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Advice on writing research articles

From a few years ago:

General advice

Both the papers sent to me appear to have strong research results. Now that the research has been done, I’d recommend rewriting both articles from scratch, using the following template:

1. Start with the conclusions. Write a couple pages on what you’ve found and what you recommend. In writing these conclusions, you should also be writing some of the introduction, in that you’ll need to give enough background so that general readers can understand what you’re talking about and why they should care. But you want to start with the conclusions, because that will determine what sort of background information you’ll need to give.

2. Now step back. What is the principal evidence for your conclusions? Make some graphs and pull out some key numbers that represent your research findings which back up your claims.

3. Back one more step, now. What are the methods and data you used to obtain your research findings.

4. Now go back and write the literature review and the introduction.

5. Moving forward one last time: go to your results and conclusions and give alternative explanations. Why might you be wrong? What are the limits of applicability of your findings? What future research would be appropriate to follow up on these loose ends?

6. Write the abstract. An easy way to start is to take the first sentence from each of the first five paragraphs of the article. This probably won’t be quite right, but I bet it will be close to what you need.

7. Give the article to a friend, ask him or her to spend 15 minutes looking at it, then ask what they think your message was, and what evidence you have for it. Your friend should read the article as a potential consumer, not as a critic. You can find typos on your own time, but you need somebody else’s eyes to get a sense of the message you’re sending.

Comments on the two articles sent to me

Good, clear title. Now I’m reading the abstract . . . It has a big mistake in the second sentence . . .

Some silly but useful advice: go through and remove all contentless words and phrases, such as:

- “Of course”
- “Note that”
- “Interestingly”
- “very”
- “nice”
- “We can see that”
- “It is important to note that”

Give descriptive captions to all your figures and tables. For example, in Figure 1, add a sentence explaining why you call this observation “extreme.” . . .

Don’t forget these basic principles:

(a) Don’t write something unless you expect people to read it.

(b) This principle holds for tables and figures as well. Consider Table 2. Do you want the reader to know that in line 3, Min Obs is 894? I doubt it. If so, you should make a case for this. If not, don’t put it down. When an article is filled with numbers and words that you neither expect or want people to read, this distracts them from the content. . . .

- It’s hard for me to believe that the new methods dominate the old methods. Maybe so, but I’d find the presentation more convincing if the authors gave some discussion of why the new methods work better, and—especially important—where the new methods would not be expected to perform well. . . .

The abstract is descriptive . . . but I think this one is a bit too detailed . . . you get the picture: jump right in and say what you found. Also, I’d remove the last sentence from the abstract: pre-emptive apologies are not usually a good idea. . . .

Use bold section headings and also number the sections. I almost missed it, but on the bottom of page 11 we’ve shifted from a literature review to a dataset. Vivid typographical signals would help here. . . .

I don’t want to be picky-picky about the use of the passive voice, (“courses . . . were selected for participation”) but here it’s leading to real confusion? Who selected the courses? Where were they selected from? Who are these students? I want to know.

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is simply to state what you’ve already done.

Setting all presentational issues aside for a moment, Figures 1 and 2 should be in an appendix. They are meaningless to a general reader. . . .

Moving on, I’m grabbed by Tables 3 and 4. Too many digits! Or, more to the point, you need to figure out what message you’re trying to send, and to focus, focus, focus, focus, focus. No reader will care–or should care–that CFI for Campus Support Services is 0.952 or that RMSEA CI_90 is 0.069, or whatever. You have to draw the trail from the scientific question, to the statistical question, to the data, to the inferences, back to the statistical and scientific questions.

OK, moving on to the conclusion . . . There’s only 1/2 page of conclusions! I’d expand this. You should expect readers to flip to the end to see what you’ve found and what you recommend.

The funny thing is, all this advice works pretty well, even without looking at the particular student papers that I was discussing. (All the detail is here, though, if you want to see it.)

11 Comments

  1. I’d like to highlight this piece of advice: “The abstract . . . you get the picture: jump right in and say what you found.

    My number one peeve in reading papers is that they’re often organized like stories, surprise endings and all. The abstract should motivate people to read the paper. Saying “we studied problem X with technique Y” is not sufficient motivation. I think not putting conclusions in the abstract is why readers often jump to the conclusion. If you put more of the conclusion up front, I think you can skip a conclusion altogether. But then some readers or reviewers will expect a conclusion and part of writing a paper is managing expectations.

  2. Rahul says:

    “Don’t write something unless you expect people to read it.”

    If people sincerely stuck to that commandment, 9 out of 10 journal articles should never be written. Too cynical?

  3. nick says:

    “go through and remove all contentless words and phrases, such as…”

    I wonder if this advice applies to theoretical and/or particularly math-y papers? Phrases like “of course” and “note that” (and of course “it is important to note that”) are pretty deeply ingrained in mathematical literature; particularly to identify which concepts should be obvious and hence not worth clarifying further (“of course”), or things that are useful to observe but aren’t worth going into further detail (“note that”).

    • JSE says:

      Or even more simply: I often use “Note that X” rather than just “X” because X is an assertion that starts with a symbol, and I think it looks ugly to start a sentence with a symbol. Thus: “note that x > 5 by Lemma 1.2″ or “We have x > 5 by Lemma 1.2″ rather than just “x > 5 by Lemma 1.2.”

    • Andrew says:

      Nick, Jordan:

      Yes, there are exceptions, but I’d say that about 98% of the time, I can simply remove “very” or “of course” or “note that,” sometimes with a very slight rephrasing, and the paper is improved. It doesn’t have to be that way but this is the way it actually seems to be. These words are typically the written equivalent of “ummm” in conversation. I find it very difficult to avoid “ummm,” even in prepared talks, but with writing I can go back and clean things up, and that’s what I recommend to authors. The cleaning is done manually (I’m not talking about gsub here) so I assume authors will use common sense and keep in the ummms when necessary.

  4. Nick Menzies says:

    There seems to be convergence of the political science statisticians — I had almost matching advice from Gary King a few years back (specifically, the idea of writing the paper in reverse section order).

  5. Rahul says:

    “Very” may be qualitative but it certainly isn’t content-less.

  6. Beliavsky says:

    In the abstract, say what the main results are. That sounds obvious, but I have read many abstracts of the form

    “We compare methods A and B to do foo”

    that don’t say whether method A or B worked better. Many people don’t have time to read the full paper or may have access only to the abstract.

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