There are a number of good posts out there on how to write a good journal article and even a whole blog devoted to the topic; many of them are linked to in the comments section of my post on writing style.
Here I want to elevate above the nuts-and-bolts sentence-level-detail of my post on writing style* and even elevate above the aforementioned posts that break down different sections of a paper and zoom out to 100,000 feet and think really strategically about writing a paper.
In my experience as a student committee member and as an associate editor for three journals I must have seen many 100s if not at this point 1000s of pre-publication articles. And they are varied. But many of them are by already good writers in the sense of clear, fluid English that understands well the purpose of each of the four sections (intro, methods, results, discussion). But many (most?) of these are still missing something. Something which I think is the hardest thing to learn: to think about the paper as a cohesive unit.
Think about an artistic painting. For the artist, it is made up of 100s or 1000s of individual brush strokes, each one of which requires skill and artistry. And of course a painting typically has a few key objects – a building, a lake, a person and the strokes have to make those up convincingly. But the reason an artist makes a painting, and the reason we hang paintings in the Louvre and visit them by the millions is none of those reasons. It is the overall gestalt effect – the message, the emotional impact. The sum of the parts is MUCH greater than the whole in a great piece of art.
It is no different with a paper. A day after reading it, you don’t remember well-crafted sentences or a really clear introduction – you just have an overall gestalt. With an academic paper this gestalt usually includes a one sentence summary of the factual content of the paper (and yes it is really only one sentence). But it also includes the emotions and judgments hanging on that one sentence. Is it convincing or weak? Is it elegant? Clever? Surprising? Ultimately, much of the emotional gestalt we take from a paper is was it convincing? do I trust the author? It is my experience that first-time writers and even many more experienced writers are so caught up in the mechanics (the sentences and sections in analogy to the brush strokes and objects in the painting) that they never think about the overall gestalt. And as a result the gestalt is rather poor. Which, fairly or not, reflects on the results of the paper. This of course is what distinguishes an art school student (working on mastering the details) from a great artist. And it is what distinguishes a publishable paper from a great paper, one that is remembered, one that has impact, and, dare we dream, a paper that will achieve the analog of being hung in the Louvre (whatever that might be – and no its not getting published in Science or Nature).
My main piece of advice will sound like it is tongue-in-cheek but it is in fact straight-up serious advice. Think and work like a fiction author! Wikipedia says that the main ingredients of fiction writing are: Character, Plot, Setting, Theme and Style. I’m sure there is debate, but these sound a lot like what I learned in high school, and I’m going to go with these.Notice that these are all unifying elements – they are things that cut across the introduction, middle, and ending/resolution of a fiction story. In short they are what give the gestalt.
Let me address each of these in a little more detail as they relate to non-fiction, scholarly article writing:
- Character – in fiction the characters need to be richly drawn to draw you into the story and make you care enough to keep reading and to remember them. The characters in a journal article are the questions you are asking. Introduce us to them. Spend a little time fleshing out their nuances. This is not achieved by a dump of literature citations, although that is a piece of it. You need to sound excited by your questions (which means you need to know what they are!). And you need to make them 3-D. And you need to dwell on them lovingly. None of this by the way means that you should write a long introduction anymore than you should spend half your book introducing the characters. Just as in the best fiction, the characters (questions) should be introduced deftly and crisply, which requires work.
- Theme – the take home message. In fiction it is a moral, or perhaps an emotion. In a journal article it is the one sentence take home message. You may think I’m joking, but most people really will take away only a single sentence summary of the paper, so you better know what you want it to be before you start writing. “Figuring it out as you write” is a terrible approach. Your paper will sound disjointed and like you didn’t know what your theme was before you started. So figure out your one sentence BEFORE you start writing. I am known in my lab group for mercilessly asking a student who is at the writing stage of a paper “what is your one sentence?”. I ask them before they start the presentation. I ask them immediately at the end of the presentation. And I ask them several more times during the discussion with the lab. It might seem impossible, but it is actually very achievable – it just requires setting this as an explicit task and spending some time (usually interactive with other people) to achieve it. It is a sine qua non for a paper that has a good gestalt. How can a fiction writer construct plot/story arc, characters, setting to all build towards a powerful theme if they don’t know what it is? No different in non-fiction.
- Plot – a good piece of fiction has a clear sense of movement. It starts one place, gives a sense of motion at any point you are reading, and then you end up somewhere new. It’s a big part of why people keep reading to the end. I call this the story arc. And the story arc is the thing that I find most often missing in journal articles. You need to take the reader along a very clear trajectory from question to conclusion. Just having the standard four sections is nowhere near enough. So many papers organized by the four sections still sound like a dump of everything you ever thought or did in connection to the paper. You need to work hard on story arc to make sure everything in the paper is pulling towards that one arc. This is why figuring out your one sentence before you write is so important.This lets you know what is superfluous and unnecessary and trim it away (most good writers will tell you that half the battle is knowing what to delete).
- Setting – the place and culture in which things happen. In field experiments or observations this is pretty simple. Just as I cannot begin to fully understand or relate to a character unless I know their context, I won’t really care if p<0.05** unless I can visualize the whole experiment in my mind. Almost everybody tells me that they used a 1m x 1m quadrat (or whatever their sample unit was) but many fail to tell me if their replicates are 5m apart or 1km apart. If they’re on the same topography or randomized, surrounded by the same vegetation, etc. A well drawn, information-packed diagram of the layout is something I often find myself requesting as a reviewer or editor..
- Style – this is a broad category that covers everything from writing dialogue to what voice is used – but it is ultimately the techniques. The brush strokes. And it is the clear writing I posted on last year in a non-fiction article.
My bottom line is this. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every section of the paper should be working together, like a well-synchronized team of rowers all pulling towards one common goal. The introduction should introduce the questions in a way that gives them emotional pull and leaves us desperate to know the answer. The methods and results should be a page-turning path towards the answer. And the discussion should be your chance to remind the reader of the story arc you have taken them on and draw sweeping conclusions from it. Any freeloading sentence or paragraph that pulls in a different direction should be mercilessly jettisoned (or at least pushed to supplemental material). Does this sound like a novel you would want to read? Yes, it does, and it probably sounds like a journal article you would want to read too.
I wish more people saw themselves as needing to use the skills of a story teller when they write a journal article. I of course don’t mean the connotations of dissembling or making things up that the word “story” carries. But I do mean the art of story-telling that knows where it is going and does it crisply so that it sucks us in and carries us along with just the right amount of time spent on details of character and setting. Where the characters (questions), the plot (story arc), the setting, the theme (the one sentence take home message) all work together to make a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Like anything in writing, you can do it if you work at it, but you do have to work at it (writing is not a gift handed to you by the gods)***. So go ahead, turn your next manuscript into a cohesive whole with great characters and a compelling story arc that leaves us deeply moved.
UPDATE, 22 June 2014: Comments on this post are now closed. This post was highlighted on “Freshly Pressed“. Which is flattering, but has led to dozens of people who wouldn’t otherwise have seen our blog trying to make non-substantive comments in order to promote their own blogs. We may or may not reopen comments on this post in the future.
* (which I badly violated in this sentence by stringing 5 nouns and more connective words in a row with no verb in sight and then running on for 45+ words in one sentence! – do as I say, not as I do :) )
**I probably won’t care about p<0.05 for a whole other set of statistical/philosophical reasons, but I leave that for another day!
*** just as an example of the messy, iterative process that writing is which depends as much on the bas-relief process of what is removed as what is added, I had a clear vision for this post – science writing should be more like fiction writing with the same elements as a compelling story which immediatley led to a title and intro. Then I when I started writing, I ended up with an outline that looked like
I – you have to know your main point
II – you should be like a fiction writer
IIa – character
IIb – plot
IIc – theme
Well – I clearly had lost my way. While nothing I said was untrue or unimportant, I had bifurcated and complexified off my main theme. This is something I am very prone to do (as I think are most academics). So I deleted two whole paragraphs on I – you have to know what you want to write about – and then worked a much reduced version of it into the IIc theme section. Boom – back to a single story arc, a single sentence to remember, and a tighter, stronger piece. Not every edit is this easy, and this post could certainly benefit from more, but I hope it at least makes my point that you have to edit with a mentality of “does this add or distract from my main point” and be merciless if the latter.