On scientific writing

The resources below are helping me become a more disciplined writer capable of writing more first-author statistics papers. Since this is not an academic paper, I’m being loose about citation style but am including links, titles, and authors. The point is to write, not to stress about reviewing.

1 How to write a lot

Visiting my friend Jennifer in San Diego, I came across a book on her shelf that has motivated me to write more: “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” by Paul J. Silvia.

The main ideas that I took away from the book were well summarized in a University of Oregon post – “Becoming a Productive Faculty Writer – A Summary of Best Practices” – which also has a variety of helpful resources.

The primary takeaways for me are:

  1. Write Daily. Write on a schedule and don’t move your writing for other meetings. Use phrases like “recurring intractable obligation” and “previously encombered temporal placement” to decline invitations.
  2. Have a Goal. Project goals, daily goals. Prewriting activities count.
  3. Stop at a Good Place. It gives you a better place from which to begin the next day. Jot down critical ideas to get started from.
  4. Limit Distractions. Shut the door and tune out the outside world.
  5. Take Care of Yourself. Eat well, sleep well, exercise well, and work well.

2 Writing scientific manuscripts

There is lots of harmonious advice for writing academic papers and getting these manuscripts through review and into publication. Below are the points of advice that resonated with me.

My main conclusions are from these two sources (also Gelman):

O’Connor’s algorithm overview is the order of parts to write that I’m using as a basis below.  Baldwin’s order is slightly different and indicated in each citation.

Overview of the formulation of a scientific manuscript. (O’Connor)
Overview of the formulation of a scientific manuscript. (O’Connor)

1. Figures/Tables

“Construction of first-draft figures and tables based on data is the critical first step toward preparation of an outline for the manuscript.” (O’Connor)

“Paste the figures and tables on a wall in their approximate order of appearance. This will provide the skeleton from which to begin the construction of a more detailed outline and draft.” (O’Connor)

“Write a first draft of figure legends. Make each legend’s opening sentence into a figure title to describe the variables compared.” (O’Connor)

“The entire story of your paper should be comprehensible from this abstract and the figures and tables.” (2b. Baldwin)

“Each figure should illustrate at least one important take-home message of your paper and ideally be understandable in 30 seconds to an uninformed scientific reader.” (Baldwin)

Caption: “the first sentence should summarize the main point of the figure.” “The entire figures should be fully comprehensible from the figure caption.” “Table legends should include only a stand-alone first sentence.” (Baldwin)

For more on figures, see our chapter in the 4th ed of the “Handbook of Psychophysiology”.

2. Summary Statements

“These important statements are conclusions summarizing the major contributions of the manuscript to the scientific community. Use short rigid statements usually containing cause/effect words.” (O’Connor)

3. Scientific Audience

Identify the scientific audience and journals. (O’Connor)

4. Materials and Methods

“Write the materials and methods section to supplement and explain the figure legends.” (O’Connor)

“Write while you are still conducting experiments.” (1.+4. Baldwin)

5. Re-evaluate Data

“For each figure and table, make a note of which summary statement it addresses.” (O’Connor)

6. Results

“Once each figure and table has a legend describing the mathematical variables compared, then the first sentence of each results paragraph is simply the results of this comparison.” (O’Connor)

“The Results section should highlight all of the conclusions that you can draw from your data.” (3. Baldwin)

7. Discussion/Conclusions

“Convert by logical arguments the relations of mathematical variables stated in the results section into mechanistic interpretations of cause and effect. Simply restate the data relation from each results paragraph and convert each to mechanistic conclusions.” (O’Connor)

Table 1 (O’Connor) gives examples of results words for data relations vs. discussion words for logic and mechanism.

“The discussion should start with a paragraph which succinctly states your motivation, and the conclusions that you draw from your data that do not require discussion and ends with an introduction to the weaker conclusions that you would like to draw, but do require discussion.” “The following paragraphs should discuss the conclusions that you would like to draw from your data, but require discussion because the inferences are indirect, or your data or the data in the literature are contradictory.” “The last paragraph should summarize all major conclusions from the discussion of your results and indicate future research directions.” (6. Baldwin)

8. References

This is taken care of by a reference manager with well-curated reference data and style file.

9. Introduction

“First, summarize the subject and review the literature to allow the reader to (i) understand the statements in the Results and Discussion, (ii) understand how the statements fit into the extant scientific body of knowledge, and (iii) Understand that the conclusions are indeed novel, the next step in the knowledge of the subject.” (O’Connor)

“Write the last paragraph of the Introduction first; this should be an abbreviated road map of the question that you are addressing and the means by which you answered the question” (5. Baldwin)

“Circle all of the words and concepts that you used in this last paragraph that need to be introduced and elaborated on in preceding paragraphs of the Introduction. In this way, you will be reverse engineering the entire Introduction from your last paragraph.” (Baldwin)

Remove the fluff.

10. Title

“The title should be a positive statement from the summary statements.” (O’Connor)

11. Conclusion Paragraph

“In this paragraph, restate the logical conclusions and explain why these conclusions are important, how they will influence future thinking in this and other fields. In the introduction, these conclusions were the next step. Now discuss the future based on the conclusions in this manuscript or an alternative path to further substantiate the validity of your conclusions. Also, state the relevance of results in the present manuscript to other fields.” (O’Connor)

12. Abstract

“Use the abstract in general terms to describe the most important points in the work.” (O’Connor)

“Write a rough draft of the abstract … to create the roadmap of the logic of the results and conclusions that you will be developing.” (2b. Baldwin)

13. Revise, revise, revise.

Erase your memory of your writing and see it fresh.

  • Ask others to read it.
  • Read it after time has passed.
  • Have someone read it to you. (Baldwin)

3 Words and phrases

Thanks thesaurus.com.

When you can’t find the phrase to get you started, start with “70 useful sentences for academic writing” by Luiz Otávio Barros.

4 Presentations

Use story structure in the first five slides to set up the scenario and characters in your heroic journey. Chapter 4 of Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points” tells you how.

Introduction:

  1. The Setting Headline (Where am I, and when is it?)
  2. The Role Headline (Who am I in this setting?)
  3. The Point A Headline (What challengee do I face in this setting?)
  4. The Point B Headline (Where do I want to be?)
    1. (The Gap Between A and B) (Why am I here?)
  5. The Call to Action Headline (How do I get from A to B?)

Body:
Chapter 5 was also helpful for structuring the remaining slides in a hierarchy of key points (sections) with explanations (subsections) and details (slides).

Key Point 1
Analysis 1
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3
Analysis 2
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3
Analysis 3
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3

Key Point 2
Analysis 1
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3
Analysis 2
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3
Analysis 3
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3

Key Point 3
Analysis 1
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3
Analysis 2
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3
Analysis 3
Fact 1
Fact 2
Fact 3

Conclusion (recap):
The Point A Headline (What challengee do I face in this setting?)
The Point B Headline (Where do I want to be?)
(The Gap Between A and B) (Why am I here?)
The Call to Action Headline (How do I get from A to B?)