Dallas Murphy is a professional writer, who conducts annual science-writing workshops for Ph. D. candidates and post docs at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, the Bergen Geophysical Institute, the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and, beginning this March (2014), the University of Hamburg.
For most of my students, English is not their native language, and when, some ten years ago, I began to formulate the workshop, I assumed they would need remedial work in English usage. No so. They are fully capable of writing English sentences, agreeing subject and verb, handling pronoun referents and modifiers, etc. No, the common writing problem, regardless of the writer’s national origin and institution, is structure. It’s not coincidental that this problem appears most starkly in the introduction, where the paper’s logical structure needs to be stated clearly and succinctly. So let’s talk a little about introductions and touch upon establishing a logical process for addressing structure.
The science literature published in most technical journals is highly conventionalized. You need, among other “pieces,” an abstract, an intro, a methods section, and a conclusion. On the plus side, you have a kind of template as a guide. Conversely, the formal conventions and the new writer’s attempt to accommodate them one by one often causes a lack of clarity. So where do you start once your research is complete? With the abstract? The methods? The intro? I suggest none of the above.
Try starting with a blank page, forget about the parts and about the final form and state for yourself: What is my paper about? Most science papers pose and answer, if tacitly, three questions in the introduction: What? Why? How? What research have I undertaken? Why did I do so, that is, what was the scientific gap in scientific knowledge I aimed to fill? You might call this the problem statement. And how did I address the problem with my research? Answer those three questions, and you will have in hand the spinal structure of the introduction. You still have to write it, to include the literature as background context, but now you’ll have a firm structural foundation.
To arrive at a dependable writing process requires experience, and in its absence, new writers tend to imitate the form and literary style of established professionals. You can learn a lot from that if you approach it from an analytical standpoint. Take apart their introductions, figure out how good, published introductions work. Those who’ve grown up in the humanities are used to analyzing how literature works, less so scientists. In most cases, you will find that the introductions by experienced and successful science writers answer in some form and order those three what-why-how questions. But for the inexperienced science writer, it’s important to actually write down the questions and their answers. It doesn’t matter in what form, complete sentences or bullet points, whatever works for you; process is a personal matter. But I would go so far as to say, don’t start writing the introduction until you have answered those questions.
Finally, let me change the subject a bit and offer a piece of advice as a grizzled veteran of the writing wars. The best, the absolute best way to learn to write is to read. Read anything in English, read editorials, essays in the best English magazines such as the Atlantic or New Yorker magazine; quality nonfiction on any subject you can think of is readily available. Read, let the language wash over you, and then analyze what you’ve read. How did the writer make his/her point; how did the writer structure the piece; and how did the structure serve the point? I preach the efficacy of reading stuff outside of science papers in almost evangelical terms, but I bet few of my students take me up on the advice. “Yeah, but I’m researching, working on my dissertation; I have to produce and publish papers. I don’t have time to read,” they say as if reading were an expendable recreation. None of this would come up but for a fact of the research scientist’s life. You have to be a writer, which means you have to begin to learn how to think like a writer. And the most efficient means to that end is to read and study good writing.
Best of luck to you all, Dallas Murphy.