Avoid naked salesmanship: never use these words in your papers and grant proposals

A while back I argued that we’ll never get rid of salesmanship in science, and wouldn’t want to. But there are more and less effective ways of “selling” your work (i.e. conveying to others why it’s interesting or important).

Here’s perhaps the worst way to “sell” your work: just asserting how great it is. This is totally ineffective. If your work is great, telling the reader that it’s great is superfluous. If your work isn’t great, telling the reader it is won’t convince the reader otherwise. As the old adage goes, show don’t tell. And don’t just take my word for it, take NSF’s (see tip #3).

Indeed, merely asserting how great your work is is actually worse than ineffective. It turns readers against you, and rightly so. It’s the reader’s place to decide if your work is great, not yours. So if you assert your work is great, it comes off as you trying to usurp the reader.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid simply asserting that your work is great. Never use any of the following words to describe your own work or proposed work:

  • Fascinating
  • Transformative
  • Remarkable
  • Amazing
  • Stunning
  • Impressive
  • Astonishing
  • Elegant
  • Beautiful
  • Groundbreaking
  • Revolutionary
  • Paradigm-shifting
  • (You get the idea)

Note that there are some adjectives that you can use to describe your work. For instance, describing a result as “surprising” or “unexpected” is probably ok, so long as you explain why (e.g., “Current theory predicts X. Surprisingly, I found not-X.”) Much of science is about testing whether our expectations are correct. So using words that highlight mismatches between expectations and outcomes is usually ok. (Unless of course, your expectations were a straw man, and your “unexpected” result actually should’ve been expected all along.) Just don’t go overboard. Calling an unexpected result “utterly unexpected” is overegging the pudding and will rightly annoy readers.

Note as well that your authorial intent is irrelevant. Readers can only read your words, not your mind. Perhaps in describing your results as “fascinating”, you only meant to jazz up your writing a bit. If so, sorry, but that’s not how you came across to readers.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use any form of “salesmanship” in your papers at all. As I discussed in that old post I linked to at the beginning, “salesmanship” is a broad term that covers all sorts of practices, many of which are perfectly legitimate and welcomed by readers. For instance, using a vivid metaphor or analogy like “hydra effect“. Or structuring your paper using the “baby-werewolf-silver bullet-dead werewolf” structure. Many other examples of appropriate salesmanship could be given. The appropriateness of many of which is illustrated by the fact that you probably don’t think of them as “salesmanship” at all!

17 thoughts on “Avoid naked salesmanship: never use these words in your papers and grant proposals

  1. Agreed, Jeremy. However, I think something that’s implicit in your post should be made explicit (as I’m sure you intended). You say “It’s the reader’s place to decide if your work is great, not yours.” This does NOT mean it’s the reader’s job to figure out why the work might be great. So it’s your job as the writer not to assert that the work is great, but rather to explain rationally (b>why it’s great. You want to make the reader’s job (of deducing greatness) as easy as possible – but as you correctly point out, declaring greatness tends to provoke the opposite conclusion!

  2. My only problem with the term “hydra effect” is that, because I work on aquatic organisms, when I talk about it people always initially assume I’m talking about the aquatic organism hydra, not the mythical hydra. I now include a slide to explain which hydra I mean. 🙂

  3. When researching this post, I searched the most recent decade of leading EEB journals for instances of some of these words. I came to two conclusions:

    -these words are rare in research papers

    -when they’re used, they’re most often used to describe *other people’s* work. Which I confess to mixed feelings about. Maybe it’s because I was on “high alert” for naked salesmanship during this little exercise, but reading people referring to the work on which their own builds as “elegant”, or to the phenomenon they’re studying as “fascinating”, kind of came off to me as an attempt at naked salesmanship one step removed. Naked salesmanship via reflected glory, as it were.

  4. I agree that scalar adjectives (those that magnify the amplitude of the noun) should be used sparingly. There is not much difference between “The result is important” and “The result is very important”. You’ve just burned 5 spaces.

    However, one of the words on your list belongs twice in an NSF proposal, once in the Project Summary and once somewhere in the Project Description. That word is “transformative”. The reason? NSF says they are looking for transformative work and you *always* follow grant guidelines to the letter. It’s also a pretty good word, a nuanced summary of what makes a project compelling. And since harried reviewers want to know–quickly–why your work needs to be funded, the sentence that uses the word “transformative” will necessarily gain some attention.

    • Well, maybe–though if you click one of my links, you’ll see that it goes to someone whom I believe is an NSF panelist (and is certainly at least an NSF reviewer) complaining on Twitter about people calling their work “transformative” in their NSF proposals.

      I guess I’d emphasize that, if you’re going to use the word “transformative” because you think the call for proposals more or less obliges you to use it, you still need need a compelling explanation of why the proposed work is transformative. You can’t just slap the word “transformative” onto your work like a labeling sticker. (I know you weren’t suggesting that anyone should, but I think the point bears emphasizing.)

    • The advice I’ve heard is to use the phrase “…is potentially transformative because…” That marks the relevant argument without assuming that the reader will agree, or worse, just boldly stating the conclusion.

  5. I’ve long held that the best salespeople in science are the ones that connect the dots and make something relevant. When I read a paper that communicates how their microcosm connects to the macrocosm, I am “sold” as it were, on their idea. On the other hand, papers that fail to provide me some sort of worldview are more likely to not get saved on my desk top…

  6. I agree with Jeremy – that list should not be used in your own papers, BUT i use them often when reviewing other people’s papers and grant proposals – but only if the deserve them of course 🙂

  7. I agree with all the list, but not ‘remarkable’. This is because it can be used relatively (we identified four unexpected associations, of which the most remarkable was that…), or to pick out some findings while overlooking others. In other words, stick to its etymology (‘worth remarking upon’) rather than using it as an empty booster.

  8. Pingback: How I write tenure and promotion letters | Dynamic Ecology

  9. Pingback: Friday links: science is “interesting” but not “awesome”, evolution of peer review, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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