When we write, we hopefully have a point we want to make. Brian has called on us to view ourselves as story tellers when writing manuscripts, embracing
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
In doing so, Brian says:
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).
In this post, I am going to disagree with Brian’s last point (gasp! blogging drama!), but, in doing so, I am motivated by the same goal. When trying to make a convincing argument, it can help to address the most obvious concern or counterargument. As you are leading the reader towards your exciting, sweeping conclusion, you don’t want some part of their brain thinking “Well, I guess they are unaware of this thing that sure seems like a problem for their argument.” If it’s something that a reasonably well-informed reader might be wondering about or distracted by, you should consider directly addressing it in the discussion. (This is also important in terms of not over-selling your results.)
When I did training with the OpEd Project a few years ago, we discussed having a “To be sure” paragraph, often as the second-to-last one in the piece, that articulates the potential opposition to the point we were trying to make and countering it. This advice is not unique to the OpEd Project. For example, this resource on writing effective op-eds from Duke University includes:
Acknowledge the other side. People writing op-ed articles sometimes make the mistake of piling on one reason after another why they’re right and their opponents are wrong… They’d probably appear more credible, and almost certainly more humble and appealing, if they took a moment to acknowledge the ways in which their opponents are right. When you see experienced op-ed authors saying “to be sure,” that’s what they’re doing.
For the OpEd Project, they recommended a few possible strategies that could be used in the To Be Sure paragraph. You can acknowledge a potential concern and then dismiss it (e.g., explaining why it’s wrong or doesn’t apply). You can validate the concern but then trump it (e.g., by arguing that the thing you are arguing for is more important). Or, if you think someone might go for a personal attack (say, you can’t be unbiased about X because you are Y), you can include that as a personal caveat, taking the wind out of their sails.
This is a strategy I had already employed (though not always fully aware of what I was doing), and it’s one I’ve paid much more attention to since spending some time writing op-eds. So, I was amused when someone who I view as a really good writer recently said his template for a discussion is:
- First overview paragraph (one of Brian’s Five Pivotal Paragraphs)
- Three paragraphs, each with one specific point
- A caveats paragraph, possibly framed as future directions – what are three things that could be done next to follow up on this work?
- Cosmic take homes (another one of Brian’s Five Pivotal Paragraphs)
In other words, he recommends a “To be sure” paragraph, in exactly the same place that the OpEd Project recommended. He noted that one advantage of the future directions-oriented version of the “to be sure” paragraph is that it raises issues that are worth considering without handing the person a hammer to whack you with.
Something I’ve noticed over the years is that many early career writers try to have the “to be sure” stuff as the main focus of the discussion. Stephen Heard has apparently noticed this, too. In the section entitled “Consider possible weaknesses” in the chapter on Discussions in his guide to scientific writing, he writes:
Early-career writers sometimes greatly overdo this Discussion component, perhaps because we emphasize it when we teach undergraduates to write lab reports. If you leave your readers with the impression that your results don’t matter much, they will feel they’ve wasted their time reading the manuscript.
In my experience, early career writers not only include too much of this, but put it too early – including having this as the first paragraph of the discussion. So, I think the op-ed advice to include a “To be sure” paragraph as one paragraph that is the penultimate one in the manuscript is good advice for scientific manuscripts, too.
Do you include “To be sure” paragraphs in your writing? What framing do you find works best for it? Do you notice and appreciate them in other people’s writing? How do you balance between not overselling your work and not leaving your reader feeling they’ve wasted time reading your manuscript? I’d love to hear more about what people think works (and doesn’t!) for acknowledging potential limitations and weaknesses of the work!