Uncommon Ground


A few thoughts on how to structure a scientific paper

I mentioned last week that I’m reading Williams & Bizup, Style: The Basics of Style and Grace. Yesterday I came across this very succinct advice for the early stages of writing a paper and thinking about how to structure it.

When you plan a paper, look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to a question large enough for you and your readers to care about.

If you’re a scientist and writing a paper,1 you already have the data and most or all of the statistical analyses done. So the “look for a question” part has to happen twice in writing a scientific paper.2 You need to “look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to a question large enough for you and your readers to care about” before you begin collecting data. Then you need to collect data that will answer that question.

Science being what it is,3 after you’ve collected the data you’ll find that there are data you couldn’t collect that you wanted to collect4 and there are data you collected that you didn’t anticipate collecting. In writing the paper you now have to look at the data you have in hand, identify a question that the data in hand can answer that is connected to a larger, interesting question, and (this is the hard part) write the paper using only the data that answer that larger, interesting question. If you’re like me, you5 will have collected other data that don’t fit in this paper. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean you should discard them. It merely means that they’re not useful for this paper. With any luck you’ll find that they are useful for another paper that you’ll write in the future.

  1. Or at least if you’re a scientist like me and writing a paper.
  2. Or at least it has to happen twice if you’re me.
  3. Or at least science being what it is in the way that I do it.
  4. Especially if your research involves work in the field.
  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out that I almost never collect data myself. It’s my students and collaborators who collect the data. Even when I’m in the field, I mostly hold the field notebook and write down the measurements someone else is making. I rarely make the measurements myself. The closest I usually come to collecting data myself is collecting samples from which someone else derives data.

A few thoughts on writing (inspired by Williams & Bizup, Style)

I do not claim to write well, but I have been writing for nearly 40 years, and I’ve been helping students with writing for more than 30. Along the way I’ve figured out a few things that work for me, so I thought I’d pass a few of them along. Keep in mind that I have no training, and I have no credentials suggesting that anything I write is worth reading. If you find something useful here, use it. If you don’t, ignore it. Better yet, if you find something here you think is fundamentally misguided, leave a comment so that others won’t be misled.

Nearly 30 years ago I bought a copy of Wiliams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I’ve referred to it frequently ever since. On Wednesday I bought the Kindle edition of Williams & Bizup, Style: The Basics of Style and Grace. I’m just getting started on it, but I can already recommend it. It’s a shorter version of Lessons, but even in the shorter version there’s a lot here that anyone who writes can use.

The first and most important lesson is not to worry about style or principles of style at all until you’ve written something down. The only bad first draft is the first draft you haven’t written. Before you worry about whether readers can understand you or whether what you’ve written will capture or hold their interest, write something down so that you can start revising it. This lesson took me a very long time to learn. When I was in graduate school I literally had to start writing with the first paragraph of the Introduction and then write every other paragraph in sequence until I was done. I also struggled to make every sentence and paragraph perfect as I was writing them, because that was how I imagined writers wrote. Even though I’d read and heard it before, it wasn’t until some time after I joined the faculty at UConn that I finally understood that 90 percent or more of writing is rewriting. As Williams and Bizup put it,

Most experienced writers get something down as fast as they can. Then as they revise that first draft into something clearer, they understand their ideas better. And when they understand their ideas better, they express them more clearly, and the more clearly they express them, the better they understand them—and so it goes, until they run out of energy, interest, or time.

They also point out that you can exercise your revising chops on other people’s writing. When you’re reading something that seems complicated and confusing, take a good, hard look at it and see if you can find a way to express the ideas more clearly. If you can, you’ll have the satisfaction not only of having worked out the meaning of that complicated thing, but also of knowing that you had the skill to make something understandable when the author couldn’t or wouldn’t do the Sam thing.

Just telling you to revise doesn’t help, of course. You have to know how to revise. The good news is that Williams and Bizup provide a set of principles that anyone can learn and apply. It’s not easy to apply them, and sometimes you won’t have the time to apply them, but keep in mind that

Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly. —Ludwig wittgenstein

I am a snoot

I have little trust in people who don't use the Oxford comma.

From grammarly.com

Last Friday I confessed to my obsession with grammar and usage. In response, Alex Buerkle (@disequilibber) passed along a link to a wonderful article by David Foster Wallace describing the state of the “language wars” in the early 2000s. If you’ve never heard of the language wars or of the epic battle between prescriptionists and descriptionists, you may not find the article all that interesting, but it really struck a chord with me. I am a snoot.

A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.

OK. Maybe I’m not really a snoot. I had to Google “dysphemism” – a derogatory or unpleasant term used instead of a pleasant or neutral one, such as “loony bin” for “mental hospital” – and I probably won’t brag about knowing the definition now (and I doubt that it will enter my regular vocabulary). So maybe it’s more accurate to say that I have a lot of sympathy with snoots. If you want to understand that means, I’m afraid you’ll have to read Wallace’s article. Here’s the link: http://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-2001-04-0070913.pdf Bottom line: Grammar and usage matter, because they convey a lot about us. The dialect we choose to use says a lot about who we are and about who we think our audience is.

On commas and grammar

I have little trust in people who don't use the Oxford comma.

From grammarly.com

I admit it. I am obsessed with grammar and usage. I own all four editions of Fowler, and I also own Follett, Garner, two or three editions of Strunk and White, and many other usage manuals. I am also a big fan of the Oxford comma. So I was pleased to see Kathleen Parker’s column in The Washington Post last week. Here’s why:

[Grammar] matters because good grammar conveys a great deal about a person.

Quality is in the details — and attention to commas, semicolons, dangling participles, gerunds and the proper placement of quotation marks says to the reader that this person is careful, considerate (because bad grammar is painful to the discerning eye), and (there’s that Oxford comma) competent.

“Grammar is credibility,” says Amanda Sturgill, an associate professor of communications at Elon University, where I recently spoke. “If you’re not taking care of the small things, people assume you’re not taking care of the big things.”