Skills Earth Sciences


Often, the purpose of scientific writing is to share your research findings, to make people aware of the value of your research, and to build upon the existing literature6. However, scientific writing can also serve other purposes, such as to teach or instruct, communicate or to apply for a grant6.

Different genres in scientific writing serve different primary purposes. For example, the main purpose of a grant proposal is to convince someone to fund your research. Journal papers may be used to fill a gap in already existing research, and you will need to honestly present your results while also aiming to convince your audience of their importance. For a table with a good overview of the purposes of different scientific genres, take a look at the Middlesbury website section about ‘Addressing your purpose’.

During your master’s degree, a course assignment often helps you to determine the purpose of your work. You can look at the question and other information in the assignment to determine your purpose, and to decide how to approach it4. If the assignment is more open, start defining the purpose of your text by asking yourself the basic why, what, how, and when questions: Why are you writing? What do you want to achieve by writing it? How can you be most effective? When will you have achieved your purpose?6. Once this is clear, move on to defining your research question, determining your audience, and start building your text in the form of an outline4.

Phrasing a research question

Phrasing a good research question will help you align your text to your purpose and to keep it clear and focused. For a shorter texts, such as essays or research reports, you usually formulate one question. For a longer text, such as a thesis, you can formulate multiple questions. However, all questions should be clearly connected to one main question or problem11.

To formulate a good question requires consideration of the following:

  • The question is important, relevant, and interesting: this should become apparent by a clear relation between the information provided in the background and your research objectives.
  • The question is simple and sufficiently specific to be answered in your study: narrow down your question as much as possible so that it is entirely clear which exact topic you will be studying.
  • The question is measurable: the answer can be found by measurement. Usually that measurement is performed relative to something else (g. ‘larger than’) in the context of existing literature.
  • The question is feasible: you can find an answer within the given time frame and with the resources and facilities offered.