Paper Writing for PhD Students, Part 3: The Importance of Focus

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[This post continues my “self-help” series on writing papers for PhD students; the previous episode can be found here. This series is an attempt to share some of the conceptual tools that I use with my students. Their point is to structure your thinking and focus your decision-making on a limited number of problems at a given time; having all options open at all times is an enemy of creativity.]

Scientific papers are stories, not just containers of information. The more focused and exciting the story, the more likely it is that it reaches someone. This is because that someone has to decide to invest their time in reading the paper, and as we all know, the world is full of papers, too many for any of us to read.

Thinking of papers as stories is something that doesn’t come naturally to most students or scientists. If we have been taught at all, we have been taught to write (boring) reports, certainly not to develop storylines, or to work with the kinds of higher-level conceptual elements that, say, journalists use.

Good writing starts with careful planning. I usually plan my storyline in three steps.

The first is defining the key point of the paper, the main conclusion that you want to tell the world. The second step is choosing the essential building blocks for the rest of the storyline, leaving out all results that are not necessary. The third step is taking these building blocks and arranging them into a condensed version of the storyline: the abstract of the paper. That’s right – I recommend writing the abstract before the rest of the paper. This is unconventional but it works.

Defining the focus of the paper – its key point and its main conclusion – is the most important step, as it lays the foundation for the rest.

In the best case, the key point is a single important result, but usually things are slightly more complicated than that. In any case, you should be able to explain your point and  main conclusion with one to three sentences. If you think that this is too little, consider these: the Earth rotates around the Sun, and not vice versa. Space-time is curved by mass. The salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid has a structure with two helical chains, suggesting a possible copying mechanism for genetic material. And so on. Clearly a sharp focus doesn’t mean that the result is simplistic – to the contrary, there is usually a lot of depth behind results that can be described with a few words.

Choosing a key point that can be condensed into a few sentences doesn’t imply that your paper has to be narrow in scope. If your work is of an exploratory nature your key result might be that you have mapped out a problem area and your paper provides the map, or perhaps your main conclusion is a broad synthesis of several sub-results that make up the bulk of your paper. The most important thing is that you can make it clear to the reader what your paper is about.

If you can compress your message into a package that can be easily communicated, the higher the likelihood that it reaches its intended target, the reader. This is not limited to primary transmission – say, the reader encountering your abstract on the arXiv and deciding to read on – but secondary transmission is important too: getting the reader to share your paper with colleagues, online or face-to-face. Whatever the type of transmission, it works best if the thing being transmitted is compact and focused.

Communication is always difficult and all communication channels are noisy – a tight focus helps your message to make it through in one piece.

Next: Theatrical Cut, Or How To Konmari Your Paper

How to write a great abstract

[This post continues my “self-help” series on writing for PhD students; the first post is here]

The first thing that you should write when starting a new paper is its abstract. I also recommend spending a lot of time on it. This will pay off later.

Writing the abstract first may seem unconventional, but it makes sense. This is because the abstract is the storyline of the paper in miniature form. It determines the rest. Once you have composed your abstract, you have decided on your story, and the paper is much easier to write.

So what’s a great abstract like? One common mistake is to view the abstract as an information container, whose only aim is to let the reader know what the author has done. An abstract written in this way reads like “we did X and the result was Y. Then we did Z and …” It becomes a boring list of results. Two important things are missing: context and excitement!

Think of a Hollywood movie. It begins with the setup phase, where the setting and the characters are introduced. You can only follow the story if you understand the setting and know the characters (context), and you will only care about the story if you care about the characters (excitement). The same applies to any research paper and its abstract: the reader must understand the context and care enough about the problem to read on and to find out how the problem was solved.

After the setup, a typical film script continues to the confrontation phase. There is trouble; there an issue that the characters have to solve. The resolution of the confrontation marks the high point of excitement in the story. After outworking the story, some brief epilogue may follow, providing closure.

Great papers and their abstracts follow a similar arc: from setup to confrontation and from resolution to closure. The storyline can be seen as hourglass-shaped: presenting the broad setting, introducing a more narrow problem and its solution, and returning to the broader picture again. It is not a coincidence that this is exactly how every Nature abstract reads.

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The script that every Nature abstract has to follow, sentence by sentence, begins with a few sentences on general context and the broader topic. Then, the abstract narrows down to more specific context (again a few sentences), before funnelling to its narrowest point: the exact research question addressed by the paper. This has to be followed by the solution of the problem: the key result. Then the abstract broadens again, first addressing the implications of the result to the paper’s field of science, and then discussing the impact beyond that particular field. Setup, confrontation, resolution, closure.

Even if you are not writing a Nature paper (and you probably aren’t), the above is still a great recipe for a successful abstract, and my suggestion is to always follow its spirit.

Of course, depending on your field and the chosen journal, the breadth of the top and the bottom of the hourglass may need to be adjusted. Instead of a context where your result contributes to solving mankind’s most pressing problems, your playing field may be just your particular field of science, or its subfield. For a specialist journal, you don’t need to begin your abstract with a sentence on the importance of your field – the readers already know it. Nevertheless, it pays off to consider the broadest context you can honestly think of. Don’t exaggerate, but try to take a broader perspective. Why is your research question important –– why does it matter? The answer to this question is your context; it should directly translate to the first and last sentences of your abstract.

Next: The Importance of Focus

Why can writing a paper be such a pain?

[This is the first in a series of “self-help” posts for PhD students on the topic of writing.]

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Show me a researcher who has never struggled with writing, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t written anything, or who doesn’t care about the quality of the output. Science is hard, and so is writing. Together they are harder. Now add in lack of experience as a researcher and as a writer, together with the usual time pressure, and it’s no wonder that the blank document in front of you looks like the north face of Mount Everest. We’ve all been there, staring at that wall.

While no mountaineer would risk climbing Everest without a route plan, an inexperienced writer tends to neglect the importance of planning. Having no plan, she tries to do everything at once. She opens the blank document in her editor, stares at it, tries to decide what to make of her results, what the first sentence of the first paragraph should be, what the point of the first paragraph should be, and what the point of the whole paper should be.

It’s no wonder that this feels impossible. No-one can solve that many problems in parallel. Problems are best solved one at a time.

Writing becomes easier if one separates the process of thinking from the process of writing. To write clearly is to think clearly, and thinking precedes writing. Writing becomes a lot less of a struggle when you think through the right things in the right order, before putting down a single word.  A successful software project begins with the big picture: what functions and classes are needed, and for what purpose. It doesn’t begin with developing code for the internal bits of these functions and classes. A writing project should also begin with addressing the overall point and structure of the paper, before moving to details such as words or sentences.

Another way of looking at the problem is linearity versus modularity. The fear of the blank page arises out of linearity: the feeling that the only way to fill the page is to start with the first word and proceed towards the last, word by word. This is not so. Whereas reading is usually linear, writing doesn’t have to be. The process of writing should be modular – first, sculpt your raw materials into rough blocks that form your text, and then start working on the blocks, filling in more and more details, so that entire sentences only begin appearing towards the end of this process.

The approach I try to teach my students is splitting the writing process into a series of hierarchical tasks. This way, getting from a pile of results to a polished research paper is a bit less painful.

This approach begins with identifying the key point of the paper, and then moving on to structuring the material that supports this point into a storyline. This storyline is then condensed into the abstract of the paper. My advise is to always write the abstract first, not last! This serves as an acid test: if you cannot do it, you haven’t developed your storyline enough.

After that, there are many steps to be taken before writing any more complete sentences: planning the order of presentation, including figures, and for each section of the paper, mapping the arc of the storyline into paragraphs so that the point addressed by each of the paragraphs is decided in advance. Then, the paragraph contents are expanded into rough sketches, and these sketches are finally transformed into whole sentences. At this point, there is no fear of the blank page, because there are no blank pages: for each section, for each paragraph, there is a map, a route plan, and the only decision that is needed is how to best transform that plan into series of words. Often, this feels almost effortless.

[Next in the series: how to write a great abstract]