Over the past couple of months at Nature Network, there have been a variety of discussions about good writing (these discussions seems to have started shortly after I arrived. Are they trying to tell me something?). One of the early well written papers was commended for the quality of the language, which was simple and clear, and so enjoyable to read. Unfortunately, many papers have sentences that seem to be written with a different aim: to loose the reader in a whirl of syntactic complexities before finally beating them over the head with a dangling modifier, painfully.
This is not, alas, the only way a paper can be badly written. There is a whole hierarchy of levels of structure in a paper, and lack of attention to any of the levels can make it much more difficult for the reader (or referee!) to work out what’s going on. Not only can sentences be hopelessly mangled, but paragraphs and whole sections can be too. Indeed, with some care the whole paper can be given a structure that makes it difficult to follow. Journals like PNAS, who insist on their papers going straight from the introduction to the results without explain how the results were obtained, even enforce this.
The poorly-constructed paragraph can lurk anywhere, but is perhaps most likely to hide in the methods. It can express itself in a couple of ways, with opposite effects on the reader. In one phenotype, the paragraph meanders around the subject for a page and a half, showing all the necessary information, but only as an amorphous shoggoth which induces nightmares of you know where (the journal editors reading this have already had to make a -30 SAN check). I was deeply tempted to illustrate poor structure in writing, but I shall resist. Another way a paragraph can go wrong is when it can set off to explain a point, only to shift without warning onto a completely different subject. This causes the reader to jerk awake when they realise that the software manual they are reading has shifted to describing a Chinese train journey1. Evidently a couple of carriage returns went missing.
Disorganisation can strike at a higher level too. Sections, particularly introductions and discussions, can sometimes give the impression that they have been thrown together with the help of a d20 and a failed intelligence test. Like the shoggorific paragraph, an introduction can include all of the information needed to understand the paper, but presented in a totally arbitrary order. This leaves the poor reader confused as to the point of the paper: does it exist for any reason than because their boss wanted them to write it? Sectional schizophrenia is probably less common, perhaps because anyone capable of holding to one train of thought in a section is unlikely to want to hold to two. I suspect they can be found, and would predict they will mainly lurk in co-authored publications.
Why does this happen (a question Martin asked too)? I suspect part of the reason is simply that, as scientists, we are encouraged to write rather than to write well. Emphasis is often given more to putting the information down on paper. But on top of this, I think there is a problem that the organisation of a paper is often described in static terms: the introduction gives the back ground, the methods say what was done, the results say what were seen, and the discussion says why this is all so wonderful. The emphasis is in making sure everything is in the right place. Although this attention to content is desirable, emphasising this aspect of paper writing does, I think, make it more difficult to write good papers. I think using this description of a paper made my early writing difficult, so it me several years to work out how to write an introduction (and I’m still not entirely comfortable with discussions yet!). I slowly dropped this old model, for a different one.
The model I now use for writing papers is more dynamic: I think they should tell a story. The introduction is a way of walking the reader up to what was done, so that they can see why it was done. Take them on a short trip from where they are to where your work starts. All else is unnecessary detail. Then the methods and results are the meat of the action, before the discussion digests what has gone on, and the moral of the story is explained.
The same story-telling approach can also be applied at a different hierarchical scale. If we are telling stories, we should be aware that there are different ways of narrating2. Last week I was revising a manuscript which contained a verbal description of an algorithm for estimating a parameter. Our previous description set out the algorithm linearly, starting with the initialisation process and describing it one step at a time. This made it really difficult to follow what was being done (and why), so I split it into two stories: one small one (what happens each iteration), and one big one (how we go from one iteration to the next, including how we get to the first step). I think, well hope, it helped: reflecting the hierarchy in the algorithm made it easier to split the description into explanatory chunks. My point here is that it is a different way of describing the process, and when a description is difficult it is often worth trying a different was of telling the story. Sometimes it may take several attempts until it makes sense.
As I’ve already pointed out, the area still have trouble with is the discussion. There can be several points that need to be raised, and it can be difficult to do this and still keep a flow to the paper. It can be difficult to find a single logic that connects the threads. One trick is to use sub-headings: then the different sub-sections don’t need to flow together.
I also have difficulty working out how to finish articles.
1 Yep. It’s happened. See the VCE manual for details.
2 Like suddenly switching to an active voice. I dunno why it was done either.