This post covers the topics mentioned in Writing in the Sciences offered on Coursera.
The writing process includes three steps:
- Collect and organize information
- Brainstorm take-home messages
- Work out ideas away from the computer
- Develop a road map
- Writing the first draft
- Putting ideas together in organized prose
- Read out loud
- Cut the clutter
- Verb check
- Get feedback
A lot of people often convolute step 2 and 3. They try to write and revise at the same time, which is anything but efficient. It’s hard to resist the impulse to be perfect. Paying too much attention to details obfuscates the whole picture. Unsurprisingly, the class poll shows most people focus on the writing step:
A better time allocation would look like:
- Prewriting (70%)
- Writing the first draft (10%)
- Revision (20%)
The key to prewriting is to get organized first. What it means is you shouldn’t try to write and gather information simultaneously. Instead, you should gather and organize information before writing the first draft. That means you need to have an organization system to help you keep track of various thoughts. I personally found writing this blog a really good way to keep myself motivated but there are definitely alternatives.
Here are some simply tips to help organizing ideas:
- Group like ideas/paragraphs together, which often reveals necessary repetition.
- Don’t ‘‘Bait-and_switch’’ you readers. Switching arguments too many times leads to confusion.
- When discussion controversy, flow the arguments -> counter-arguments -> rebuttals pattern.
This is hardest step for most people. This where you pop up a blank windows and start up writing. The biggest tips is to not be a perfectionist. The first draft should aims to get the ideas down in complete sentences in order. You should even purposefully set a low bar to get the first draft out quickly.
Focus on logical organization more than sentence-level details.
The recommended order for writing a manuscript is:
- Tables and Figures
- Summarize what the data show by (1) pointing out simple relationships; (2) describing big-picture trends; (3) citing figure or table that present supporting data.
- Avoid simply repeating the numbers already available in tables and figures.
Step 1 to 3 involve the most concrete things to put down. They help you frame the introduction.
Tips for Writing Results
Here are a few tips for writing results:
- Break into subsections, with headings
- Complement the information that is already in tables and figures
- Give precise values that are not available in the figure
- Report the percent change or percent difference if absolute values are given in the table
- Repeat/highlight only the most important numbers
- Talk about negative and control results
- Reserve the term ‘‘significant’’ for statistically significant
- Don’t mix results with methods
- Don’t discuss the rationale for statistical analyses within the Results section
- Reserve comments on the meaning of your results for the discussion section. (show vs meaning)
The good news is that the introduction is easier to write than you may realize. Typically, the recommended range for an introduction is 2 to 5 paragraphs long. The introduction forms a cone structure:
The idea is to start from something general, then quickly narrow down to your specific study. So an introduction starts from some general background, then to what’s unknown. Then we narrow down to our hypothesis. In summary, the introduction is divided into:
- What’s known
- What’s unknown
- Your burning question
- You experimental approach
- Why your experimental approach is new and different and important
The structure corresponds to roughly 3 paragraphs: step 1 = paragraph 1; step 2 = paragraph 2; 3-5 = paragraph 3.
Some of the tips for writing an introduction include:
- Keep paragraphs short
- writing for a general audience
- Known -> Unknown -> Hypothesis
- Emphasize the unknown
- Be explicit about your research hypothesis: ‘‘We asked whether’’; ‘‘Our aims/s were’’
- Do now answer the research question
Surprising to me, the first big tip is to read your writing out loud, because the brain processes the spoken word differently than the written word.
The second tip is to do a verb check. You should underline the main verb in each sentence, and watch out for:
- Lackluster verbs (e.g. There are …)
- passive verbs (e.g. Something was observed by me.)
- buried verbs (e.g. A careful monitoring of achievement levels before and after the introduction of computers in the teaching of our course revealed no appreciable change in students’ performances.)
Some words should also be cut out:
- Dead weight words
- Empty words
- Long words that can be short
In addition, watch for
- Unnecessary jargon and acronyms
- Repetitive words
Most of these tips are already covered before in Cut the Clutter and Verbs
The next tips is to do an organizational review. For example, you can tag each paragraph with a phrase or sentence that sums up the main point in the margins of the paper. Then you can move paragraphs around to improve logical flow and bing similar ideas together.
Another interesting tip is to get feedback, especially those from people without any technical background. Ask if they can grasp the main findings or significance of the work, as well as those hard-to-read sentences and paragraphs. If an average Joe can understand your paper, chances people in your field can understand it are much higher.
- Use past tense for completed actions (e.g. We found that…)
- Use the present tense for assertions that continue to be true, such as what the tables show, what you believe, adn what the data suggests (e.g. Figure 2 shows…)
Other notes including Cut the Clutter, Verbs, and Structure are also available.