, the two functions which express the two fold capabilities of the system afford an almost equally simple criterion of equilibrium.[footnoteRef:1] (FI = 55) [1: Gibbs, J.W., The Scientific Papers of J. Willard Gibbs, Longmans Green and Co., 1906, p. 55.]

Contrast Gibbs sentence with Caesars message:

I came. I saw. I conquered. (FI = 1)


Use person to your advantage. The standard for technical writing has been third-person. Recently, there has been a shift to first-person in the technical literature. Either form is acceptable today. Consider the following examples.

Third person:

Implementing this proposal will cost the company $5 MM per year.

First person:

Our proposal will save the company $5 MM per year.

Notice that the third-person style deflects the negative conclusion away from the authors, while the first-person connects the authors with the positive conclusion.


Use active, action oriented voice wherever possible. A passive voice tends to produce wordy sentences (recall the Fog Index) that focus on the action instead of the subject. Try to eliminate conjugations of the verb to be in your sentence construction to promote the active voice. The verb "to be" is the most irregular verb in English. The verb to be is conjugated in Table II.

Consider the following sentences:

The temperature is measured by a digital thermocouple.

A digital thermocouple measured the temperature.

The second sentence conveys action and is more concise. It may take some time to learn to integrate action into your sentences, but soon it will be habit and your technical writing will benefit from it.

Table II. Grammatical conjugation of the verb to be.



Present Participle


Past Participle


Future Infinitive

will be

Present Progressive

am being

is being

are being

Past Progressive

was being

were being

Person, Number



1st, singular




2nd, singular




3rd, singular




1st, plural




2nd, plural




3rd, plural





Be careful to use tense to properly describe the subject of the report, not the report itself. Use past tense when writing about the work completed to generate the report. Write about the results of the work in present tense. Limit future tense when writing about future work or plans. Do not fall into the trap of using past, present, or future tense in reference to sections of the report. For example, the following sentence type is not acceptable.

The design equation will be derived in Appendix B.

Instead, use present tense:

The derivation of the design equation is presented in Appendix B.

And better yet:

Appendix B presents the derivation of the design equation.

Benjamin Franklin said, Either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing. You will be required to produce two types of written reports: a full length, or formal report, and a memo report, documenting your laboratory work.

Guidelines for the full report

Sample Report

A Sample Report for a very simple experiment is provided on the course Moodle site. Its purpose is to illustrate how a report should be organized and to indicate the kind of material it should contain. This example is not meant to provide a rigid outline; the content of the report will depend upon the context and your judgment. General comments now follow.

Letter of Transmittal

A standard transmittal letter should be included with the report. The letter should briefly describe the origins of the report and what the reader should expect to find in the report. Both authors should sign the letter. Do not bind the letter with the report. Put the letter inside the front cover.


Formal reports must be bound with a GBC type of binding and a card stock cover. The report's title and author's name must be printed on the cover. Binding a report gives a sense of completion and formality to the writing experience.


Reports should be prepared on letter-size paper (8.5 by 11 in) with the following layout:

Right margin 1 inch

Left margin 1.25 inches (to allow room for the binding)

Top & Bottom margins 1 inch

Line spacing 1.5 inches.

You are free to use proportional fonts, Times New Roman is preferred. You should avoid the use of a type style that is san serif, such as Arial, for scientific writing. The point size should be 12 point. Titles and headings may be larger, san serif type, such as 14 or 18 point Arial typeface. In the interest of having Word automatically create a table of contents, you may want to create your own style set. For example:

Heading 1 (Arial, bold, 12pt)

Heading 2 (Times New Roman, underlined, 12pt)

Normal (Times New Roman, 12pt)

Caption (Arial, bold, 10pt).

It is best to create a style set and determine paragraph spacing at the beginning of the writing process. Your style must be consistent throughout the entire document.

It is not essential to start each document section on a new page.

Do not write information directly out of laboratory handouts or references. Paraphrase or summarize it, and cite the source.


The title of the report should be concise and definitive. The first letter of each word in the title should be capitalized. Center the title between the margins. The title page should include the name of the recipient, the names of the team in alphabetical order by last name, and the date of submission.


The purpose of the abstract is to give a clear indication of the objective, scope, and results so that readers may determine whether the full text will be of particular interest to them. The abstract text should be organized to include the following categories in the order noted:

Background. Begin with explanatory text that discusses the background.

Method of Approach. Next, describe the method of approach.

Results. Results are provided at this point in the abstract.

Conclusions. Concluding remarks are stated at the end of