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Writing Science

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Writing Science

How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded

J O S H U A S C H I M E L

1

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1

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Schimel, Joshua. Writing science : how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded / Joshua Schimel. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-19-976023-7 (hardcover : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-19-976024-4 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Technical writing. 2. Proposal writing for grants. I. Title.

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To my father, Jack Schimel, who loved language

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CONTENTS

Preface ix Acknowledgments xiii

1 Writing in Science 3

2 Science Writing as Storytelling 8

3 Making a Story Sticky 16

4 Story Structure 26

5 Th e Opening 35

6 Th e Funnel: Connecting O and C 50

7 Th e Challenge 58

8 Action 67

9 Th e Resolution 83

10 Internal Structure 95

11 Paragraphs 104

12 Sentences 112

13 Flow 124

14 Energizing Writing 133

15 Words 145

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viii C O N T E N T S

16 Condensing 158

17 Putting it All Together: Real Editing 174

18 Dealing with Limitations 180

19 Writing Global Science 189

20 Writing for the Public 195

21 Resolution 204

Appendix A: My Answers to Revision Exercises 207 Appendix B: Writing Resources 212

Index 215

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PREFACE

Th ose who can do, also teach.

It came as a surprise to me one day to discover that I was writing a book on writ-ing. It’s not the normal pastime for a working scientist, which I am — I’m a profes-sor of soil microbiology and ecosystem ecology. I write proposals, I write papers, and I train students to do both. I review extensively and have served as editor for several leading journals. Teaching writing evolved from those activities, and it became a hobby and a passion. Th is book is the outgrowth — it’s what I have been doing when I should have been writing papers.

Although I believe I have become a good writer, I got there through hard work and hard lessons. I didn’t start out my academic life that way. Before teaching my graduate class on writing science for the fi rst time, I went back to my doctoral dis-sertation for a calibration check — what should I expect from students? I made it through page 2. At that point, my tolerance for my own writing hit bottom and my appreciation for my advisor’s patience hit top. Even the papers those clumsy chap-ters morphed into were only competent.

My writing has improved because I worked on becoming a writer. Th at doesn’t mean just writing a lot. You can do something for many years without becoming competent. Case in point: the contractor who put a sunroom on our house. He kept insisting, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and know what I’m doing”; the building inspector’s report, however, said to reframe according to building codes and standard building practices.

I have learned to write through a number of avenues: guidance from my mentors; the trial and error of reviews and rejections; thinking about communica-tion strategy; working with students on their papers; reviewing and editing hun-dreds of manuscripts; reading and rereading books on writing; and importantly, participating in my wife’s experiences as a developing writer, listening to the lessons from her classes, and watching how real writers train and develop. I have tried to meld all these lessons into science writing, incorporating writers’ perspec-tives into the traditions and formulas of science. Th is book represents that

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x P R E FA C E

amalgamation, and I hope it will help you short-circuit the long, slow, struggle I experienced.

PRINCIPLES VERSUS RULES

Many books on writing (notably the bad ones) present a long string of rules for how to write well. In them, writing is formulaic. In good writing, however, “the code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules” (to quote from Pirates of the Caribbean ), a point made strongly by two prominent writers on writing, Joseph Williams ( Style: Toward Clarity and Grace ) and Roy Peter Clark ( Th e Glamour of Grammar ). Most of the time, following the rules will improve your writing, but good writers break them when it serves their purposes. I distinguish such rules from principles, which are the general concepts that guide successful communica-tion. If you violate principles, your writing will suff er.

Th roughout the book I try to distinguish between rules and principles, and I hope to off er enough insight that you will understand which are which, and why. When following a rule confl icts with following a principle, fl out the rule freely and joyously.

SOURCES FOR EXAMPLES

I found examples in many places — some from work I know, some from papers that friends recommended, one from someone I met on an airplane, and many from randomly fl ipping through journals. Th e examples I hold up as good practice, I use intact and cite properly, though I remove the reference cita-tions to make them easier to read. Exemplars of good practice deserve to be rec-ognized. I sometimes point out what I see as imperfections, but only to highlight that even good writing can usually be better, and that although we may strive for perfection, we never reach it. A “good enough” proposal may still get funded, and an award letter from the National Science Foundation is the best review I’ve ever seen.

Th e examples of what I think you should not do are closely modeled on real examples. However, unless they come from my own work, I have rewritten the text to mask the source. When I rewrote the text, I maintained the structural problems so that even if the science is no longer “real,” the writing is. In some cases these examples are from published work; in others, from early draft s that were revised and polished before publication. If you recognize your own writing or my comments on it (if I had handled it as a reviewer or editor), please accept my thanks for stimulating ideas that I could use to help future writers. We learn from our mistakes, and I need to show readers real “mistakes” to learn from. I hope I helped with the reviews I wrote at the time.

When I take examples from my own work, it is because only then can I accu-rately explain the author’s thinking. When I use others’ work, I can assess what

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P R E FA C E xi

they did and why it worked or failed, but I can’t know why they made the choices they did. For proposals, I use my own extensively because I have access to them. Proposals aren’t published, so I can’t scan other fi elds to fi nd good examples, as I could for papers.

I have included examples from many scientifi c disciplines to illustrate that my approaches and perspectives are broad-based; the basic challenges and strategies of writing are similar across fi elds. Many, however, come from the environmental sciences, where I knew where to fi nd useful examples and where I felt that most readers would be able to understand enough of the content to have an easier time focusing on the writing.

EXERCISES AND PRACTICE

In most chapters, I include exercises to apply the concepts I discuss. I encourage you to work through these, ideally in small groups. Writers oft en have writer’s groups, where typically four to six people get together to work over each other’s material, discuss what works and what doesn’t, and suggest alternative ways of doing things. Th is process is helpful in developing successful writers — it provides insights from diff erent points of view that can stretch boundaries and off er new ideas. Analyzing others’ work can hone analytical skills. Groups also provide a supportive environment for learning, analogous to how a lab group helps you expand your research tools.

Th e exercises fall into several categories. Th e most important is the short arti-cle I ask you to write (and rewrite, and then rewrite again). I use this exercise in my writing class, and it is enormously successful, particularly when coupled with peer discussion and editing. Th e short form intensifi es the focus on the story as well on each paragraph and sentence.

Th e second important exercise is to analyze the writing in published papers. How did the authors tell their story? Did it work? Was it clear? How could you improve the writing? Th is, too, is best done in groups. Th ese papers don’t need to be the best writing in the fi eld — we can learn as much from imperfect writing as we do from excellent work. Th e rule in these discussions should be that you may not discuss the scientifi c content unless it is directly germane to evaluating the writing. Get in the habit of evaluating the writing in every paper you read or discuss — the more you sensitize yourself, the more those insights will diff use into your own writing.

Finally, there are editing exercises that target specifi c issues such as sentence structure, word use, and language. For those, I provide suggested answers at the back of the book. Remember, though, that there is never a single way to approach a writing problem; my answers are not the only approach and may not even be the best. In working examples in class, students oft en fi nd diff erent and better solu-tions than any I came up with.

If you really want to become a better writer, do the exercises. Work with your friends and colleagues on them. You only learn to write by writing, being

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xii P R E FA C E

edited, and rewriting. You must learn not just the principles but also how to apply them.

Th e point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s fi rst necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant fi nials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I always blame this book on Christina Kaiser and Hildegard Meyer, two graduate students at the University of Vienna. But the person really responsible, as she is for most of the best things in my life, is my wife, Gwen. We spent the summer of 2005 in Montpellier, France, at the Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive of the CNRS, hosted by Stefan Hättenschwiler and Giles Pinay; we took the opportunity to go to Vienna to visit Dr. Andreas Richter and his research group. Tina and Hildegard were chatting with Gwen and mentioned that they liked reading my papers because they were well written. Th at sparked Gwen to suggest I teach a workshop on writing for the lab group in France. Th e rest is history. So Tina and Hildegard, little may you realize the power of that off -hand comment, but you catalyzed this. Th ank you.

My thanks to Gwen are endless — not only did teaching writing come from her inspiration, but much of what I know about writing and how writers learn their craft comes from her. She supported and encouraged me through the years I’ve worked on this, and she has read through most of the book, providing valuable insights and feedback.

Th e other critical thread that led to my writing this book was becoming a 2006 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow. Not only was the Leopold program’s communi-cation training infl uential, but simply being a fellow helped motivate me to take what I had learned and make it available to the community.

Many of my colleagues have given me ideas, insights, quotes, and good stories about science and communication. Many of those comments were made in pass-ing and were not targeted at either writing or this book. You may not realize how sticky those ideas were, and you may not even remember saying them, but thank you. I have been privileged to work with as talented, insightful, and generous a group of friends and colleagues as I can imagine. I am grateful to you all for enriching my work and my life.

Many of those colleagues have reviewed my work over the years and forced me to develop my writing and thinking skills to get proposals funded and papers published. At the time, I may have complained about that “miserable know-nothing so-and-so,” and I once commented about a good friend who was the editor handling a paper that “If he accepts this version, I owe him a beer; if he

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xiv A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S

sends it back for more revision, I’m going to pour it on him.” I am, however, grate-ful to you all for holding my feet to the fi re and forcing me to make my work as good as it could be. It both built my scientifi c career and taught me how to write.

My Ph.D. advisor, Mary Firestone, taught me the most crucial lessons of how to frame the question and the story. When I was fi nishing my dissertation, she also edited my horrible, sleep-deprived writing into a form that was at least mini-mally acceptable and did so with grace and humor. She set me on this path.

Erika Engelhaupt gave me great suggestions and great text for chapter 20, “Writing for the Public.” Weixin Cheng provided valuable suggestions on chapter 19, “Writing Global Science.” Bruce Mahall and Carla D’Antonio, with whom I lead the Tuesday evening plant and ecosystem ecology seminar, have helped me deepen my insights into communication strategy. Carin Coulon drew the wonderful fi gure of the Roman god Janus that appears in chapter 13.

I owe great thanks to the U.S. National Science Foundation. Th e NSF is an extraordinary organization, due to the talent and dedication of its program offi -cers. Th e NSF has supported my work and helped me grow to reach the point where I could write this book.

Many people have participated in the workshops I’ve given on writing and in the graduate class I teach. Th is book grew from them, and in working through the lessons in person I have been able to polish them. Th ank you all.

I’ve worked on manuscripts with a number of graduate students and postdocs. Th ey helped me develop my own writing tools and my analytical understanding of those tools so I could teach them to others. Th e list is long and grows longer monthly: Jay Gulledge, Mitch Wagener, Joy Clein, Jeff Chambers, Mike Weintraub, Noah Fierer, Sophie Parker, Doug Dornelles, Shawna McMahan, Shinichi Asao, Izaya Numata, Ben Colman, Knut Kielland, Susan Sugai, Carl Mikan, Andy Allen, Michael LaMontagne, Amy Miller, Matt Wallenstein, Shurong Xiang, Dad Roux-Michollet, Sean Schaeff er, Claudia Boot, Mariah Carbone, and Yuan Ge. Particular thanks go to Shelly Cole for her generosity. Th anks also to all the other students whose dissertations and manuscripts I have read and edited while serving on your committees.

Finally, I would like to note two books that have greatly infl uenced my think-ing on writing and communication: Joseph Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace , and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick . Williams’s book is the best book on writing I have ever read, and I am deeply indebted to him for his insights, many of which I have assimilated into this book (fi ltered through my own experi-ences and focused on writing science). I cannot match his insights into the sophis-tication of the English language, so I recommend that you reread it regularly and give copies to your friends and students. Made to Stick isn’t ostensibly about writ-ing at all, and distinctly it isn’t about writing science. Rather, it focuses on adver-tising, marketing, and general communication. It is, however, a spectacularly insightful and fun discussion of what makes ideas engaging and “sticky,” a critical issue for scientists who want their work to get noticed from among the over-whelming fl ood of papers published every year.

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Writing Science

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As a scientist, you are a professional writer.

Success as a scientist is not simply a function of the quality of the ideas we hold in our heads, or of the data we hold in our hands, but also of the language we use to describe them. We all understand that “publish or perish” is real and dominates our professional lives. But “publish or perish” is about surviving, not succeeding. You don’t succeed as a scientist by getting papers published . You succeed as a sci-entist by getting them cited .

Having your work matter, matters. Success is defi ned not by the number of pages you have in print but by their infl uence. You succeed when your peers understand your work and use it to motivate their own. Th e importance of cita-tion and impact is why journals measure themselves by the Impact Factor and why the citation-based H-factor is becoming more important for evaluating indi-vidual researchers. If you have 10 publications that have each been cited 10 times, you have an H of 10; if you have 30 papers that have each been cited 30 times, you have an H of 30; but if you have published 100 papers and none have been cited, on the H-factor you would rate a fl at zero. Success, therefore, comes not from writing but from writing eff ectively.

1

Writing in Science

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4 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Th e power of writing well also explains a pattern I noticed as I was looking for examples to include in this book, a pattern I had only been unconsciously aware of before. When I needed examples of good writing, I could usually go to the lead-ers in various fi elds — most write exceptionally well. Th ey are able to cast their ideas in language that is clear and eff ective and that communicates to a wide audi-ence. Is this pattern accidental? I doubt it. Th ese men and women not only think more deeply and creatively than most of us, they also are able to communicate their thinking in ways that make it easy to assimilate. Th at is how they became leaders.

Your initial reaction to this observation may be to assume that these people think more clearly than most, and thus they write more clearly. Certainly they do both, but it is less obvious which way causality goes. Does clear thinking lead to clear writing? Or, alternatively, does clear writing lead to clear thinking? Th e answers to these questions may seem intuitive, but they are not.

I ask, fi nally, that you avoid one error of belief that is monstrously prevalent. Th is is the widespread notion that “to write clearly, you must fi rst think clearly.” Th is sharp little maxim may appear logical, but it is really rubbish. No matter how rational your thought may be (or appear to be) on a particu-lar problem, no matter how detailed your intentions and plottings, the act of writing will almost always prove rebellious, full of unforeseen diffi culties, sidetracks, blind alleys, revelations. Good, clear writing — writing that teaches and informs without confusion — emerges from a process of struggle, or if you prefer, litigation.

Most oft en, the terms of the formula given above need to be reversed: “clear thinking can emerge from clear writing.” Imposing order by organiz-ing and expressing ideas has great power to clarify. In many cases, writing is the process through which scientists come to understand the real form and implications of their work.

Scott Montgomery. Th e Chicago Guide to Communicating Science 1

I agree with Montgomery. Oft en, the process of structuring your thoughts to communicate them allows you to test and refi ne those thoughts. As you focus on writing clearly, you force yourself to think more clearly. Improving your writing will help you become successful, both because it allows you to communicate your ideas more eff ectively, making them accessible to the widest audience, and also because it makes your thinking, and thus your science, better.

Th is brings me back to my original argument — as a scientist, you are a profes-sional writer. Writing is as important a tool in your toolbox as molecular biology, chemical analysis, statistics, or other purely “scientifi c” tools. Some of these tools allow us to generate data; others to analyze and communicate results. Writing is the most important of the latter. Because it forms the bridge to your audience,

1. S. L. Montgomery, Th e Chicago Guide to Communicating Science (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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Writing in Science 5

it can act as the rate-limiting step that constrains the eff ectiveness of all the other tools.

Despite the importance of writing, however, for most scientists it is something we do post hoc. Aft er we get the data, we “write up” the paper. Th is is an unfortu-nate approach. Because writing is a critical tool, you should study it and develop it as thoroughly as your other tools. Writing is as complex and subtle as molecular biology.

I wish I had a secret I could let you in on, some formula my father passed on to me in a whisper just before he died, some code word that has enabled me to sit at my desk and land fl ights of creative inspiration like an air-traffi c con-troller. But I don’t. All I know is that the process is pretty much the same for almost everyone I know. Th e good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.

But the bad news is that if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably read over what you’ve written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your fi rst draft s are.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 2

Even the most successful writers struggle with writing. It is actually easier for us as scientist writers because as readers, our expectations are low and we want the information — we’ll fi ght through cluttered sentences and disconnected para-graphs to try to get it. But if readers have to fi ght that fi ght, some will lose, and then you, the author, will be the greater loser. How many papers are so brilliant, so earth-shattering, so discipline-changing that if you don’t read and assimilate them, your research will be blighted and your career will suff er? Do you need more than the fi ngers on one hand to count them? Most of us never write one. Rather, we build our careers incrementally — our peers read our papers and use our ideas; the more papers we publish and the more they are used, the more suc-cessful we are. But our work gets read and cited because we made our points well enough that readers could follow what we were saying. Our proposals are funded because we were able to make our ideas clear, compelling, and convincing to reviewers. Our success, then, comes from our ability to communicate our ideas as much as from their inherent quality. As the author, therefore, your job is to make the reader’s job easy.

Th at last point may be the overriding principle that all the others in this book grow out of, so let me repeat it, louder. It is the author’s job to make the reader’s job easy.

Despite the importance of writing eff ectively, many respected scientists are at best only competent writers, and we could all be better. Yet most books on science writing take a technical approach to preparing a manuscript, focusing on basic

2. A. Lamott, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1994).

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6 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

information such as how to structure a paper, whether to use fi gures or tables, and how to manage the process of submitting a paper and dealing with editors and reviewers. Th ose books are more about publishing than about writing; they treat writing as something a scientist does .

I take a diff erent approach — treating being a writer as something a scientist is . Th at distinction may appear subtle, but it is profound. If writing is merely some-thing you do, like washing the glassware aft er an experiment — a perhaps unpleas-ant aft erthought — you will never be a successful writer. You will not invest in sharpening your tools or expanding your toolbox; you may not be aware that you even have a “writing toolbox.” Th at changes when you recognize that you are a writer and accept it as your profession. Professionals pay attention to their craft , study it, analyze the work of peers to learn from them, develop new tools, and experiment with new approaches. Th ey grow in their ability to perform with style and power, whether that be to create wooden chairs, legal arguments, life-saving surgeries, or scientifi c papers that become classics. If you want your writing to be eff ective, become a writer.

Th is book is unapologetically on the craft of writing — communicating through the written word. I won’t tell you how to put together a fi gure, how to assemble a bibliography, or how to decide where to submit the paper. Th ere are excellent books that cover that material, and I intend this book to complement rather than replace them. Instead, I target scientists — from students to working professionals — who are ready to go beyond the basics and become writers.

While focusing on the specifi c issues we face as scientists in producing papers and proposals, I approach the challenge of technical writing from the perspective of a writer, thinking about the issues the way professional writers do. Th us, a large part of the book is about story and story structure — how you lay out issues, argu-ments, and conclusions in a coherent way. If you can’t deal with the big issues, the small ones don’t matter very much. Good tactics never overcome bad strategy. Th en I move on to fi ner scales, from overall story structure through paragraphs and sentences to how we choose individual words. Th e fi nal section covers spe-cifi c challenges that arise in diff erent types of science writing.

1.1. WRITING VERSUS REWRITING

One thing to keep in mind as you read this book and apply the ideas to your own work is that this is really a book about rewriting, not writing. Every single thing I tell you not to do, I do in my fi rst draft s — I may do them less than I used to, but I still do them. First draft s, though, don’t matter; no one else sees them. Trying to get a fi rst draft perfect can be paralyzing, a phenomenon well recognized by the best writers on writing.

A warning: if you think about these principles as you draft , you may never draft anything. Most experienced writers get something down on paper or up on the screen as fast as they can, just to have something to revise. Th en as

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Writing in Science 7

they rewrite an earlier draft into something clearer, they more clearly under-stand their ideas. And when they understand their ideas better; they express them more clearly, and when they express them more clearly, they understand them even better . . . and so it goes, until they run out of energy, interest, or time.

Joseph Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace 3

Rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out the professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well 4

Th e last word on rewriting comes from Anne Lamott, who addresses it with humor and insight:

sh*tty First Draft s. All good writers write them. Th at is how they end up with good second draft s and terrifi c third draft s.

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confi dent. Not one of them writes elegant fi rst draft s. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Unfortunately, this quote highlights just how wonderful a writer Lamott is — her third draft s are terrifi c. When I fi nish a paper, there are usually 10 or 20 draft s cluttering up my computer, and I only think the last one is terrifi c until I reread it later. Rereading things I’ve written is oft en painful; imperfections glow like neon signs, leaving me to wonder how I ever managed to miss them in the fi rst place.

Writing can be a painful process of rewriting, rewriting, and more rewriting until your work gets good enough to send off . An artist never completes a work — they merely let it go. Th is rewriting cycle develops both your writing and your thinking, moving both toward clarity and power. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! How do you get an award letter from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health? Polish, polish, polish! If you are going to be a successful writer, learn to embrace the pain and enjoy the process.

3. J. M. Williams, Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Longman, 2005).

4. W. Zinsser, On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 1976).

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A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. — Raymond Chandler

Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of the extraordinary book on climate change Field Notes from a Catastrophe , once said that the problem she has with scientists is that we don’t tell stories. Th at statement bothered me, because we do. If we didn’t tell stories, we would write papers with only Methods and Results; we could skip the Introduction and Discussion. We also wouldn’t read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species ; instead, we would read his notebooks and get the raw data.

But, we do write papers with an Introduction and a Discussion, and we do read Origin of Species . A paper doesn’t only present our data — it also interprets them. A paper tells a story about nature and how it works; it builds the story from the data but the data are not the story. Th e papers that get cited the most and the pro-posals that get funded are those that tell the most compelling stories.

Somehow, though, our kind of storytelling didn’t connect with Kolbert; in fact, it connected so poorly that she didn’t recognize our stories as stories. Why? I sus-pect three reasons for this. First, scientists tell stories using a formalized structure that doesn’t match well with that used by journalists. Our stories get lost in the struggle of cross-cultural communication. Second, many of us are poor

2

Science Writing as Storytelling

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Science Writing as Storytelling 9

storytellers; either we don’t see the story clearly or we just can’t tell it clearly. Finally, some (perhaps most) scientists are uncomfortable with thinking about what we do as “telling stories.” Many associate the idea of “stories” with fi ction. Scientists are supposed to be objective and dispassionate. Arguing that you are writing a story may seem to suggest that you have left that objectivity behind and with it, your professionalism. Rather, many scientists feel that their job is simply to “present their work,” and so do a poor job of highlighting the story. Th e result is that even an outstanding journalist who spends a lot of time talking with scien-tists doesn’t recognize that we are telling stories.

Th at lack of recognition raises several issues that scientists should consider. Th e fi rst is the formalism of how we write papers and proposals. I won’t argue that we should change how we structure these documents; they serve our needs to communicate among ourselves. (Th e phenomenon that they don’t communicate well to the rest of the world is a diff erent concern.) Th e second issue is how to become better storytellers and better communicators. Th at is something we can all work on.

Th e fi nal issue is more complex. Is seeing science writing as storytelling profes-sional or not? Journalists are also supposed to be objective and dispassionate (and the best ones are), yet their entire discipline is grounded in the concept of “story.” So there is nothing inherently unobjective or unprofessional in the idea of story-telling. To tell a good story in science, you must assess your data and evaluate the possible explanations — which are most consistent with existing knowledge and theory? Th e story grows organically from the data and is objective, dispassionate, and fully professional. Where you run into problems is when the authors know the story they want to tell before they collect the data and then try to jam those data into that framework. Anne Lamott captures this conundrum well. Although she was discussing fi ction, her advice applies equally to science.

Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens?”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Lamott highlights the importance of listening to your characters to draw the story out of them, rather than imposing it on them. How do we, as scientists, take this advice? Do we even have “characters” to listen to? Of course we do. Our char-acters, however, aren’t people; instead, they may be molecules, organisms, ecosys-tems, or concepts. Nitrogen cycling in the arctic tundra, benzene and its reactions, or genes and their functions can be characters that we “listen to” by carefully ana-lyzing our data with an open mind. Th en we can develop these characters in a paper as we discuss them and what makes them tick.

Kolbert’s diffi culty with understanding our stories raises the social imperative of our becoming better storytellers. As science has moved from esoteric,

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10 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

ivory-tower natural philosophy to something that directly aff ects the lives and well-being of the public, our inability to communicate has grown into a crisis. Science is oft en ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented in the public arena and in policy decisions, a phenomenon many of us bemoan. How can we solve problems as serious as global warming or cancer without basing the solutions on the best available science? Ensuring that science is used properly requires more than just presenting facts to decision makers. Unfortunately, our approach to communicating to them is oft en analogous to traveling overseas and speaking louder when the locals don’t understand English. Going to Washington, D.C. and speaking loudly to the locals in “science” is about as successful — it doesn’t get our point across, and it makes us seem arrogant, a good way to get dismissed. Our inability to communicate outside the narrow confi nes of our specializations undermines our ability to infl uence policy and to generate new sources of fund-ing. We don’t have to become science popularizers like Stephen Jay Gould or Carl Sagan, we just have to become better storytellers. Doing so will make us more eff ective with each other, with our professional translators (science journalists like Kolbert), with policy makers, and with the public.

2.1. F INDING THE STORY

Th e distinction between presenting results and telling a story embodies a chal-lenge for many when writing papers. If you believe that writing a paper is about presenting results, then it would seem reasonable to outline everything you did and then say something about it. But somewhere in that mass of data is a story trying to come out. Find it, and give it to us.

In looking for the story, remember that when we do science, we get data from the mass spectrometer, the DNA sequencer, or the telescope, but our ultimate goal is not those data –it is the understanding we derive from them. In the discovery of the structure of DNA and the molecular basis for heredity, it wasn’t Rosalind Franklin’s Photo 51, 1 the critical X-ray diff raction image of DNA (fi gure 2.1a ) that gained fame but the sketch of the molecular structure of DNA that Francis Watson and James Crick built from it (fi gure 2.1b ). 2 Franklin’s lack of credit for her role in the discovery has created controversy over the years because there can be no story without the underlying data, but that controversy is a separate issue. My point is that raw data have limited direct value and are usually interpretable by only a small group of experts — Photo 51 means nothing to me beyond its role as a his-torical artifact. Th e double helix model of DNA, however, I understand. It is inter-pretable by many and is at the core of the work of thousands of scientists spanning from medicine to soil microbiology. Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking paper

1. R. E. Franklin and R. G. Gosling, “Molecular Confi guration in Sodium Th ymonucleate,” Nature 171 (1953): 740–41.

2. J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids — A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature 171 (1953): 737–38.

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Science Writing as Storytelling 11

had power because they used the data to tell a story about nature and how it works, developing an intellectual model of DNA structure and what that implies for heredity. We look for and value such insights and understanding.

Th e role of scientists is to collect data and transform them into understanding. Th eir role as authors is to present that understanding. However, going from data to understanding is a multi-step process (fi gure 2.2 ). Th e raw data that come from an instrument need to be converted into information, which is then transformed into knowledge, which in turn is synthesized and used to produce understanding. In the case of DNA, Photo 51 was data — an image of X-ray scattering. Franklin used that data to produce actual, critical information on the atomic structure of crystallized DNA. Watson and Crick used that information to produce knowledge — the double helix structure. Th e last step is understanding — taking that knowledge about the molecule’s structure to explain how it allows cell replica-tion and heredity.

Th e further along the path from data to understanding you can take your work and your papers, the more people will be able to assimilate your contributions and use them to motivate their own work and ideas — and that should be your goal. If you don’t provide understanding (or at least knowledge) readers will be left searching for it. Th e data are supporting actors in the story you tell. Th e lead actors are the questions and the larger issues you are addressing. Th e story grows from the data, but the data are not the story.

Th is recognition leads to a process that I think is critical to developing good stories and writing good papers, a process that hearkens back to Lamott’s

Data Information Knowledge Understanding

Figure 2.2. Th e fl ow of science, from data to understanding.

A. Photo 51B. Model of

DNA

Figure 2.1. Photo 51, Rosalind Franklin’s critical X-ray diff raction image of crystallized DNA and the simple model of its structure developed by James Watson and Francis Crick. Both images © 1953, Nature Publishing Group, reprinted with permission.

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12 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

comments about listening to your characters: develop your story from the bottom up, then tell it from the top down. Start with the data, think about them, listen for the story they are trying to tell, and fi nd that story. Don’t listen just to your char-acters’ loud proclamations, though; listen also to their quiet, uncertain mutter-ings. What might that shoulder on the spectrum mean? If that nonsignifi cant treatment eff ect were real, what would that say about your system? Is that outlier a fl ag for something you hadn’t thought about but may be important? Overinterpret your data wildly, and consider what they might mean at those farthest fringes. Explore the possibilities and develop the story expansively. Th en, take Occam’s razor and slash away to fi nd the simple core.

Why go through this “elaborate and slash” process? Isn’t elaborating a waste of time if you’re going to come back to a simple story in the end? Why not start there? Well, if you start with the fi rst simple story that comes to mind, you are probably imposing plot onto your characters and falling into the trap Lamott describes. Only by exploring the boundaries and limits of your data can you fi nd the important story.

Th e power of the exploring the fringes is well illustrated by Bill Dietrich’s grad-uate research. Dietrich is now a professor of geomorphology at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. For his doctorate, he worked on how hill slope steepness controlled soil depth in the Pacifi c Northwest. Most of the data fi t a nice tight relationship (fi gure 2.3 ), which made a perfectly good story. 3 But there were outliers where soils were much deeper than they “should” be. He could have ignored them and focused on the main story. He didn’t. He looked at the deep soils and what created them; he found that along a hill slope, the bedrock is uneven and in places forms hollow “wedges” (fi gure 2.3 ). Over time, those wedges fi ll up with debris and soil. Once fi lled, they aren’t obvious on the landscape, but woe to the person who buys a house below one — in a heavy rainstorm, they can fl ush out, creating lethal mud fl ows. Evaluating the processes that fi ll and fl ush these wedges became a focus of Dietrich’s early research career. Because he listened to his characters carefully, recognized that the most important story wasn’t in the average but in the outliers, and then explored those outliers, he came up with more novel, exciting, and important science.

Learning to explore the fringes of your data, however, can be diffi cult and frus-trating. When I was a graduate student, I would sometimes go to my advisor, Mary Firestone, with what I thought was a simple question. Th en we might spend weeks discussing issues that wandered all over the intellectual map and didn’t appear to fi t on the straight road from my question to the answer. Many of the issues Mary raised seemed irrelevant and extraneous. What on Earth did the kinetics of bacterial glutamine synthetase have to do with my data on how plant roots compete against microorganisms for available nitrate in the soil? Over the years I worked with her, I came to understand what we were really doing in those conversations. Mary saw more of the system and how it fi t together than

3. W. E. Dietrich and T. Dunne, “Sediment Budget for a Small Catchment in Mountainous Terrain,” Zeitschrift für Geomorphology Suppl. Bd. 29 (1978): 191–206.

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Science Writing as Storytelling 13

I did; she was teaching me how to do good science. She was exploring the issues to deepen our thinking, to ensure we found the story that tied together the sometimes apparently contradictory data, and to identify issues that might trip us up later. Th ough not always easy, it was an important lesson, one I remain grateful for.

So listen to your characters carefully — take the time to hear what they have to say and fi gure out what they mean. Fight the pressure to publish prematurely. One good paper can launch a career; many mediocre ones build a rather diff erent one. Th ink well, write well, and then think some more while you write. Let the story grow from the data and then structure the paper to tell that story.

When we recognize that writing a paper is writing a story, it raises the obvious point that we can become better storytellers, better writers, and better scientists

00

1.0

2.0

3.0

4.0

10 20

Hillslope angle(Degrees)

Ver

tical

soi

l thi

ckne

ss(M

eter

s)

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5

6

Meters

Met

ers

30 40 50

++

+

+

xx

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x x

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Figure 2.3. Th e top fi gure illustrates the relationship between hill steepness and soil depth in the U.S. Pacifi c Northwest; the bottom fi gure illustrates a cross-section through a wedge. Redrawn from Dietrich and Dunne (1978). Copyright © 1978, E. Schweizerbart Science Publishers. www.borntraeger-cramer.de . Reprinted with permission.

www.borntraeger-cramer.de

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14 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

by studying what makes a good story, how other writers do it, and how to apply those ideas to science. We can communicate more eff ectively while remaining rigorously professional.

Th ere are three aspects to eff ective storytelling. Th e fi rst is content — what makes a story engage and stay with us? Th e second is structure — how do you put together that content to make it easy for us to get? Th e third is language — how do you write the story in the most compelling way possible? Th is book is about these three issues.

EXERCISES

2.1. Analyze published papers

Pick several papers from the primary literature. You will come back to these, chapter aft er chapter. I suggest you pick:

A paper from a specialist journal written by a leader recognized as a strong writer.

A “normal” paper from a specialist journal. A review or synthesis paper. A paper from Nature or Science or some journal that targets a broad

audience. Identify what you think the key story points are. Did the authors do good

job of highlighting that story? How far along the fl ow from data to understanding did the paper go? Could they have taken it further?

2.2. Write a short article

Step . Identify the Key Story Points for your Work. (Th is is adapted from an exercise developed Ruth Yanai at SUNY-ESF. 4 ) For each question, write a short paragraph — no more than two to three sentences. Th ese identify the essential story elements.

1. What is your opening? Th is should identify the larger problem to which you are contributing, give readers a sense of the direction your paper is going, and make it clear why it is important. It should engage the widest audience practical.

2. What is your specifi c question or hypothesis? 3. What are the key results of your work? Identify these in a short list. Th ere

should be no more than two to three points.

4. She credits it to Bill Graves, Dick Gladon, and Mike Kelly at Iowa State University.

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Science Writing as Storytelling 15

4. What is your main conclusion? What did you learn about nature? Th is should use the results from section 3 to answer the question from 2, and should address the larger problem identifi ed in 1.

Step . Write the Article. Write a short article describing your research. Your target audience is scientists who are not specialists in your discipline. You are trying to tell the story of your work and engage and educate your readers, not write a technical paper. Th e tone can range between somewhat technical and more casual, but it must be something that technical readers would fi nd interesting. Use your answers from step 1 to frame the story you write in this part of the exercise.

Th e word limit is strict: 800–850 words.

Step . Analyze your writing. Circulate your articles among your writers’ group (a group of three to four people seems ideal for this). Analyze and edit each other’s work. Th en discuss the articles. Ask and answer the following questions:

1. What did the author do well? (It’s always good to start positive.) 2. Was the topic interesting? Was it cast at the right level and hit the right

audience? Could you have rewritten it to engage a wider audience? Did it make you want to read the rest of the piece?

3. Was the specifi c question clear? 4. Were the results clear? Did they relate to the topic and the specifi c

question? 5. Were the Conclusions true conclusions , or were they merely a restatement

of the results? Did they relate to the large issues raised in the opening? Did they answer the specifi c question asked? Did they clearly grow from the results presented in the piece?

6. What did you get as the “take-home” message of the story? Do you believe that this was the message the author was trying to give you?

7. Was the writing clear? If not, can you fi gure out why and identify ways to make it clearer?

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A sticky idea is an idea that is more likely to make a diff erence. — Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Th ere are many ways to evaluate whether a story works, but perhaps the best is to ask, “How long aft er you read it do you remember it?” Some stories are riveting while you read but are gone as soon as you close the book. Perfect airplane reading. Others may stay with you for your entire life and be passed on to your children. Some are so powerful that they have lasted intact from the dawn of civilization.

Although nothing in science competes with the Iliad or the Odyssey , Darwin is still up there with his contemporaries Dickens and Dumas. Really good papers may be read and cited for years and decades. One of the nicest compliments I ever heard was someone saying a colleague wrote papers with “legs” — they stood the test of time, remaining interesting and relevant.

How do we write papers with legs — papers with immediate impact but that still accrue citations for years? In their book, Made to Stick , 1 Chip and Dan Heath frame this question as “What makes an idea ‘sticky?” Why do some ideas stay

1. C. Heath and D. Heath, Made to Stick (Random House, 2007).

3

Making a Story Sticky

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Making a Story Sticky 17

with you while others are eminently forgettable? Heath and Heath identify six fac-tors that make an idea sticky and organize them in a simple mnemonic: SUCCES.

S: Simple U: Unexpected C: Concrete C: Credible E: Emotional S: Stories

I go over these factors briefl y here and come back to them repeatedly through the book. Th ey are fundamental to good storytelling and thus to good science writing.

3.1. SIMPLE

Ideas that stick tend to be simple . A simple idea contains the core essence of an important idea in a clear compact way. Simple ideas have power.

During the U.S. Civil War, one of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest challenges was dealing with antiwar Democrats, and in 1863 he faced a crisis. A leader of this faction, Clement Vallandigham, was preaching against the draft and encouraging soldiers to desert, undermining the war eff ort. He was arrested for treason, tried, and sentenced to prison. Th e fallout was furious. Was Lincoln using executive power to shut down the political opposition? Was Vallandigham just exercising his freedom of speech? Th e arguments were complex and impassioned. Lincoln cut through them all with a single question: “Must I shoot a simple-minded sol-dier boy who deserts, while I must not touch the hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”

Th at question collapsed the complex legal and political arguments into a simple moral dilemma that people could understand and sympathize with. It made the innocent victim not Vallandigham but the soldier who listened to him and might pay the ultimate price for doing so. By framing the controversy in a simple, clear way, Lincoln refocused it and then shut it down. Bill Clinton was elected president on an even simpler message: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It is important, however, to distinguish simple messages that capture the essence of an issue from those that are just “simplistic.” Simplistic messages are dumbed down, trivialize the issue, or dodge the core of the problem, rather than targeting it. Many political slogans are simplistic; for example, “you pay too much in taxes” is catchy, appealing, and might even be true, but it ignores the underlying issues of what services those taxes pay for, whether you want or need them, and whether they provide good value for your money. Rather than condensing complex arguments about the balance of costs versus services, it avoids them — hence not simple, but simplistic.

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18 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Most science is driven by simple ideas. Frequently, the simpler an idea is at its core, the larger its swath of infl uence. Biology, for example, is driven by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Natural selection — fi t organisms survive and pass on their genes while unfi t ones don’t — is a very simple idea, yet it con-tains great power for explaining nature and vast potential for study.

Other fi elds are equally driven by simple ideas. Modern geology, for example, is driven by the concept of plate tectonics, which explains the shape of the global landmasses, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, and the long-term geochemistry of our planet. Organic chemistry is driven by atomic orbital theory and the idea of hybrid orbitals, which explain the structure and reactivity of organic molecules. Molecular biology is driven by the double helix of DNA and the genetic code.

Th ese simple ideas don’t explain the details and fi ne fabric of natural systems, but they do provide a large structure on which more complex dynamics elaborate. A colleague of mine once said, “I have to make things simplistic enough that I can understand them.” In his humble way, what he meant was that he looks for the simple explanation that captures the essence of a problem, which allows the rest of us to apply those insights to our own systems. His ability to do this is why he was elected into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

A simple idea, therefore, is one that fi nds the core of the problem. It takes no special talent to see the complex in the complex. Cutting through the clutter to see the simple in the complex is what distinguishes great scientists from the merely competent.

Th ere are diff erent ways to fi nd and express a simple message. For some it would be an equation; for others, a verbal description. I have always felt that I don’t understand something until I can draw a cartoon to explain it. A simple diagram or model — the clearer the picture, the better. For example, the most highly cited paper I have written was a synthesis that developed a new hypothesis about how the physical structure of soil regulates how microorganisms use nitro-gen, and thus controls the nitrogen forms available to plants. 2 Th e essence of the paper is a cartoon illustrating these interactions among chemicals, organisms, and spatial patches in the soil (fi gure 3.1 ). It wasn’t until I read Heath and Heath, though, that I realized that I was searching for the simple explanation, but being a visual person, I look for it in a picture.

A contrasting example, highlighting the diff erence between simple and sim-plistic, is another paper I published evaluating the eff ect of freeze-thaw cycles on microbial respiration in arctic tundra soils. 3 In some soils, freeze-thaw cycles increased respiration relative to a control, whereas in others they decreased it. Initially we didn’t see any pattern as to which soils respired more versus less; that inconsistency was the simple story in the fi rst submitted version of the paper. Th e reviewers, however, thought that was simplistic and said so in no uncertain terms.

2. J.P. Schimel and J. Bennett, “Nitrogen Mineralization: Challenges of a Changing Paradigm,” Ecology 85 (2004): 591–602.

3. J.P. Schimel and J.S. Clein, “Microbial Response to Freeze-Th aw Cycles in Tundra and Taiga Soils,” Soil Biology and Biochemistry 28 (1996): 1061–66.

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Making a Story Sticky 19

Case C: N rich sites mineralizeN poor sites meet needs

microbes

Case D: N meets biotic needsnitrification dominates

protein

microbes

Case A: amino acids are used-notmineralized

protein

microbes

microbes

Case B: N rich sites mineralizeN poor sites immobilize

Relatively N richmicrosite

Relatively N poormicrosite

protein

protein protein

aminoacids

aminoacids

aminoacids

microbes

NO−3 microbes

NH +4

Relatively N poormicrosite

Relatively N richmicrosite

aminoacids

protein

aminoacids

microbes

NO−3

NH +4

protein

aminoacids

microbes

NO−3

NH +4

Relatively N richmicrosite

Relatively N poormicrosite

aminoacidsRelatively N rich

microsite Relatively N poormicrosite

protein

aminoacids

Figure 3.1. Changing patterns of N-fl ow in soil as N-availability increases. From Schimel and Bennett (2004). Copyright © 2004 Ecological Society of America. Reprinted with permission.

Th ey were right. I hadn’t taken Anne Lamott’s advice and listened to my charac-ters carefully enough. We went back and banged our heads for several weeks trying to fi nd the truly simple story in the data. Was there a coherent pattern underlying the apparent inconsistency? Th ere was — in rich soils, freeze-thaw cycles reduced respiration, whereas in poor soils they enhanced it, a pattern that suggested possible mechanisms and insights to test in future research. It was one of those “what an idiot!” moments, where something suddenly becomes clear, and you wonder how on Earth you could have missed it before. Th at paper has been cited over 100 times, largely because the reviewers held our feet to the fi re to do a better job of fi nding the simple story in the complex data. Th at isn’t the only case where I owe reviewers thanks for criticizing me for not having done a good enough job on data analysis or story development. Of course, it’s better when reviewers hang tough than when they are “nice” and let you publish less-than-perfect work. Th e pain of an embarrassing review lasts a few days, the pain of an embarrassing paper lasts a lifetime.

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20 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

3.1.1. Simple Language: Schemas

Part of being simple is expressing your thoughts in language that builds off ideas that your readers already know. Heath and Heath borrow the term schema from psychology to identify ideas we bring with us to a problem. Lincoln used the images of “simple-minded soldier boy” and “wily agitator” — you can immedi-ately fl ash mental pictures of those characters.

Why are schemas so important to create messages that feel simple? Th ey are how people learn; we start with existing schemas and then attach new information to develop new, more sophisticated ones. It’s hard to learn new material when you can’t fi t it into an existing intellectual structure — in that case, you need to build the new structure from the ground up. For example, if you were describing how alligator meat tastes, you might say:

It’s a light-colored, fi nely textured meat, with very little fat. It cuts easily and is moist if not overcooked. Th e fl avor is mild.

Or you could say:

It tastes like chicken, but a little meatier.

Th e fi rst explanation describes the individual traits of alligator, but that some-how misses the point — it doesn’t make it evocative. Th e second grounds this new idea fi rmly in one you probably know well: the taste of chicken. Alligator meat may not taste exactly like chicken, but this explanation gets you most of the way there.

Th e idea of schemas and how they relate to learning is why university science curricula are structured as they are — fi rst-year inorganic chemistry introduces the idea of electron orbitals as energy bands that electrons can jump between. Second-year organic chemistry modifi es that schema to introduce the idea of hybrid orbitals and resonance structures. Th ird-year physical chemistry takes this further, introducing the Schrödinger equation, which treats orbitals as probabilis-tic distributions of electrons. Similarly, in molecular biology we start with the simple transcription/translation model of DNA !RNA! protein, and the idea of one gene/one product. Only aft er establishing those schemas do we start intro-ducing ideas such as post-translational modifi cation of proteins and overlapping reading frames (a single stretch of DNA may actually be part of two separate genes). Each step takes a simple schema and modifi es it, making it increasingly elaborate and nuanced.

Th is sequential approach means that we usually start with an explanation that to an expert may seem horribly simplifi ed or just plain wrong. A physical chemist knows that the way we explain reactions in freshman chemistry is a ghastly mis-representation of how the systems truly work. However, you don’t teach someone to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool and describing how to do the butterfl y. You have to start simple and work up to it. You establish schemas and

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Making a Story Sticky 21

then expand and modify them. Building off established schemas makes ideas feel simple.

To communicate eff ectively in science, we need to know what schemas our audience holds so we can build from them. If we assume readers hold schemas they don’t, we write above their knowledge level and confuse them, whereas if we explain schemas they do hold, they may feel that we are writing below them.

Because schemas are our core ideas, we oft en take them for granted. We think and write based on the schemas we and our closest colleagues hold, limiting the reach of our writing to a narrow community. Succeeding widely, however, requires reaching a broader audience, so when you use ideas and terms, stop and think about whether they relate to schemas held by the target audience. If not, don’t be afraid to redefi ne your ideas in simpler terms and more broadly held schemas.

3.2. UNEXPECTED

Why is being unexpected important in telling a good story? Well, any paper that just presents another data set showing things we already knew, that presents a slight variation on an existing method, or that merely reinforces dogma is going to be forgettable. Most papers (even solid ones), are forgettable, because they are incremental, fi lling in gaps and providing additional facts that solidify a platform for launching new ideas. Incremental science can be important, but really good papers go beyond incremental to novel — they say something new and unexpected.

Novelty and unexpectedness lie in the questions you ask and the interpreta-tions you develop. Th ere are no areas of science where there aren’t new questions to be asked (physicists have occasionally thought so but learned better). Few data sets don’t provide the opportunity to develop new insights. Conversely, few data sets are so imbued with novelty that you can’t use them to tell a boring and unin-sightful story. Your job is to fi nd what is novel and highlight the unexpected elements. Frame new questions and look for new insights. Make them clear in your writing.

In science, the key to highlighting the unexpected is through the knowledge gap theory of curiosity described by Heath and Heath. Th ere is undoubtedly an enormous mass of knowledge on your overall topic, but your work should identify the unknown within that mass. By highlighting that unknown, identifying igno-rance in the midst of knowledge, you create unexpectedness and engage a reader’s curiosity.

We all work on big questions that have been around for years or decades, and we do good science by identifying new aspects of those questions — pieces that, if we accomplish them, will make progress on the bigger questions. Th e knowledge gaps we identify may be small, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant. Science doesn’t advance by great leaps but by many small steps, each of which

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22 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

makes its own contribution. In any event, it is better to write about a small knowl-edge gap than about no knowledge gap at all.

Unfortunately, highlighting the unknown is oft en diffi cult for us. We’re scientists — we know a lot, and we like to show off what we know. Particularly for junior authors, who may not be comfortable with how much they know, and how much they don’t, it can feel important to show off their knowledge. But showing off knowledge doesn’t create curiosity. Rather, in the words of Heath and Heath, “Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize they need them.” We make a good story by identifying the knowledge gap we will fi ll.

You frame a knowledge gap by using what is known to identify the boundaries of that knowledge. It’s like framing a window — build the structure to support the area you will fi ll in. Identifying a knowledge gap creates curiosity. Filling that gap creates novelty.

3.3. CONCRETE

If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specifi c, defi nite, and concrete.

— Strunk and White, Th e Elements of Style

As an example of the power of being concrete, I’ll go back to Bill Clinton and “it’s the economy, stupid.” Th at is a concrete way of expressing a classic maxim in politics: you must stay focused. Anytime Clinton found himself being drawn into other interesting directions, the rude bluntness of “it’s the economy, stupid” helped pull him back to his core message. Simple has power, but concrete adds mass to that power. A balloon is simple, but you notice more when you get hit in the head by a brick.

Th e importance of being concrete might seem an obvious and inherent characteristic of writing science. Aft er all, science is about data, and data are con-crete. But science is also about ideas, and ideas are abstractions — the antithesis of concrete.

Science lives with this tension between concrete data and abstract ideas. We even use the abstractions to make sense out of the concrete. Th e world is too com-plex to understand in all its detail, so we create abstractions — models and theo-ries — to shape the complexity into structures simple enough for us to understand. In fact, being able to convert the concrete into the abstract is part of what makes someone an expert. For a novice, a specifi c detail is a concrete thing on its own. For an expert, it is an example of a broader set. Th e more we learn, the more we are able to think about a topic at a higher level of abstraction. We can get so caught up in those abstractions that it is easy to forget the concrete blocks we built them from. I struggled as a teaching assistant in introductory chemistry — I had forgot-ten the simple explanations my teachers had used to build concepts I took for granted, concepts like mole, valence, and stoichiometry.

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Making a Story Sticky 23

Abstract and concrete, however, are not a dichotomy but a continuum, what Roy Peter Clark describes as the “Ladder of Abstraction.” 4 At the top of the ladder are the widest abstractions — the simple ideas that motivate science and are broadly understandable: survival of the fi ttest, plate tectonics, and so on. At the bottom are the physical facts — the actual data we collect. Both of these are tractable for most readers.

Th e danger zone is in the middle — small-scale abstractions that are neither concrete details nor high-level schemas. Th is middle zone is inhabited by the con-cepts that are the bread and butter of scientifi c discourse, schemas that are typi-cally held only by experts. Evolutionists don’t spend their time discussing survival of the fi ttest — that is taken for granted. Rather, they write papers about sexual selection, Hardy-Weinberg equilibria, and genetic drift . Molecular biologists don’t write papers about the double-helix model but about knockout mutations, ribozymes, and transcriptional silencers. When environmental engineers talk about “multimedia modeling,” they don’t mean audio and video but soil and water. Th ese middle-level concepts are what outsiders consider jargon.

Scientists are drawn to the middle of the ladder of abstraction and as a result, we oft en write papers that are accessible to only a limited group of readers. You can’t avoid the middle rungs, but you can minimize the damage — you can ground and defi ne your specifi c concepts either in widely understood schemas or in the details that explain the abstractions. I discuss how to do this later in the book (particularly in chapters 11 and 14).

To illustrate the idea of grounding concepts in the concrete, consider my ear-lier discussion of the fl ow from data through information and knowledge to understanding. Would that section have made sense without the example of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the separate roles of Franklin versus Watson and Crick? By linking a concept to a concrete example, the concept itself becomes concrete — a new schema you can work with.

3.4. CREDIBLE

Science writing that isn’t credible is science fi ction. Credibility goes hand in hand with being concrete. We establish the credibility of our ideas by grounding them in previous work and citing those sources. We establish the credibility of our data by describing our methods, presenting the data clearly, and using appropriate sta-tistics. We establish the credibility of our conclusions by showing that they grow from those credible data. We build a chain that extends from past work into future directions. A break anywhere in that chain makes the whole endeavour lose credibility.

I recently reviewed a proposal, and aft er reading the introduction, I was pre-pared to hate the whole thing. Th e ideas had potential, but instead of fl eshing them out, the authors loaded them up with boldface, buzzwords, and hype. I was

4. R. P. Clark, Writing Tools (Little, Brown, 2006).

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24 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

sure that with that much lipstick, the proposal had to be a pig. It wasn’t concrete, and as a result it wasn’t credible — the writing style undermined the content. I was surprised, however, when I got to the meat of the proposal: it was stellar. Th ere, the authors demonstrated that their program was well thought out and would, in fact, address all the program goals. Th e proposal only became credible when it became concrete. Th at’s what convinced me it was worthwhile and converted me from a skeptic to a supporter.

3.5. EMOTIONAL

Th is is an awkward one for scientists. To do good science you must be dispassion-ate and objective about your work. Th ere is, however, one emotion that is not only acceptable in science but fundamental to it: curiosity. We became scientists because we are curious — we are driven to solve the puzzles that nature presents. To engage us in your work, you need to engage our curiosity. You do that by asking a novel question.

If you don’t ask an engaging question, and instead just off er new information, you appeal to another, weaker emotion. You appeal to our inner nerd and our love for accumulating trivia. Th at won’t get your paper published or your proposal funded.

Th e E element of the SUCCES formula is thus closely aligned with U. Unexpected things create curiosity, so use that link to your benefi t. You engage emotion by shift ing your focus from “what information do I have to off er?” to “what knowledge to I have to off er?” Phrased diff erently, shift from “what’s my answer?” to “what’s my question?”

Working on E this way is important to enhancing the impact of a paper but it can mean life or death for a proposal. Proposals are evaluated by a panel of your peers, and your proposal is in direct competition with other good proposals. In my experi-ence, at least twice as many proposals are considered fundable as there is money to fund. To make it from the fundable to the funded list, you need to get at least one panelist excited enough to be your advocate, arguing why your project should be funded at the expense of other good proposals. Without such an advocate, you are likely to get one of those frustrating “if we only had enough money, we would have funded you” letters. You must excite the reviewers. Excitement is the therefore the second acceptable emotion in science, and it grows from curiosity. We get excited about work that engages and then satisfi es our curiosity.

3.6. STORIES

Th is whole book is about telling stories — about seeing your work as a story and presenting it that way. But stories are modular; a single large story is craft ed from a collection of smaller story units, threaded together. To write a good paper, you need to think about internal structure and how to integrate story modules.

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Making a Story Sticky 25

For example, in chapter 2, I told a story about the role of storytelling in science. I built it from three modules, each its own story with its own characters. Th e fi rst focused on Elizabeth Kolbert and her perception that scientists don’t tell stories. Th e central characters were Kolbert, scientists, and, importantly, the idea of “story” as a character itself. In the second module, to discuss the idea that science goes from data to understanding, I used the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Finally, to describe how “listening to your characters” can enhance science, I used the stories of Bill Dietrich’s doctoral work and that of my own. I hope that each of these short stories was sticky in its own right, and that together they cre-ated a sticky overall story.

You can use the same strategy in your writing. As you discuss your data and ideas, fi nd units that you can package into coherent modules. Readers will be able to assimilate each piece, and it will be easier for them to see how they add up to create the whole.

Th ese six SUCCES elements are integral to eff ective storytelling and science writing. Before you start writing, take the time to fi gure out how you are going to weave them into your work. Particularly, take the time to fi gure out the simple story. Build it around the key questions that will engage U and E. Th ese will guide you in selecting the material you need to present to make the story concrete and credible.

EXERCISES

3.1. Analyze published papers

Go back to the papers you are analyzing: Identify how the authors used each SUCCES element. Did the authors do a

good job? Could they have done a better job? If so, how? Try rewriting key pas-sages to enhance their SUCCES power.

What schemas did the authors use in building the story? Are these only held by a narrow subdiscipline or by a wider community?

3.2. Write a short article

Analyze the short articles(s) you (and your writing group colleagues) wrote for the exercise in Chapter 2.

Identify how well you and your peers used SUCCES elements. Did you do a good job? Could you have done a better job? If so, how? Rewrite key passages to enhance their SUCCES power.

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All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

When talking about story structure, many people will give you this simple plati-tude. Of course, if the proverbial monkey at a typewriter pounds away, the gibber-ish it types will start, end, and have stuff in the middle. Is this classic saying just a meaningless refl ection of an obvious physical necessity? In fact, no. Beginning, middle, and end, however, don’t refl ect physical positions but story elements that carry out specifi c functions.

All stories have common elements that are necessary to make them engaging and memorable. To respond to their specifi c pressures, however, diff erent genres have evolved traditions for assembling the elements, producing a number of stan-dard structures. In science, we have adapted several of these for solving writing problems, but most of us are probably unaware of which ones we are using and why. Understanding the common elements, the ways you can put them together, and when each structure works provides a powerful tool for approaching diff erent writing challenges.

Th ere are four elements that underlie the structure of all stories, including those we write in science:

Opening (O): Whom is the story about? Who are the characters? Where does it take place? What do you need to understand about the situation to follow the story? What is the larger problem you are addressing?

4

Story Structure

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Story Structure 27

Challenge (C): What do your characters need to accomplish? What specifi c question do you propose to answer?

Action (A): What happens to address the challenge? In a paper, this describes the work you did; in a proposal, it describes the work you hope to do.

Resolution (R): How have the characters and their world changed as a result of the action? Th is is your conclusion — what did you learn from your work?

Together these elements generate the acronym OCAR, a concept that echoes throughout this book, whether we are talking about whole papers, sections, para-graphs, or even individual sentences. Understanding how to manage the OCAR elements is at the heart of successful writing. A story lacking any element from it will be unsatisfying, ineff ective, and slippery, rather than sticky.

4.1. THE FOUR CORE STORY STRUCTURES

Th ere are four story structures that diff erent genres use regularly. Which one to use depends largely on the audience’s patience. Are readers willing to wait to get the point of the story, or do they want to see it right away? In science, the audi-ence’s patience varies with what you are writing — a paper for a specialist journal, a paper for a generalist journal, a proposal, or a piece for the public. Th e following structures span from targeting the most to the least patient of audiences.

OCAR Structure: Th e simplest, but also the most slowly developing structure is to simply take the OCAR elements in sequence. Th is is used in some fi ction; books may take several chapters to introduce the characters before defi ning what those characters must do. My favorite example of this is J. R. R. Tolkien’s Th e Lord of the Rings . Only in chapter 2 do we get the fi rst inkling of Frodo and Sam’s challenge — to take the Ring of Power to Mt. Doom to destroy it. It takes until halfway through the fi rst book to learn the full challenge — take the ring to the fi re and restore Aragorn to the throne of Gondor.

OCAR is the structure we use most frequently in science because readers are patient — they want to assess your ideas and results as they develop. Th ey want to see the evidence and the arguments clearly laid out before any conclusions are presented. Th us, a paper’s challenge is presented at the end of the introduction, and its conclusion comes at end. Because OCAR is slow to develop, it requires a patient audience, one that is willing to watch the story unfold.

ABDCE Structure: Not all audiences are patient enough for OCAR. For those a step less patient, a structure known as ABDCE works well. Th is is the structure that modern fi ction writers and scientifi c proposal writers use most fre-quently:

Action (A): Start with a dramatic action to immediately engage readers and entice them to keep reading.

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28 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Background (B): Fill the readers in on the characters and setting so they can understand the story as it develops.

Development (D): Follow the action as the story develops to the climax. Climax (C): Bring all the threads of the story together and address them. Ending (E): What happened to the characters aft er the climax? (Th is is the

same as the resolution.)

Th e diff erence between ABDCE and OCAR is that ABDCE front-loads the story by moving the challenge up and collapsing it into the opening to create the initial “action” — an exciting start to grab your attention. Th us, A and B together comprise the O and C elements.

ABDCE gets the reader into the story faster by launching directly into the chal-lenge, so it is good with an impatient audience, such as proposal reviewers. But it is less effi cient than OCAR in moving the story forward — aft er the initial action, you have to back up and fi ll in the background. Th at ineffi ciency is a fair trade, however, if it gets readers committed to the rest of the story.

ABDCE reaches its apex in mystery and adventure stories. James Bond movies, for example, always start with wild action sequences — boat chases, gunfi ghts, explosions. Or consider the beginning of C Is for Corpse , by Sue Graft on:

I met Bobby Callahan on Monday of that week. By Th ursday, he was dead. He was convinced someone was trying to kill him and it turned out to be true, but none of us fi gured it out in time to save him. I’ve never worked for a dead man before and I hope I won’t have to do it again. Th is report is for him, for whatever it’s worth.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a licensed private investigator.

Here we are thrown immediately into the action and introduced to the key characters, in this case the dead Bobby Callahan and the living Kinsey Millhone. We are also given the challenge that Kinsey faces: who killed Callahan, and why?

Th is action-fi rst structure has become common in a publishing world where overloaded editors may judge whole novels by the fi rst page, but it isn’t new. Here is the opening from a well-known story: “All the survivors of the war had reached their homes by now and so put the perils of battle and the sea behind them. Odysseus alone was prevented from returning to the home and wife he yearned for by that powerful goddess, the Nymph Calypso, who longed for him to marry her, and kept him in her vaulted cave.” Th is is the opening to Th e Odyssey by Homer, one of the oldest recorded stories in human history. Th e classical in medias res structure of the epic is straight ABDCE.

One aspect to both the OCAR and ABDCE structures is that they have a reso-lution that shows how overcoming the challenge has changed the characters and their world. While people oft en see the climax as the focal point of the story — the point that all the action builds to and is the most exciting part of the story — ultimately, the resolution makes sense out of that action. Th e resolution wraps up the story that was introduced in the opening; it closes the circle.

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Story Structure 29

“Th e climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, aft er which at least one of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn’t changed, then what is the point of your story?”.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

We want and need to know how our characters have changed for a story to be satisfying. Cinderella has to marry Prince Charming. Th e hero has to overcome his personal demons and move on to a diff erent life. In science, we have to see how our understanding of the world has changed.

Th e importance of closing the loop means that a good story is circular; at the end, it must come back to the beginning. However, because things have changed, the “beginning” has moved. Th us, a story isn’t truly a circle, but a spiral (see fi gure 4.1 ). Highlighting this spiral structure is key to making an OCAR or ABDCE story pow-erful. A story without a resolution, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot , falls into the “Th eater of the Absurd.” A science paper without a resolution falls into the reject bin.

LD Structure: ABDCE front-loads the story more than OCAR by collapsing the challenge into the opening, but some audiences are so impatient they won’t stick around for a resolution. For them, you need to intensify the front-loading. Th e most extreme case of this is used by newspaper reporters. Reporters use a structure that they call the “inverted pyramid”; I call it Lead/Development (LD) to highlight its key functional elements. In LD structure, the core of the story is in the fi rst sentences (the lead, L) and the rest fi lls out and develops the story (the development, D). In LD structure, the lead collapses the opening, challenge, and resolution into a single short section, possibly as little as a single sentence.

Th e most important sentence in any article is the fi rst one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

O R

CA

Figure 4.1. How an OCAR story makes a spiral: the story comes back to its starting point, but that point has moved.

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30 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

LD structure developed in the newspaper business under the lash of the phys-ical restrictions on space. A newspaper’s front page has fi ve or more stories that start there but may fi nish in the bowels of section B. Many people read only page 1; they don’t bother opening the paper to fi nish stories. Additionally, in fi nishing layout on a tight deadline, an editor may slash the last few paragraphs of a story to squeeze it in. So writers cannot put the point at the end of the story — if they did, readers might never see it. It must go at the beginning.

LDR Structure: Journalists who write for magazines suff er a similar challenge to those who write for newspapers, although less extreme. Th ere are many articles in a magazine, but they don’t all start together on page 1, and you can’t just skim the fi rst page to get the sense of everything in the issue. Each story must keep you turning the pages to see all the advertisem*nts . So the lead must be engaging enough to commit you to the story, but the writer can realistically hope that if you start reading, you may actually fi nish. Also, magazines aren’t under the same production pressure as newspapers — editors don’t cut paragraphs to make space. Magazine writers can aff ord to worry about ending well with an eff ective resolution.

“Oft en it takes just a few sentences to wrap things up. Ideally they should encapsulate the idea of the piece and conclude with a sentence that jolts us with its fi tness or unexpectedness”.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Th us, magazine journalists use a story structure I describe as Lead/Development/Resolution (LDR). It’s conceptually similar to the newspaper LD but tuned to a slightly more patient audience.

Th ese structures give us a continuum, based on readers’ patience:

OCAR: Slowest — take your time working into the story. ABDCE: Faster — get right into the action. LDR: Faster yet — but people will read to the end. LD: Fastest — the whole story is up front.

Th ese story structures defi ne the information you must present in diff erent places. Readers intuitively understand and respond to diff erent structures; they know how to identify the critical locations, and they anticipate the information that will appear. Th e opening is the fi rst short section, and we use certain signals to tell the reader that we have reached the challenge or resolution. Readers take whatever information you put at those key locations — O, C, and R — and accept it as your opening, challenge, and resolution. If you put the wrong information there, they will get the wrong message.

You should be able to read the O, C, and R of a paper, and still get its key points. If you know the problem, the specifi c questions, the general approach to answer-ing them, and the conclusions, you may have gotten all you need from that paper. You’ll certainly know whether you need to go back and read it fully.

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Story Structure 31

4.2. APPLYING STORY STRUCTURE TO SCIENCE WRITING

Th e OCAR functions are as central to a scientifi c paper as they are to a work of fi ction. A good paper or proposal describes the larger problem and central “char-acters” (O); it frames an interesting question (C); it presents your research plan and results, developing the action (A); and it leaves the reader with an important conclusion about how our understanding of the world has changed as a result of the work (R).

Diff erent types of science writing, however, use diff erent structures to achieve best results. Papers for specialist journals generally use straight OCAR, framing the challenge at the end of the introduction. Readers of these journals are patient. Th ey want your information and your thoughts, and they want to evaluate the progression from ideas through results to conclusions. In fact, in these journals, a lead-based paper might be considered suspect. Front-loading the story with con-clusions could make it seem like you knew the story you wanted to tell and were simply forcing the data into that story — that is, you are trying to prove rather than test your ideas — a no-no going all the way back to the foundations of the philosophy of science.

In contrast, generalist journals, such as Nature or Science , need a faster struc-ture, oft en closer to LDR. Th e need arises because the greatest hurdle to getting published in these journals is the editor. Nature and Science editors are profes-sional editors, rather than practicing scientists who serve as editors on the side (as is typical for specialist journals); they are generalists, and they get swamped with manuscripts. Th ey have to perform triage, deciding quickly whether a paper seems novel and important enough to invest the time to send it out for review. (I have submitted papers to Nature on Friday aft ernoon and had the rejection fi rst thing Monday morning!) To make that fi rst cut and get your paper sent out for review, you need a good lead.

A famous use of a lead-based structure in science is Francis Watson and James Crick’s famous paper “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” in which the opening was: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). Th is structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” 1 Th e rest of the paper describes this structure and resolves with the statement, “It has not escaped our notice that the specifi c pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Th ey didn’t bother to elaborate on that mechanism — it was obvious enough that they didn’t need to.

Moving on to the least patient audience of all, we come to proposals. We review proposals because we owe it to the agencies that fund our work. We review pro-posals on airplanes when we would rather read a novel, watch a movie, or sleep. Patient? No. A proposal must convince reviewers that the topic identifi ed in the

1. J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids — A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature 171 (1953): 737–38.

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32 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

opening is important and then compel them with the excitement of the questions posed in the challenge. If it fails to do this, it is dead.

When I review proposals I make a “no/maybe” cut by the end of the introduc-tion, and if it’s a “no,” that is irrevocable. I then only read the rest to be able to give feedback on how to improve the proposal for resubmission. A good experimental design can never compensate for boring questions. A “maybe” at that fi rst cut means the questions are exciting, in which case I read the rest to see whether the experimental design is adequate to answer them. A saying I once heard attributed to D. A. Crossley at the University of Georgia said, “If you haven’t told them in the fi rst two pages, you haven’t told them.” To “tell them” in the fi rst two pages requires a front-loaded structure: either ABDCE or LDR.

4.3. MAPPING OCAR ONTO IMRaD

I have argued that most scientifi c papers follow an OCAR structure, but you won’t fi nd a paper with sections labeled Opening, Challenge, Action, and Resolution. Instead, we usually write papers using some variation of IMRaD: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. So why discuss OCAR instead of IMRaD? First, even when the physical sections of the paper follow IMRaD, the conceptual structure of the story generally follows OCAR. Second, there are many permutations of IMRaD — some fi elds routinely combine Results and Discussion and some integrate Methods as well. Th ird, some types of writing — notably review papers and proposals — don’t follow IMRaD at all. Regardless of a piece’s form, however, it must still cover the OCAR bases. While IMRaD is a rule, OCAR is a principle.

Because IMRaD is the most common physical structure for science papers, I briefl y discuss how OCAR maps onto IMRaD.

Introduction : Th is has three subsections, although they are rarely broken out as such:

Opening : Th is is typically the fi rst paragraph that introduces the larger problem the paper is targeting. What is the context, and what are the characters we are studying?

Background : What information does the reader need to understand the specifi c work the authors did, why it is important, and what it will contribute to the larger issue? I consider this an extension of the O, as it fl eshes out introducing the characters.

Challenge : What are the specifi c hypotheses/questions/goals of the current work?

Materials and Methods : Th is begins describing the action — what did you do? Results : Th is continues the action by describing your fi ndings.

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Story Structure 33

Discussion : Th is develops to the climax and the resolution. What did it all mean, and what have you learned? It oft en ends with a conclusions subsection that is the resolution.

Th us, opening and challenge block the beginning and the end of the Introduction. Action encompasses the M&M, Results, and much of the Discussion. Th e resolution is the last section of the Discussion.

Th e resolution is as important in science as in fi ction. As Anne Lamott points out, for fi ction, at the end, we want to know that “one of your people is profoundly changed.” For science, at the end, we want to know how our understanding of the world has changed as a result of your work, or in the case of a proposal, how you think our understanding of the world will change. Th e resolution must map back to the opening. It must say something about the larger problem you identifi ed there.

A closely related aspect of mapping OCAR onto IMRaD is that scientifi c papers have an hourglass shape to their content (see fi gure 4.2 ). Th ey open with a prob-lem of wide interest. Th en they narrow down to a set of very specifi c questions that contribute to understanding that larger issue. Th ose specifi c questions com-prise the challenge and defi ne the width of the “neck” of the hourglass — that is as narrow as it is going to get. Th e Methods and Results sections stay narrow. Finally, as results are discussed, the context of the story expands toward conclusions that are more general and connect back to the problem developed in the opening. Importantly, the conclusions should address a topic as “wide” as the opening. Th at is what makes the story circular — in the resolution, you come back to the issue targeted in the opening.

In the following chapters, I discuss each of these elements in a science story: O, C, A, and R. How do we write them to most powerfully develop the stories we are telling and so create the most compelling papers and proposals?

Opening

Challenge

Resolution

Act

ion

Introduction: introduce characters and question. Narrow down to your specific questions

M&M and Results: What you did and what you found

Discussion: What it means

Conclusions: Take home message

Figure 4.2. Th e hourglass structure of a paper. It starts wide with the opening, narrows with the challenge and action, and widens back out again at the resolution.

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34 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

EXERCISES

4.1. Analyze published papers

A. Evaluate the papers you are reading. Which story structure do they use? Where are the OCAR elements? Are they eff ective?

B. Pick a proposal. Analyze it in the same way. C. Go back to chapter 2 and the exercise I asked you to do to start writing a

short piece. Look at those questions. Notice that I was asking you to defi ne your OCAR elements.

4.2. Write a short article

Go back and evaluate your short article. Repeat the analysis you did on the pieces above. What story structure did you use? Was it appropriate for your intended audience? Did you have the OCAR elements in place?

If you (or your writing group members) feel that you haven’t eff ectively devel-oped the OCAR elements, go back and rewrite the piece to more powerfully emphasize those elements. Make sure that your opening, challenge, and resolu-tion sections are clear and eff ective.

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Th e most important sentence in any article is the fi rst one. — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Initial impressions are strong and lasting. Your fi rst words have great leverage, making the beginning of a paper a “power position.” You must use that power to accomplish three goals: identify the problem that drives the research, introduce the characters, and target an audience. If you’re clever, you can foreshadow the challenge and even the conclusions. By establishing the paper’s focus and tone, the opening identifi es your intended audience — whom do you want to read your work and how do you want them to think about it?

You must start well. Your fi rst sentences get readers moving and set the direc-tion; you establish their expectations and generate momentum. If you start in one direction and then abruptly switch, readers get mental whiplash as they try to follow. Potentially worse, if the opening is unclear and doesn’t go in any direction, they will sit twiddling their thumbs, waiting to fi gure out where to go.

Th e opening begins with a single sentence but typically encompasses the fi rst paragraph, and sometimes several more. In a short paper or one for a narrow audience of experts, you can quickly remind people of a problem they already know. When you target a broader audience, one made up of people

5

The Opening

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36 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

who hold diff erent schemas than you do, you may need a longer and more complex opening.

5.1. EXAMPLES OF GOOD OPENINGS

Here are openings from diff erent areas of science. Th e fundamental question for each is: does it achieve the three goals? Is it clear what the paper is about? Does it frame the problem? Does it introduce the critical characters? Read the openings and answer these questions, before going on to my analysis. Do you agree with my assessment?

Th is fi rst example is from a synthesis paper I wrote reevaluating our under-standing of how nitrogen (N) is processed in soil.

Example 5.1 Since the late 1800s, N mineralization has been the perceived center point of the soil N cycle and the process that controls N availability to plants. 1

Th e key word in this sentence is perceived , a distinctive and unusual word that draws your attention. Clearly, this paper is going to challenge that perception. Additionally, there is going to be a historical element — evaluating how the per-ception has changed since the late 1800s.

Th e second example is from a study evaluating whether giving pregnant women supplemental folic acid may cause their children to develop asthma.

Example 5.2 Current public health guidelines in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia recommend that women consume a supplemental dose of 400 µ g of folic acid per day in the month preceding and during the fi rst trimester of pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in children. 2

Can you imagine that this paper is not going to challenge that 400 µ g recom-mendation? Th at sentence doesn’t give the grounds for challenging it, but because the title of the article highlights childhood asthma, you can infer the entire story: folic acid supplements during pregnancy may increase the risk of childhood asthma.

In these fi rst two examples, the opening sentences are dramatic and launch quickly into the story. Frequently, however, openings require several steps to develop the issue, as illustrated in a paper on geomorphology that analyzed how

1. J. P. Schimel and J. Bennett, “Nitrogen Mineralization: Challenges of a Changing Paradigm,” Ecology 85 (2004): 591–602.

2. M. J. Whitrow, V. M. Moore, A. R. Rumbold, and M. J. Davies, “Eff ect of Supplemental Folic Acid in Pregnancy on Childhood Asthma: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology (2009).

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Th e Opening 37

the size of the sediment particles created during erosion aff ect their abrasive prop-erties and how fast they cut a river channel.

Example 5.3 Th e topography of mountainous landscapes is created by the interaction of rock uplift and erosion. River incision into bedrock is the key erosional pro-cess that controls the rate of landscape response to changes in rock uplift rate and climate. 3

Clearly this paper is going to evaluate river incision (“the key erosional pro-cess”), but developing that point required two sentences. Th e fi rst frames the focus of the story: the topography of mountainous landscapes, something many people fi nd interesting. It also introduces the key character of erosion. Th e second sen-tence picks up the idea of erosion and develops a specifi c focus: river incision. It would have been hard to get all that into a single sentence, so the authors used an initial “positioning sentence” from which they could launch to make their specifi c point.

Sometimes the opening needs to be longer and can include the entire fi rst paragraph. Example 5.4 is from materials chemistry and explores how the molec-ular structure of organic polymers aff ects their potential as semiconductors. In this example, I include the fi rst and last sentence of the opening paragraph.

Example 5.4 Conjugated polymers are novel materials that combine the optoelectronic properties of semiconductors with the mechanical properties and processing advantages of plastics. . . . Th us, conjugated polymers off er the possibility for use in devices such as plastic LEDs, photovoltaics, transistors, and in com-pletely new applications such as fl exible displays. 4

Th e fi rst sentence frames the overall topic of the story — conjugated polymers are going to be exciting new materials for developing plastic optoelectronic mate-rials. Th at is highlighted and made concrete in the last sentence, which describes devices that might be made. Whereas the opening sentence deals in abstractions, the last one sets the story in concrete terms — real applications. From this, we can infer that the rest of the paper is going to be about how to perfect the polymers so that they can be used to produce these devices.

3. L. S. Sklar and W. E. Dietrich, “Sediment and Rock Strength Controls on River Incision into Bedrock,” Geology 29 (2001): 1087–90.

4. B. J. Schwartz, “Conjugated Polymers as Molecular Materials: How Chain Conformation and Film Morphology Infl uence Energy Transfer and Interchain Interactions,” Annual Review of Physical Chemistry 54 (2003) :141–72 .

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38 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

5.2. BAD OPENINGS

Th e foregoing were all examples of eff ective openings. Th ey vary in length, but all identify a problem of broad interest and give the reader a sense of where the story is going. But they raise the obvious question: how do you write an ineff ective opening? Since the opening is supposed to provide direction about where the story is going, there are two obvious ways to fail: provide either misdirection or no direction.

5.2.1. Misdirection

An example of misdirection comes from a paper I wrote; this isn’t terrible, but it could have been better. I analyzed the processes that control how much methane (CH 4 , an important greenhouse gas) is released from tundra soils of the Alaskan Arctic. Bacteria known as methanogens produce the CH 4 , but then plants trans-port it out of the soil through their roots. Here is the fi rst paragraph and the fi rst sentence of the second paragraph.

Example 5.5 Plants are a critical control of CH 4 dynamics in wetland ecosystems. Th ey supply C [carbon] to the soil methanogenic community both through pro-duction of soil organic matter, and as fresh exudates and residues. Fresh plant material may be an important CH 4 precursor even in an organic matter–rich peat soil. Strong correlations between net primary productivity and system-level CH 4 fl uxes across a wide range of ecosystems highlight the importance of plant C inputs.

Vascular plants, however, also transport CH 4 out of soil and sediment, eff ectively bypassing the aerobic zone of CH 4 oxidation. 5

Why is this misdirection? Th e fi rst paragraph introduces plants as the central character of the story and argues that they control CH 4 fl uxes. Th at is accurate. But the fi rst paragraph develops a story about how plants control CH 4 by feeding carbon to methanogens, and a reader would likely assume that is what the whole paper is about. Th at is inaccurate, which you realize once you begin the second paragraph. It opens by introducing a new mechanism — plants transport CH 4 out of the soil. Th at cuts the readers adrift and leaves them momentarily wondering: was the opening paragraph a false lead, highlighting what we thought the mecha-nism was, but that I will contradict — so the paper is going to be about transport? Or am I introducing an additional mechanism — so the paper will be about both? I started in one direction, but then struck out in a diff erent one; that is misdirec-tion, and it’s confusing.

5. J. P. Schimel, “Plant Transport and Methane Production as Controls on Methane Flux from Arctic Wet Meadow Tundra,” Biogeochemistry 28 (1995): 183–200.

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Th e Opening 39

I could have written this better and avoided any potential confusion by chang-ing the fi rst sentence, making it a broader positioning statement. “Plants control CH 4 dynamics in wetland ecosystems by two mechanisms. Th e fi rst is to supply C to the soil methanogenic community . . .” Th is would have let you know that the paper is about both mechanisms and might imply that it evaluates the balance between them. It signals that the next sentences or paragraphs will identify and describe those mechanisms. Even though the fi rst paragraph is about substrate supply, you would know that there is more coming, so the second paragraph would not feel like it was changing direction but completing the direction I had started.

Fixing this opening involved an almost trivial change, but it would have made the reader’s job easier. Unfortunately you can’t go back and rewrite a published paper; all you can do is try to learn from mistakes (in this case, mine) and make the next paper better.

5.2.2. No Direction

Th e other common error in the opening is giving no direction. Consider the fol-lowing example.

Example 5.6 In meiosis, genes that are always transmitted together are described as show-ing “linkage.” Linkage, however, can be incomplete, due to the exchange of segments of DNA when chromosomes are paired. Th is incomplete linkage can lead to the creation of new pairings of alleles, creating new lineages with distinct sets of traits.

Is this paper about the evolution of sex chromosomes in guppies, the distribu-tion of Tay-Sachs disease among Louisiana Cajuns, or the ecology of the potato blight fungus Phytophthora infestans ? You can’t tell — this opening off ers no direc-tion as to where the story is going. Rather, it goes over basic, textbook material about eukaryotic genetics that should be second nature to most readers. It explains a schema that scholars in this fi eld don’t need explained.

Using an opening that explains a widely held schema is a fl aw common with inexperienced writers. Developing scholars are still learning the material and assimilating it into their schemas. It isn’t yet ingrained knowledge, and the process of laying out the information and arguments, step by step, is part of what ingrains it to form the schema. Many developing scholars, therefore, have a hard time jumping over this material by assuming that their readers take it for granted. Rather, they are collecting their own thoughts and putting them down.

Th ere is nothing wrong with explaining things for yourself in a fi rst draft . Many authors aren’t sure where they are going when they start, and it is not until the second or third paragraph that they get into the meat of the story. If you do this, though, when you revise, fi gure out where the real story starts and delete

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40 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

everything before that. At a writers’ conference my wife attended, a well-known author said that he sometimes has to delete several chapters to get to where the story begins.

5.3. TARGETING YOUR AUDIENCE

Th e way you introduce your problem and your characters aff ects the audience’s attitude toward the work and maybe whether they continue reading. You must know the intended audience to tailor the writing to them. Th is is particularly important for generalist papers and proposals, where reviewers and readers are impatient and may not be familiar with the schemas of your discipline. In such cases, the opening may determine the success of the entire piece — if it is published or funded.

Consider two papers about bacteria in the ocean; one was for a specialist and the other for a generalist journal. Th ey both address the standard message in microbial ecology that we have identifi ed and grown in culture less than 1 percent of all the bacteria that exist.

Example 5.7 For a specialist journal Epifl uorescence microscopy and direct viable count-ing methods have shown that only 0.01 to 0.1 % of all the microbial cells from marine environments form colonies on standard agar plates. Much of the discrepancy between direct counts and plate counts has been explained by measurements of microbial diversity that employed 16S rRNA gene sequenc-ing without cultivation. Th e present consensus is that many of the most abundant marine microbial groups are not yet cultivated. 6

Th is opening makes an important point that is fundamental to the story — organisms have not been cultured on standard agar — and so foreshadows that the authors will grow new organisms on nonstandard agar. Th e characters are meth-ods (for counting and culturing) and microbes in the sea, characters that environ-mental microbiologists identify with and care about. As an alternative, however, consider the following.

Example 5.8 For a generalist journal : Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), the fi rst observer of bacteria, would be surprised that over 99 % of microbes in the sea

6. J. C. Cho and S. J. Giovannoni, “Cultivation and Growth Characteristics of a Diverse Group of Oligotrophic Marine Gammaproteobacteria,” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 70 (2004): 432–40.

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Th e Opening 41

remained unseen until aft er Viking Lander (1976) set out to seek microbial life on Mars. 7

Th is opening says something similar to example 5.7, but these authors (Farooq Azam and Alexandra Worden) were targeting the editors and readers of Science , a group with limited interest in methods for culturing bacteria. So, they opened with a short story whose characters are Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Viking Lander, and microbes. Most scientists have probably heard of van Leeuwenhoek and his “wee animalcules,” and of the Viking Lander, so this speaks to a wide read-ership in a way that culturing bacteria cannot. To make their story engaging, Azam and Worden pulled strongly on the SUCCES elements. It is simple, and it is unexpected — we are searching Mars for life when we haven’t found 99 percent or more of the life on this planet. It is concrete and credible, backed up by specifi cs. It is also emotional, pulling on your curiosity and amazement — we’ve been at this for 300 years and have seen at best 1 percent of the bacteria that exist!? Th is is a powerful start for a Science paper. I’m not surprised it was published there, the science was excellent — and so was the storytelling.

Th e opening that Azam and Worden use, however, might make the readers of a specialist microbial ecology journal uncomfortable. It launches the story so fl ashily that it would stick out. More important, it makes a point that most micro-bial ecologists already know — this isn’t their knowledge gap.

While targeting the right audience is important in papers, it can be life or death in proposals. As an example of this power, consider a project I was part of in which we studied coastal redwood forests in California. Th ese forests are a trea-sure, but they exist in a region where it oft en doesn’t rain from April to November. During the long, dry summers, the trees depend on fog for water. Climate change may alter the amount and timing of fog, potentially placing those forests at risk. But there are other foggy forests, so this represents an important and general eco-logical phenomenon.

We submitted similar proposals to two agencies: the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Ecosystem Science Program, and another that had a manage-ment focus (for this exercise, think California Environmental Protection Agency; CalEPA). We used diff erent openings.

Example 5.9: Th e infl uence of fog on ecological and hydrological processes in coastal zones has long intrigued scientists.

Example 5.10: California’s coastal forests are among its most distinctive and treasured natural resources.

7. F. Azam and A. Z. Worden, “Microbes, Molecules, and Marine Ecosystems,” Science 303 (2004): 1622–24.

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42 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Imagine submitting a proposal with the fi rst sentence to the NSF — a reviewer might well be drawn in on the idea: “I never thought about fog being that impor-tant in ecology; I should read further.” A CalEPA reviewer’s response, on the other hand, would probably be closer to: “Ivory Tower academe that is irrelvant to my mission; I can ignore this one.”

Th e responses would diff er with the second example. An NSF reviewer would likely think: “Regional interest and an environmental protection focus — this isn’t NSF science; I can ignore this one.” Th e CalEPA reviewer, though, might think: “Th at’s true, coastal forests are important resources that we are responsible for protecting. I’d better read further to fi nd out how this research may help me do that.”

How we framed the problem here was critical. An eff ective fi rst sentence might open the door to funding. An ineff ective one could close it.

5.4. OPENING FOR A BROADER AUDIENCE: THE TWO-STEP OPENING

When you target experts in your fi eld, you can open quickly, building off the disci-pline’s core schemas. Sometimes, though, you need to target a broader audience — people who might be interested in your work but don’t necessarily hold the same schemas you do. To do this, you need to open with an issue that engages your target audience, but then modulate it to one you want to work with. Th at requires a multistep opening in which you take time to introduce and then redefi ne the focus.

An example of this two-step approach is a paper written by Mike Weintraub, a doctoral student of mine. Th e paper described a laboratory experiment evaluating the factors that control decomposition of the organic material that makes up arctic tundra soils. Th ough the work was narrow, the opening was wide.

Example 5.11: Th e Arctic has become a focus of attention because global warming is expected to be the most severe at extreme latitudes. Th e thick organic soils of the tundra contain large stocks of carbon (C), and these soils may act as either a source or a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO 2 ). It has been suggested that as the climate warms, increased organic matter decomposi-tion will release CO 2 to the atmosphere, contributing to warming and creat-ing a positive feedback that results in further increases in atmospheric CO 2 . Alternatively, it has been argued that increased decomposition will release bound nitrogen (N) and other nutrients in the soil and thereby enhance plant growth, since plant growth is nutrient-limited in arctic tundra. Increased plant growth would allow the tundra to be a sink for atmospheric C because plant material has a wider C/N ratio than soil organic matter. Th us, the direc-tion the C balance of the arctic will shift with warming is unclear and depends

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Th e Opening 43

on interactions between soil C and N cycling that we still do not understand in the tundra. 8

Weintraub opened the paper by discussing the importance of tundra soils in the global carbon cycle and then worked down in scale through several issues that regulate tundra soil carbon. Only at the end of the paragraph did he frame the specifi c issue: the interactions between soil C and N cycling. He was writing for an audience of global change scientists, trying to convince them that this paper was something they should read, rather than targeting tundra soil ecologists, of which there are about a dozen worldwide. One result of the broad way he framed the story was that he won the 2003 Arctic Consortium of the United States award for “Best Student Paper in Interdisciplinary Arctic Science.” Weintraub was able to structure the story so that it spoke to an interdisciplinary audience. Th e award was a result of eff ective storytelling, rather than inherently interdisciplinary measurements.

In proposals, quickly engaging the reviewers is critical, so you may need to use this two-step approach. Review panel members come from diverse subfi elds and may not be expert in your specifi c topic. Writing the proposal for the panel means framing the issues broadly, in concerns held by most members. From there, you can narrow in on the specifi c research you propose.

I used this two-step strategy in a proposal I wrote to study plant succession — how plant communities colonize a new site and then are replaced by a series of new communities over time. I wanted to study succession in fl oodplain forests in the interior of Alaska, specifi cally how tannins produced by balsam poplar trees aff ect the soil microorganisms that regulate nutrient availability, and thus make the environment more favorable for poplar. I opened the proposal with the following.

Example 5.12 Succession has been a central theme in ecological research for almost a hun-dred years. Two questions have directed much of that research:

What causes the shift s in communities? How do ecological processes change as a result of these community shift s?

Th ese questions are linked through a feedback loop: plants aff ect soil pro-cesses which in turn aff ect plant community structure.

Although soil microbes and the processes they carry out were the central char-acters in my story, I did not introduce them in the fi rst sentence or even the fi rst few sentences. I did that deliberately — I submitted the proposal to the ecology program, and I knew the reviewers were likely to be plant (rather than microbial) ecologists.

8. M. N. Weintraub and J. P. Schimel, “Interactions between Carbon and Nitrogen Mineralization and Soil Organic Matter Chemistry in Arctic Tundra Soils,” Ecosystems 6 (2003): 129–43.

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44 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

I wanted to engage them with a topic they were interested in (plant succession and the factors that regulate it), and then transition to the specifi c topic that I was going to develop (tannin eff ects on soil microbes), building the connection between their interests and my work.

I call this a two-step opening for two reasons. One is to highlight that it does take two steps, but also to highlight that, like the dance, it is must be quick — if you take more than two steps, you will stumble.

5.5. CHANGING STYLE FOR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES

It is a principle of eff ective communication that you need to adapt your language, style, and approach to deal with diff erent media and diff erent audiences. To high-light how a skilled writer does this, consider this opening from another paper by Azam.

Example 5.13: Larry Pomeroy’s seminal paper revolutionized our concepts of the ocean’s food web by proposing that microorganisms mediate a large fraction of the energy fl ow in pelagic marine ecosystems. Before 1974, bacteria and protozoa were not included as signifi cant components of food web models. Pomeroy argued forcefully that heterotrophic microorganisms, the “unseen strands in the ocean’s food web,” must be incorporated into ecosystem models. 9

In contrast to example 5.8, this uses more technical language and targets an audience of marine ecologists. You wouldn’t write “microbes mediate a large frac-tion of the energy fl ow in pelagic marine ecosystems” if you wanted a physicist to read it — they might not know what a “pelagic marine ecosystem” is or have the schema of how energy fl ows through the marine food web to pick up the implica-tions. Despite that, this opening has a clear dynamic voice — it is easy and engag-ing to read without seeming the least bit unprofessional. Th at is the product of someone who is good with both language and storytelling. Th is is a strong open-ing that eff ectively engages SUCCES elements. It is concrete, giving dates and directly attributing Pomeroy’s paper. It is emotional, pulling on words like revolu-tionary and argued forcefully to create a sense of confl ict. It even draws on the U factor by setting up the contrast between the thinking before and aft er 1974. Th is opening frames the story — it is going to be about the role of microbes in the ocean’s food web and how our understanding of it has changed. Th e authors intro-duce key characters — Pomeroy’s paper and marine food webs — and so establish the starting point.

9. F. Azam, D. C. Smith, G. F. Steward, and A. Hagström, “Bacteria-Organic Matter Coupling and Its Signifi cance for Oceanic Carbon Cycling,” Microbial Ecology 28 (1994): 167–79.

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Th e Opening 45

Whereas the Science paper targeted a wide audience, this one aimed more narrowly — it starts by naming Pomeroy’s seminal paper and so constrains the target audience to people who already know that paper. Where the opening to the Science article might put off readers of a technical journal, this one is written to engage them. Th e broader readership of Science is free to read this paper, but they aren’t actively courted. In fact, they may be subtly discouraged from coming to this party; “Larry Pomeroy’s seminal paper” is the secret password to get in.

Skilled writers know their audiences and think carefully about what works for them. As you gain experience, these choices become easier and require less con-scious eff ort. To gain that experience, analyze what works, what doesn’t, and your own decisions — who is your audience and what are their schemas? Could you write in a way that would expand that audience? Th e opening is critical to that answer — do you want to target people who know Pomeroy’s paper, or everyone who has ever read about van Leeuwenhoek’s work? Let your opening signal those choices.

5.6. HOW WIDE SHOULD YOUR OPENING BE?

How widely you should cast your net with the opening? Remember — getting pub-lished is not the ultimate goal; getting cited is. You want people to use your work. Ideally, therefore, you would like it to be read and valued by a wide community. So you should set your opening, the top of the hourglass, to draw in as broad a read-ership as you can manage. Th e opening tells readers what the story is about and establishes a compact with them. You must deliver on that compact. To achieve that, the bottom of the hourglass should be the same width as the top (fi gure 5.1 a). If you cast your opening too widely and the top of the hourglass is wider than the bottom, readers will feel cheated (fi gure 5.1 b). Consider the following opening and two potential resolutions.

A. Opening wider thanresolution: overpromising.

Your readers will feel cheated.

C. Resolution wider thanopening: underpromising.

Your readers won’t ever seethat you are telling a story that

would interest them.

B. On target.Your readers will be

satisfied.

Figure 5.1. Matching the opening to the resolution.

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46 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Example 5.14: Opening: Th e Arctic is important in the global climate system because

tundra soils store a large amount of carbon that may be released to the atmosphere as CO 2 . An important recent discovery is that wintertime CO 2 fl uxes from soil are large.

Resolution 1: Developing a reliable model of CO 2 fl uxes in the Arctic therefore requires a better model of winter C cycling processes.

Resolution 2: In the arctic tundra, microbial community composition changes little through the winter.

Resolution 1 is framed at roughly the same “width” as the opening. Th e open-ing said the story was about wintertime tundra CO 2 fl uxes and their role in global climate, which is what the paper ended up being about. But if the story ended up with resolution 2, readers would be dissatisfi ed. It ended up being about soil microbial communities — a bait and switch that wastes readers’ time.

On the other hand, if you frame the opening narrowly and then end up with a wide story (fi gure 5.1 c), you undersell yourself. For example, imagine if the story were about modeling CO 2 fl uxes in the tundra (resolution 2), but you opened the paper this way:

“Bacteria living in tundra soils are well acclimated to surviving the cold condi-tions of the Arctic winter.”

Th is promises a story about the physiology of tundra bacteria, not something that would interest someone focused on the global C cycle. Th is would turn off a community of potential readers who might have been interested in your conclusions.

Frame your opening to promise the story you will deliver. If you err, though, it’s better to err slightly on the wide side. If you oversell in the immediate opening, you can still fi lter down quickly. Example 5.11 illustrates this; Weintraub targeted the entire community interested in the role of the Arctic as a storehouse of carbon. We felt that his work should interest that community, and I think we were right — the paper has been well cited in journals ranging from microbial ecology to global biogeochemistry. Th e fi rst paragraph, however, makes it clear the paper is about carbon and nitrogen interactions in tundra soils. Th ough we tried to convince the biogeochemistry community that they should care about this, if they don’t, they can stop reading there. If you frame too narrowly, you lose readers immediately, and once lost, you can’t get them back.

5.7. POSITIONING STATEMENTS: PAWN-PUSHES VERSUS QUEEN-LAUNCHES

One student I know says she hates fi rst paragraphs, particularly fi rst sentences, because they usually say little, off ering standard platitudes rather than insight. In poorly written papers, that is true. Inexperienced writers oft en imitate opening lines and come up with platitudes. But in a well-written paper, the sentence may

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Th e Opening 47

be more — it may be a careful positioning statement that is critical to building the story. How can a sentence be an eff ective opening in one paper and a throwaway line in another?

Let me answer that with the analogy of a chess game. Th ere are only 20 possible fi rst moves in chess. Th e most common is to advance the king’s pawn two spaces (pawn to king 4; fi gure 5.2 a). Beginners and masters both start games with this move. But it isn’t really the same. When a master pushes that pawn forward, it is a carefully thought-out positioning move, the start of a sequence designed to take control of the board and defi ne the structure of the game. Beginners, on the other hand, may push the pawn because they have seen their betters open that way and have a vague understanding that it is a “good” move, but without a sense of what they intend to follow it with.

Th ough chess is limited to 20 fi rst moves, writing is not. You don’t have to push a pawn. If you want to open by launching your queen into the middle of the board, you can (fi gure 5.2 b). You can start a paper with a strong statement that dives in to take control of the story.

For examples of these diff erent approaches, consider fi rst, example 5.3, the Sklar and Dietrich paper on river incision. Th ey used a two-sentence opening. Th e fi rst was an undramatic pawn push, but it was carefully designed, allowing them to introduce erosion at the end of the sentence — a power position. Th at was an essential fi rst step to prepare for their next one, introducing stream incision. In contrast, in example 5.8, Azam and Worden launched a queen with their opening about van Leeuwenhoek and Viking.

When you write a straight OCAR story, as is common for specialist journals, you can use a pawn push — an opening that unfolds for a patient audience. If you’re writ-ing for Nature or the National Institutes of Health, however, you are likely using an ABDCE or LDR structure that start with action, so you had better launch a queen.

William Zinsser argues that the most important sentence in any article is the fi rst one. Yet the student I mentioned thinks most opening sentences are a waste. So who’s right? Th ey both are. Most openings are poorly done and unnecessary pawn pushes. Th at doesn’t make Zinsser wrong. To write well, you need to learn how to use the power of the opening. Learn when to use a pawn push and when to launch a queen. Learn to push a pawn like a chess master — as the fi rst step in a strategy to develop your argument and take control of the game. Remember the words of Aristotle, “Well begun is half done.”

EXERCISES

5.1. Analyze published papers

Evaluate the openings of the papers you are analyzing. Did they do a good job of identifying the larger issue? What style of opening did they use? Was it a pawn push or a queen launch? Did they dive straight in, targeting a narrow audience, or did they use a two-step approach to engage a wider audience?

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48 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Figure 5.2. A pawn push versus a queen launch. A queen launch isn’t possible in chess, but it is in writing.

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Th e Opening 49

5.2. Write a short article

Evaluate the opening of your short piece and those of your writing group mem-bers. Who is the intended audience? Was the opening eff ective? If not, can you rewrite it to make it so? Is the opening a pawn push or a queen launch? If it was a pawn push, could you write it as a queen launch?

5.3. Revise the following to make them more effective openings. Make the direction clearer and more engaging:

A. Th e rates of all chemical reactions increase with temperature. Th is phenomenon grows directly from physical chemistry’s transition state theory and the Arrhenius equation. However, respiration in soil doesn’t always appear to follow this pattern. Some studies have shown no respiration response to increasing temperature, while a few have even reported a negative response.

B. Chemotherapy is a dominant treatment approach for many types of cancer, and with the development of new targeted-delivery systems has the potential to become even more widespread and effi cacious. A common constraint to eff ective chemotherapy is, however, patient resistance to the treatments. Such resistance is oft en closely associated with the activity of the enzyme γ -glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT), which acts to increase intracellular concentrations of glutathione and thereby block the apoptotic cascade in tumor cells. Inhibiting GGT before chemotherapy would therefore reduce tumor cell resistance and increase treatment eff ectiveness.

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Our task, your task . . . is to try to connect the dots. — Donald Rumsfeld

Th e opening of a paper identifi es a large problem, while the challenge defi nes a specifi c question. Th e main body of the Introduction must connect these ele-ments. It forms the funnel in the hourglass; it narrows the focus and leads readers from the general to the specifi c, drawing them along the story and framing in the knowledge gap. Th is is where you build the argument that to make progress on the large problem, you must answer the specifi c questions.

When you frame the knowledge gap, you provide the background information necessary to understand the story. In an OCAR structure, the background mate-rial fl ows seamlessly from the opening — it is an extension of introducing the problem and the main characters, which is why I don’t call it a separate section (hence OCAR, instead of OBCAR). Th is is in contrast to an ABDCE structure, where aft er the initial action, you must back up and fi ll in the background before moving into the development, creating a distinct story element.

Framing the knowledge gap taps into core elements of the SUCCES formula for a sticky story, particularly the U and E elements, unexpectedness and emotion. By defi ning a knowledge gap, unmasking a hole in the wall of knowledge, you

6

The Funnel: Connecting O and C

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Th e Funnel: Connecting O and C 51

create unexpectedness: I didn’t realize that we didn’t know that! By closing with a question, you create curiosity: what is the answer? Th en you can tell us how you solve the problem and satisfy our curiosity.

If you do this well, you can bridge from very large problems to very narrow questions. For example, you can argue that to understand the global climate system we need to study bacteria in the frozen soils of the arctic tundra during the winter, 1 or that to cure coronary artery disease in adults it is valuable to map the distribution of ISL1 + cells in early fetal hearts. 2 If you do this badly, expect a rejec-tion letter.

6.1. EXAMPLE OF THE FUNNEL AT WORK

Here is the Introduction from an important paper in atmospheric chemistry. 3 Th is is an extreme example of narrowing the funnel. It opened with a problem at the global scale (global warming), but the research defi ned the rate constant of a single chemical reaction. Th e paper had to convince readers that this extraordi-narily constrained piece of laboratory research made a contribution to under-standing the global climate system, which it did. Th at required a careful exercise to connect from the global to the molecular.

In example 6.1, I identify important points with numbers in curly brackets (e.g., {1}), and I eliminated references to make it easier to read the text.

Example 6.1 {1} Of all the trace tropospheric species (that is, excluding H 2 O and CO 2 ) methane contributes most to the infrared heating of the atmosphere. {2} Methane is also the most abundant hydrocarbon in the troposphere where it modulates the concentration of the OH free radical and serves as a source of CO. {3} Transport of methane to the stratosphere provides a termi-nation step, via the Cl + CH 4 reaction, for the chlorine-catalyzed destruction of ozone. Th e oxidation of methane in the stratosphere is an important source of water vapour in this region. During the past decade the abundance of methane in the troposphere has been increasing at a rate between 16 and 13 parts per 10 9 volume (p.p.b.v.) per year. {4} Th e total input and the identities and strengths of the diff erent atmospheric methane sources are not clearly defi ned. {5} To understand the atmospheric eff ects of methane, and possibly to regulate it, we need these parameters. {6} At present, the total fl ux of meth-ane into the atmosphere is estimated from the measured steady-state

1. J. P. Schimel, “Th e Bugs of Winter: Microbial Control of Soil Biogeochemistry during the Arctic Cold Season,” National Science Foundation (2004).

2. Bu et al., “Human ISL1 Hear Progenitors Generate Diverse Multipotent Cardiovascular Cell Lineages,” Nature 460 (2009): 113–17.

3. G. L. Vaghjiani and A. R. Ravishankara, “New Measurement of the Rate Coeffi cient for the Reaction of OH with Methane,” Nature 350 (1991): 406–9.

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52 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

abundance and the known removal rate of methane. It has been generally accepted that the only process by which methane is chemically degraded in the troposphere is the reaction with OH. {7} Th erefore, the rate coeffi cient, k 1 , for the reaction

OH + CH CH + H O4 3CH 2 (1)

is important in estimating the total fl ux of methane. Th e other loss processes, which are expected to be minor pathways, are surface deposition and reac-tion with Cl atoms in the lower stratosphere and upper troposphere.

{8} A close examination of the available data shows that only in three investigations was k 1 measured below 298 K, the temperature region most important to the atmosphere. Only Davis et al. measured k 1 down to 240 K. Reaction 1 is slow. Th erefore, at low temperatures, the presence of reactive impurities and occurrence of secondary reactions in laboratory systems can result in an overestimate of k 1 . {9} We studied reaction 1 using an experimen-tal method in which secondary chemistry could be minimized and the sys-tematic errors reduced.

{1} Th is is the opening, which frames a story about atmospheric methane (CH 4 ) and the greenhouse eff ect. Th is reaches for a wide audience — it includes anyone interested in global warming, which defi nitely includes Nature editors and readers.

{2} Th e second sentence introduces the other critical character in this story — OH (hydroxyl radical). By pointing out the CH 4 “modulates” OH, without discussing OH, the authors take for granted that you know why OH is important (a necessary weakness in a paper this short).

{3} Th is section adds information about why CH 4 is important in the global system. However, because the main story line goes from CH 4 to OH, this material may seem out of place — it goes back to the opening about why CH 4 is important. But the authors presumably felt it impor-tant to introduce OH radical as a character early on. Th us, this struc-ture creates an ABDCE story line. Th e fi rst two sentences formed the A part, and now this backs up to fi ll in the background (B).

{4} Th is is a critical statement in laying the base of the knowledge gap: “total input and . . . methane sources are not clearly defi ned.” Th is paper is going to more clearly defi ne them.

{5} Th is helps establish the importance of the research — we need to fi ll the knowledge gap to better manage sources and sinks and mitigate the role of CH 4 in causing global warming.

{6} Here is another critical point in establishing the knowledge gap. Th e sources of CH 4 are hard to measure, but the major CH 4 sink is reaction with OH radicals, so we can estimate CH 4 fl uxes into the atmosphere

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Th e Funnel: Connecting O and C 53

as being equal to the losses via reaction with OH radicals. Th is brings the OH radical — a central character — back into play.

{7} At this point, the authors have narrowed all the way down to the molecular scale and the importance of knowing the rate constant for this reaction: to understand the total fl ux of CH 4 to the atmosphere, we need to know the rate of its reaction with OH, and that means we need to know the rate constant for that reaction. Th is is essential to understanding the overall role of CH 4 in global warming.

{8} Here, they fi nish defi ning the knowledge gap. Having established that we need to know the rate constant k 1 , the authors tell us that only three studies have tried to measure k 1 at realistic temperatures, and only one has done so at a temperature that by implication, is in the right range for atmospheric reactions. We need better measurements of k 1 at real-istic temperatures to understand atmospheric CH 4 dynamics. Th ese authors quickly scaled down from the global to the micro scale and did so in a way that, at each step, identifi ed what we needed to know. Th ey only tell us what we know to defi ne the limits of that knowledge, rather than for its own sake.

{9} Th is is the specifi c statement of the challenge, and unfortunately, I think it’s a dud. Aft er clearly framing the knowledge gap and its impor-tance, the authors stated their challenge by saying “We studied Reaction 1 . . .” It’s obvious that the question is “What is the value of k 1 ?” But it would have defi ned the knowledge gap more concretely to say, “We measured the value of k 1 at temperatures down to 230 K using an experimental . . .” Th is weak challenge highlights an important point: you don’t need to be perfect to be successful. Th is was an impor-tant paper.

Th is was a Nature paper and so quite condensed — it had to narrow quickly with broad strokes. In papers for specialist journals, you have more space to develop the Introduction and can do the narrowing more gently and thoroughly. You probably won’t have as imposing a task either, narrowing all the way from global to molecular scales. However, the stepwise narrowing process will be the same — make sure that you aren’t telling us everything you know about a topic but developing the logical connections between each step to frame the knowledge gap.

6.2. BAD INTRODUCTIONS: FAILING TO DEFINE THE PROBLEM

A good Introduction defi nes a problem and narrows to an interesting question. A weak or poor Introduction, in contrast, either fails to defi ne the problem or tries to sell a solution before defi ning the problem, and so fails on curiosity.

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54 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

6.2.1. Failing to Identify the Problem

Many papers are unclear in defi ning the problem. Th ey introduce it, tell us that “little is known about this topic,” give us some information about it, and close the Introduction by saying “our objectives were to carry out the following tasks.” Such works are common in an editor’s “New Submissions” folder but are much less frequent in her “Accepted” folder.

Th e problem with this style of Introduction is that it does a poor job of defi ning the problem or the value of the solution. It’s not very convincing to say “little is known about X” for scientifi c, logical, and literary reasons.

Scientifi cally, it is unconvincing because it’s probably false. Very few of us have written a paper on a topic that hasn’t had tens or hundreds of studies already pub-lished on it. Invariably, we know a lot about the topic at hand. Th ere are important questions remaining, which is why we did the work, but those are bounded and defi ned by a large body of knowledge. So when someone says, “little is known about X,” we oft en feel that the author either doesn’t know the literature or is over-stating the case.

Logically, it’s unconvincing because aft er saying “little is known,” the authors describe a lot that is known. Even if the short list of facts is everything known on the subject, it comes across as a data dump that contradicts the argument. We don’t see the “little.”

Finally, linguistically, it’s not convincing because it’s not concrete. “Little is known” is fuzzy — how little is little? If you tell us the six things that are known, is that still a “little?” Because the language is fuzzy, the argument is unconvincing. To make it convincing, it needs to be concrete — what specifi cally do we not know?

You must explicitly defi ne the problem, as illustrated in example 6.1. Th ey didn’t say that “little is known about CH 4 sources.” Th at would have been inaccu-rate; we knew a lot about CH 4 sources. Rather, they said “sources are not clearly defi ned,” which is tighter language that implies something closer to “while the broad patterns are known, important details are not,” a true description of the state of knowledge at the time and enough to get the paper into Nature . A concrete statement that defi nes a small knowledge gap will do better than a fuzzy one that fails to defi ne one.

6.2.2. Offering a Solution before Defi ning a Problem

Sometimes authors off er a solution before defi ning the problem. As you are working on a paper, you live with the topic so closely for so long that it is easy to assume that the question is obvious. It can become hard to see that you haven’t posed it clearly. As a result, authors sometimes end up taking the problem for granted and focus on their solution. Th is creates what I call the “bizzwidget prob-lem” as illustrated by a scenario with a door-to-door salesman: “Hi, ma’am, I’m selling the new Buzco Bizzwidget. Th e Bizzwidget is the most amazing tool you’ve

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Th e Funnel: Connecting O and C 55

ever seen — why, I don’t know how you’ve ever lived without it! So here, let me show you some of the wonderful things it does.”

Ma’am is already trying to get rid of the salesman — without fi nding out that the Bizzwidget really is an amazing tool that she might want to buy. He’s trying to sell her a solution, but she doesn’t know she has a problem to solve. Th is strategy works with customers who are inordinately patient, but mostly with people in the “Bizzwidget community” who already know how wonderful the product is.

For the rest of us, we’re with the hapless “customer,” and the salesman is on the street staring at a closed door. If you are trying to sell us a bizzwidget solution, fi rst convince us we have a problem: “Hi, ma’am — have you experienced problem X? You have? Do you have a solution? You don’t? Well I do — let me show it to you; we call it the Buzco Bizzwidget.”

Now the Bizzwidget isn’t mumbo jumbo. Importantly, this approach engages anyone who has ever experienced problem X, not just the few who have heard of the Bizzwidget. It does this by opening with a concern many people share (defi n-ing the audience in the opening), and then showing us why we need a Bizzwidget (the body of the Introduction), before introducing the specifi c product (the chal-lenge). Th is approach engages our curiosity — do you have a solution? How does it work? It is also concrete — it identifi es a real problem and its solution.

If you don’t recognize the bizzwidget problem in science writing, consider the following example.

Example 6.2: Addressing complex interactions among chemistry, physics, and biology in climate systems requires an interdisciplinary approach. We propose to address this challenge by using Complex Systems Modeling Th eory (CSMT). CSMT has been used in chemical systems to model molecular reaction mechanisms and in cell biology to model physiological pathways. It has been used . . .

Th is uses the bizzwidget approach; it assumes that we know the problem that CSMT is the solution to and so doesn’t defi ne it. It doesn’t describe the complex interactions, how other approaches have struggled with them, what the CSMT approach is, or why it is better than other approaches. We may fi nd all that out later in the paper — that CSMT is a solution to a problem we care about — but unless our neighbor already has told us about CSMT, we’ve probably closed the door on this one. To sell us a solution, fi rst sell us a problem.

6.3. INTRODUCTION VERSUS LITERATURE REVIEW

Th e need to narrow the focus and lead the reader to your specifi c questions means that an eff ective Introduction cannot be merely a literature review that synopsizes what we know about a topic. Instead, because you must convince us of the importance of the problem, you must show us what we don’t know and why it is important.

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56 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Th e diff erence between a literature review and an Introduction can be subtle, because they both use the existing literature to discuss the state of knowledge. Th e distinction between them is that a literature review builds a solid wall — describing knowledge — whereas an Introduction focuses on the hole in that wall — describing ignorance. Th ey tell diff erent stories and move the story in diff erent ways. Th ey also use the existing literature diff erently; an Introduction focuses on the publica-tions that defi ne the edges, rather than the core of knowledge.

How do tell when you are writing a literature review rather than an Introduction? See whether you are focusing on telling us what we know or what we don’t. When you describe something we know, do you use it to identify the boundaries of that knowledge? If so, you’re writing an Introduction; if not, you’re probably creating a literature review.

One clear fl ag for when you’re doing a literature review is when your citations are at the beginning of sentences. Do you write: “Smith (2003) found X” or do you write: “X occurs (Smith 2003)”? Th e former tells a story about Smith and what she did; the latter, about nature and how it works. If you write the former, you are probably doing a data dump, collecting the information that seems relevant and writing it down, without synthesizing it and integrating it into a story or framing a knowledge gap. Th e important information is almost never that Smith found it; rather, it is almost always what she found. So why make Smith the subject of the sentence? Whenever you see that you’ve written a “Smith found . . .” sentence, ask whether the researcher, rather than the research, is what you want to tell us about. If not, rewrite it to focus on the fi ndings. Doing this will help you tighten up the arguments and sharpen the knowledge gap.

Th ere are cases in which you might want to highlight the researcher. Th e fi rst is when you are discussing an ongoing debate: “Although Smith (2003) reported X, Jones (2005) found Y.” Th is highlights that there is no agreed-on truth but a collection of individual opinions. If there is an accepted dogma that one researcher is challenging, however, you would write something like: “While most reports suggest X (e.g., Smith, 2003, Xu 2004), Jones (2005) found the opposite, arguing . . .”

When there are two camps with multiple papers supporting each side, it is probably best to condense and synthesize it all to “Th ere is still uncertainty about the nature of X, with some reports suggesting it is Y (Smith 2003, Xu 2004) and others suggesting it is Z (Arif 2005, Masukawa 2006).”

Th e “Smith found X” approach to discussing the literature is common; I do it all the time in my early draft s. But it frequently signals that we haven’t fully syn-thesized the information and fi gured out why we’re presenting it. It is a fl ag that we’re still in the data-dump stage and need at least one more major revision.

Most OCAR papers use a simple O → C fl ow in the Introduction, with a smooth funnel from the opening to the challenge to defi ne the knowledge gap. In contrast, most proposals use a structure more akin to ABDCE. Th ey have an opening section that makes the overall case for the work and briefl y sketches in the knowledge gap. Th en the background sharpens and fi lls in that sketch to jus-tify the proposal’s specifi c challenge. But that background is not a literature

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Th e Funnel: Connecting O and C 57

review — it must still be an introduction. Th e background is never a place for a data dump where you tell us everything about the fi eld. If a piece of information does not have a specifi c and concrete role in moving the story forward, it does not need to be included.

Th e vital elements of an Introduction are the opening and the challenge. Th ose are the “dots” that you must connect by fi lling in the background and forming the funnel. Th at material has only one purpose: to show a reader why answering your questions is essential to making progress on the overall problem. By the time readers reach the challenge, they should feel that your questions are the obvious ones, even if they had never thought about them before.

EXERCISES

6.1. Analyze published papers

Go back to the papers you’ve been analyzing. Look at their Introductions and determine whether they frame the knowledge gap eff ectively. Does the Introduction have a clean funnel that fl ows from the opening problem to the spe-cifi c questions?

6.2. Write a short article

Look at your short article and those of your group. Evaluate the funnel part of the Introduction — does it frame the knowledge gap? If not, revise it so that it does.

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Scientia (Latin): knowledge.

In the challenge, you describe the specifi c knowledge you hope to gain. Th is starts with the question that drove you to do the research. You did the work to discover the answer. From the question, we sometimes formulate a hypothesis and we usu-ally state specifi c objectives, which describe the information we will present. Some authors only pose the question, whereas others do all three, off ering a question, framing it into a hypothesis, and then describing specifi c research goals. Each approach has its place, but the question is the core of it all. If you don’t have a question, you are not doing good science. If readers can’t tell what it is, you are not writing good science.

7.1. QUESTIONS VERSUS HYPOTHESES

Th ere are people who argue that without a hypothesis, it isn’t science. Th at view grows from a strict focus on Popper’s argument that a theory is only scientifi c if it can be falsifi ed. 1 But Vaghjiani and Ravishankara (example 6.1) had no hypothesis

1. K. Popper, Th e Logic of Scientifi c Discovery (1934; Routledge Classics, 1959).

7

The Challenge

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Th e Challenge 59

about the rate constant for the reaction between methane and hydroxyl radicals; they did have a question, “what is the rate constant?” Was their work not science?

Diff erent fi elds of science have diff erent traditions about questions versus hypotheses. One community I work in submits proposals to the National Science Foundation Biology Directorate and demands hypotheses. Another submits to Geosciences and is slightly baffl ed by biologists’ obsession with them. Framing a hypothesis can be a powerful tool for organizing your thoughts and structuring your research, but a hypothesis merely takes your question and makes into a falsi-fi able prediction. Th e question, defi ning the knowledge gap, is still the key.

We oft en use hypotheses to test whether a relationship exists — to develop a theory. We don’t necessarily frame one to evaluate the nature of a relationship. An evolutionary biologist might ask if fl ower color controls whether pollinators visit a particular plant — they might frame the hypothesis: “hummingbirds prefer red fl owers.” Th at is testable and falsifi able. But Vaghjiani and Ravishankara knew that methane reacts with hydroxyl radicals and that the reaction has a rate constant, they just didn’t know what it is. What would they have hypothesized?

Interestingly, even biologists who routinely frame hypotheses for proposals might still ask a question in the challenge of a paper. I can’t give any global advice as to whether to pose a question or to transform it into a formal hypothesis; you need to know the culture of your fi eld. Just remember that the question comes fi rst and must be clear.

7.2. QUESTIONS VERSUS OBJECTIVES

Despite the importance of the question, many authors defi ne their challenge by stating “Our objectives were” rather than by saying “Our question was.” Th at is, they focus on the information they will collect, rather than the knowledge they hope to gain. Th ey assume that the question is obvious from all they have said in the introduction and they don’t need to state it explicitly. Th ey are almost always wrong.

Focusing on objectives instead of questions is weak science and weak storytell-ing. If you leave the question unstated and implicit, and jump straight to specifi c data-collection goals, the reader has to fi gure out what your question was and whether you even had one. You leave it to them to fi gure out how the work will advance knowledge. Th at violates principle 1 — it is the author’s job to make the reader’s job easy.

Focusing on objectives also doesn’t engage SUCCES. It doesn’t create unex-pectedness or curiosity — at least not the curiosity you want. A reader will wonder about your objectives. Why did you do this work? What was the purpose? What was the underlying question these tasks address? Is it possible that you were just aping experiments published by others without a real question of your own? Th ose are not questions about your science but about you and your motivation, and there is an underlying criticism embedded — why are you wasting my time with this?

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60 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

You have a question that drove your work. Make it clear. Th en you can tell us how you answer it.

7.3. WHAT COMES AFTER STATING THE QUESTION?

Aft er posing the question, a good challenge briefl y lays out the research approach. Th is is where you tell us about specifi c objectives and the information you will generate. If you tested whether a pollutant is carcinogenic, did you use mechanis-tic toxicology or epidemiology? If you were identifying bacteria in nature, did you grow them in culture or sequence DNA extracted from environmental samples? If you are measuring the rate constant for a reaction, did you do it in gas phase or aqueous solution? Here, stating objectives can be useful in providing a map that helps readers assess the rest of the paper. Were your methods appropriate for the question? Did you learn what you hoped to? Where are the remaining gaps?

Some papers also provide a brief overview of the Conclusions, usually starting with language like “In this paper we show . . .” Aft er a full Introduction, the authors telegraph their Conclusions. Th is telegraphed OCAR works well for an impatient audience but one that still wants to see how arguments develop. It is more front-loaded than normal OCAR, but not as much as ABDCE or LDR. Th is approach is common in the biomedical literature, but is not unknown in other fi elds. I suspect it evolved to help readers screen papers quickly — knowing the proposed conclu-sions makes them easier to evaluate as you read.

7.4. GOOD CHALLENGES

In papers for specialist journals, a good challenge almost always condenses con-ceptually to “to learn X, we did Y.” Th at is, they present the question and lay out an approach to answering it, as illustrated in example 7.1. Th is paper explored how living in a complex environment may enhance brain development.

Example 7.1 Our goal in this study was twofold. First, we tested whether an animal’s phys-ical environment would aff ect hippocampal attributes. Specifi cally, we tested whether food-caching mountain chickadees ( Poecile gambeli ) housed in cap-tivity diff ered in hippocampal volume, hippocampal neuron number and neuronal density as compared with fully developed wild-caught conspecifi cs. We predicted that captivity, with reduced environmental complexity and restricted memory-based experiences (compared with memory-based expe-riences aff orded in the natural environment), would reduce hippocampal volume, neuron number and, potentially, neuron density. 2

2. L. D. LaDage, T. C. Roth, R. A. Fox, and V. V. Pravosudov, “Eff ects of Captivity and Memory-Based Experiences on the Hippocampus in Mountain Chickadees,” Behavioral Neuroscience 123 (2009): 284–91.

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Th e Challenge 61

Why is this a good challenge? It is long and technical, without linguistic fl our-ish. Th e authors, however, do several things well. First, they remind us of the over-all issue — fundamentally a question about controls on brain development, a topic of wide interest and import, even though the specifi c question is narrow. In fact, the specifi c question about captive birds and their hippocampuses, by itself, might seem more a candidate for a Golden Fleece award for pointless Ivory Tower science than for the Faculty of 1000 website of interesting and important papers, which is where I found it. Th e authors did an excellent job of connect-ing their specifi c question to the larger problem. Th ey go further, though — even aft er posing a tight question, they frame a hypothesis that defi nes their measurements and the data that would falsify or support it. As you read the rest of the paper, you know what the authors think and what they did; you can easily follow along as they assess their results and develop their Conclusions. Nicely done.

Example 7.2 is from a paper looking at the mechanisms of light perception and visual responses in marine invertebrates. What chemicals create the signal? Some work suggests that diacylglycerol (DAG) has a role in signaling. But the authors argue that DAG can’t completely explain observed responses and so propose an alternative signal molecule: phosphatidylinositol bisphosphate (PIP 2 ), which breaks down to DAG.

Example 7.2 Despite the tantalizing evidence for DAG and/or its downstream products in visual transduction and the synergistic role of calcium, in no instance has application of such chemical stimuli fully reproduced the remarkable size and speed of the photocurrent. Th is may imply that yet another signal may be missing from the proposed schemes. In other systems PIP 2 has been shown to possess signaling functions of its own, independent from those of its hydrolysis products. . . . Th ese observations prompted the conjecture that in microvillar photoreceptors PIP 2 may help keep the channels closed and its hydrolysis could promote their opening. In the present report, we examined the consequences of manipulating PIP 2 on membrane currents and light responsiveness in is qolated photoreceptors from Pecten and Lima . 3

Th e authors clearly lay out the problem — DAG can’t explain existing observa-tions. Th ey hypothesize a new mechanism that involves PIP 2 and briefl y describe the experiments they did to test this hypothesis — “to learn X, we did Y.” Even though this was in a specialist journal, the authors use strong words to engage curiosity and attention, notably tantalizing and remarkable .

As an example of a telegraphed OCAR structure, consider example 7.3. Th is paper explores how the transcriptional machinery at tRNA genes may interfere

3. M. Del Pilar Gomez and E. Nasi, “A Direct Signaling Role for Phosphatidylinositol 4,5-Bisphosphate (PIP2) in the Visual Excitation Process of Microvillar Receptors,” Journal of Biological Chemistry 280 (2005): 16784–89.

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62 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

with DNA replication in a way that can promote chromosome breakage. Th ey examined how certain proteins regulate tRNA gene transcription.

Example 7.3: Although Rrm3 and Tof1 might collaborate to set the rate of fork progression through tRNA genes, there is no evidence that this rate is subject to physio-logical regulation by mechanisms that determine the balance of activity between Rrm3 and Tof1. Furthermore, tRNA gene regulation is not known to be tied to fl uctuations in the rate of DNA replication other than by mecha-nisms that generally tune the proliferation rate to nutrient availability and overall cellular fi tness for growth and division. However, there is evidence that the appearance of double strand breaks (DSBs) in DNA can trigger repression of the tRNA genes. Specifi cally, tRNA gene transcription is actively repressed in cells treated with UV light or the alkylating agent methane methylsulfonate (MMS). Th e secondary DNA lesions generated in UV-irradiated and MMS-treated cells include DSBs. Th is fact, as well as the observation that tRNA gene repression requires a protein kinase (CK2) pre-viously implicated in adaptation to chromosome breakage, led us to hypoth-esize that the canonical DNA-damage response (DDR) checkpoint pathway controls tRNA gene transcription. Th e aim of the present study was to test this hypothesis. In pursuing this aim, we discovered an unexpected system of regulation in which checkpoint proteins specialized for signaling replication stress repress tRNA gene transcription during normal proliferation. Th ese proteins also convey repressive signals to tRNA genes in cells exposed to genotoxins that cause replication interference. Th ese data provide the fi rst evidence that the fork-pausing activity of tRNA genes is regulated by the checkpoint system that has evolved to control replication. 4

Th e authors synthesize existing knowledge to pose a clear hypothesis; they could have stopped by saying that their aim was to test that hypothesis. Had they done so, this still would have been a fi ne challenge. But then they highlight that in testing the hypothesis they discovered a new regulation system, in which the mechanisms that control the rate of DNA replication also regulate tRNA tran-scription. Th is both prepared you for the story to come and raised the curiosity factor to intensify the challenge.

Th ese examples all came from papers in specialist journals written using OCAR story structure and IMRaD sections; they all used the “to learn X, we did Y” form. When a paper uses a diff erent structure, the challenge is oft en condensed to focus more intensely on the question. Example 7.4, from the fi eld of physical chemistry, illustrates this in an LDR-structured paper; it is a report in Science that doesn’t use subheads to break up the sections. Th e authors ended the paper’s lead with a

4. V. C. Nguyen, B. W. Clelland, D. J. Hockman, S. L. Kujat-Choy, H. E. Mewhort, and M. C. Schultz, “Replication Stress Checkpoint Signaling Controls tRNA Gene Transcription,” N ature Structural and Molecular Biology 17 (2010): 976–81.

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Th e Challenge 63

strongly worded question to ensure that you didn’t miss the challenge and to eff ec-tively engage the broad audience of this journal.

Example 7.4: However, three decades of work in the gas phase have explored how the spe-cifi cs of the forces between atoms involved in isolated chemical reactions determine the fi nal energy partitioning as the reaction moves from the tran-sition state. Is knowledge of these specifi cs completely immaterial to reaction dynamics in solution? 5

Th ese authors defi ne the knowledge gap and ask an interesting question that confronts the reader — is the three decades of work on gases “completely immate-rial” to solution-phase reactions? Th is taps into SUCCES: it draws on simple by asking a clean and straightforward question, and it draws on unexpected and emotion by using the highly charged phrase “completely immaterial” to challenge decades of high-quality science.

7.5. BAD CHALLENGES

If the challenge is unclear, readers will be left adrift . If they don’t know where the paper is going, how will they know whether they got there? A challenge is ineff ec-tive if it doesn’t concretely state the question or hypothesis or if gives the reader the wrong impression as to what it is.

Th e most common type of unclear challenge is where authors focus on the information, rather than the knowledge they are trying to acquire; they leave off the “to learn X . . .” and just say “we did Y.” Th ey focus on the objectives, rather than the question. I think many authors fall into this trap because they know the material so well that the question seems obvious. No reader, however, knows as much about your work as you do, and your thinking is rarely completely apparent. Th e challenge is too important to leave it to assumption, hope, or chance. You must make the question clear. If you fail to do this, your papers will lack power, and your proposals will likely lack funding.

So let us evaluate some weak challenges and discuss how to improve them. Th e fi rst example explores why the immune system sometimes breaks down.

Example 7.5 Some T-cells may be anergic — that is, unable to proliferate aft er being restim-ulated with an antigen. Some anergic T-cells are unable to link to the T-cell–antigen presenting cell (APC) interface. Here we examined the structural

5. A. C. Moskun, A. E. Jailaubekov, S. E. Bradforth, G. H. Tao, and R. M. Stratt, “Rotational Coherence and a Sudden Breakdown in Linear Response Seen in Room-Temperature Liquids,” Science 311 (2008): 1907–11.

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64 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

characteristics of anergic mouse T-cells and we tested their functional response to being rechallenged with antigen-loaded APCs.

Here the authors tell us which data they will collect, but they don’t specify the knowledge gap. What is the question? Presumably these researchers are trying to fi gure out what makes a T-cell anergic, and from that to understand why immune systems break down, with the ultimate goal of fi nding ways to prevent the break-down. But that thought process is opaque — the implicit question is too deeply buried. Th is would have been much stronger if they had clarifi ed the “to do X” part of the challenge, perhaps like this:

“To determine what causes mouse T-cells to be anergic, we evaluated the struc-tural characteristics of T-cells and how they responded to being rechallenged with antigen-loaded APCs.”

Th at simple addition would have clarifi ed the question and made it stronger. Example 7.6 is from environmental science and is about how herbivores struc-

ture plant communities.

Example. 7.6 We evaluated the possibility that hares infl uence the structure of shrublands by acting as keystone herbivores that maintain gaps between the shrubs and so infl uence the competitive interactions of plants recruiting into those gaps.

In this one, the question itself is unclear. What do hares do that infl uences shrubland structure and competitive interactions? What does the investigator hope to learn?

Th ere are several implied hypotheses within this challenge: (a) hares control plant community structure, (b) they maintain gaps between shrubs, and (c) they infl uence competitive interactions within the gaps. Th ose hypotheses should be explicit and concrete. Th is should also describe the experiment that will test those hypotheses. Consider this as an alternative:

“ We hypothesized that hares control the structure of shrublands by foraging on shrub seedlings in the gaps between mature plants. If true, hares act as keystone herbivores by maintaining these gaps, in which grasses can outcompete shrub seedlings. We tested this hypothesis by following hare movement to determine where they eat and by analyzing their feces to determine what they eat .”

Th is states the hypothesis and suggests its larger implications — hares are keystone species that have a disproportionate impact on ecosystem structure and function. It also briefl y identifi ed the experimental approach used to test the hypothesis.

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Th e Challenge 65

Example 7.7 is also from environmental science, specifi cally grassland ecology and global change biology. Th e authors pose two goals, both of which are clear. Th e problem is their sequence.

Example 7.7 Th e study had two goals. First, we aimed to constrain our estimates of grass-land plant production by comparing measurements based on two techniques: maximum biomass at the end of the season and periodic measurements of photosynthesis. Second, we examined the response of grass growth to a com-bination of elevated CO 2 and increased temperatures, conditions that are expected to occur with climate warming.

Why is this challenge weak? Th e authors presented the goals in an order that is more chronological than intellectual. First they validated their methods, and then they assessed what the data meant (i.e. We did X to learn Y). But we expect the most important objective to come fi rst, defi ning a study’s overall thrust. Following objectives should elaborate and refi ne that main goal. Starting with the data-collection goal gives readers the impression that the work is primarily comparing approaches for measuring plant growth — narrowly useful, but not broadly engaging.

Th e interesting question is posed in the second objective: how will plants respond to climate change? Th is is the To learn Y part of the challenge. Because it comes second, it seems subordinate to the methods comparison. Th e language reinforces that hierarchy; the fi rst goal is stated using strong verbs: the authors will “constrain” and “compare” measurements. Th e second, in contrast, uses weak language: they will “examine” a response. To fi x this problem, we need to switch the order of the objectives and highlight the core question:

“ Th e primary goal of this study was to evaluate how grass growth responds to a combination of elevated CO 2 and increased temperatures, conditions that are expected to occur with climate warming. To validate our plant growth measures, we used two approaches to estimate plant production: maximum biomass at the end of the season and periodic measurements of photosynthesis .”

Now this seems like a more interesting paper — the real question is clear and is unmistakably about a topic that is broadly interesting and relevant.

A good challenge must defi ne not only the data you collect but the knowledge you hope to gain. If you read something and can’t fi nd a clear statement of the question or hypothesis, or if that question itself is unclear, the challenge will be weak and will weaken the entire story. With a proposal, that weakening is likely to be fatal. Remember that the critical part of the challenge is not “we did Y” but “to learn X.”

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66 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

EXERCISES

7.1. Analyze published papers

Evaluate the challenge of each paper. Does it clearly frame the question? Could you write it better? If so, how?

7.2. Write a short article

In your short article, did you clearly pose the question? If not, rewrite the piece to do so.

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You are not just presenting your results, you are telling a story.

In OCAR, action makes up the main body of the story and includes everything between the challenge and the resolution. In a paper, this includes the Materials and Methods, the Results, and most of the Discussion. In a proposal, it is the description of what you intend to do. Because so much goes in these sections, you could write an entire book on it (and many have). Particularly when it comes to how to present data (tables, fi gures, etc.), there is a wealth of information. Because this is a book about writing , I focus on how to integrate these sections into the overall story and how to use story structure to present them most eff ectively.

In writing the action, the critical message is to remember the last S in SUCCES — story . You are not just presenting your results, you are telling a story. You are, of course, free to write papers that simply present experiments and data; but journals are equally free to reject them. It’s not that readers aren’t interested in your techniques and results — we are. We want to know what you did and what you found. Th at is the concrete core of the science, and we must be able to evaluate it to assess the validity of your conclusions. But without embedding the action within the larger story, the paper easily becomes aimless, incoherent, and dull. What is the point of all that work? What do these results mean? Do they answer your question? Do they support your hypotheses and conclusions?

8

Action

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68 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

By integrating the action into the story, you give it structure and direction. You help the reader work through the results to fi gure out what they mean and how they fi t together. Let the story guide you in describing your methods, in choosing which results to present, and in how to present them. As you write each section, think about it as a mini-story that has its own OCAR elements. Consider why you are telling us any particular piece of information — how it contributes to the larger story — and frame the presentation to highlight why you did something as well as what you did.

Th e action sections of a paper can be separated into two distinct parts: describ-ing what you did (Materials and Methods) and what came of it (Results and Discussion).

8.1. METHODS

A principle of science is that other researchers should be able to repeat a piece of work, which means a paper must off er a detailed explanation of procedures. Few of us, however, are likely to repeat a piece of work; more oft en we evaluate the methods to assess the credibility of the data and conclusions. What we need is an overview of the information you were trying to gain and the approach you used to gain it. Most readers don’t want the detail in their fi rst reading and are impatient — so much so that many journals now put the Methods and Materials section at the end of the paper. To serve the needs of all possible readers, the best way to describe a method is use a lead/development (LD) structure, providing an initial overview for all and then the details for those who need them.

For example, consider the following three ways to describe a method. I’ve seen each of these approaches used many times in papers, but which is best?

Example 8.1 Enzyme Inactivation following 3-HPAA Metabolism

Enzyme inactivation associated with 3-HPAA metabolism was mea-sured by the method of Turman et al. (2008).

Example 8.2 Enzyme Inactivation following 3-HPAA Metabolism

PGHS-1 or PGHS-2 was incubated with 25 μM 3-HPAA. When oxygen uptake was complete, arachidonic acid (25 μM) was added, and the maximal rate was determined as described above and normalized to the DMSO control. Th e concentration dependence of PGHS-2 inactivation was analyzed in a similar manner with varying concentrations of 3-HPAA (from 10 nM to 25 μM).

Example 8.3 Enzyme Inactivation following 3-HPAA Metabolism

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Action 69

To characterize the extent of enzyme inactivation associated with 3-HPAA metabolism, PGHS-1 or PGHS-2 was incubated with 25 μM 3-HPAA. When oxygen uptake was complete, arachidonic acid (25 μM) was added, and the maximal rate was determined as described above and nor-malized to the DMSO control. Th e concentration dependence of PGHS-2 inactivation was analyzed in a similar manner with varying concentrations of 3-HPAA (from 10 nM to 25 μM). 1

Example 8.1 is truly miserable — it doesn’t say anything about how the mea-surement was done. Because the specifi c method can aff ect how we interpret results, we could not evaluate this work without tracking down the original paper. Talk about making the reader’s job hard! Every paper is supposed stand on its own, and this one would not.

Example 8.2 is imperfect — it goes straight into detail without an opening to guide us in what those details are about. Th e header provides some structure, but we don’t read subheads as part of the sentence. If you have a page limit, you can get away with this, otherwise, try another approach.

Example 8.3 is the best and the one Turman et al. used — it adds a few extra words to provide a brief overview of the goal before describing the approach. Th e details are there, but the overview is enough to follow the paper. All readers can get the information they need.

Th e other way to make methods easy to follow is to tap into established sche-mas. Many methods and techniques are well known in their fi eld, and some have specifi c names. Use them when available. For example:

We measured protein by the Lowry approach. We measured microbial biomass by the chloroform slurry approach as

described by Fierer and Schimel (2003). We amplifi ed DNA by hot-start PCR.

Th ese start by describing what the authors did (measure protein, biomass, etc.) and then tell us how by naming a well-known approach. For many readers, that is enough. Tapping into the schema of the Lowry protein assay or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) makes the description seem simpler and more concrete. From that base, the author provides the experimental details, but may only need to highlight diff erences from the standard approach: “We measured protein by a modifi cation of the Lowry protein assay, in which sodium citrate, instead of sodium tartrate, is used in reagent A.”

Th rough such approaches, using LD structure and tapping into established schemas, you can make your methods easier for both novices and experts, allow-ing them to get the information they need at whichever level they choose.

1. M. V. Turman, P. J. Kingsley, and L. J. Marnett, “Characterization of an AM404 Analogue, N-(3-Hydroxyphenyl)arachidonoylamide, as a Substrate and Inactivator of Prostaglandin Endoperoxide Synthase,” Biochemistry 48 (2009): 12233–41.

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70 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

8.2. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

8.2.1. To Separate, or Not to Separate: That Is the Question

Th e Introduction and Methods comprise the fi rst half of the paper, where you justify and explain what you did. Th e second half is where you describe the outcome: your fi ndings and interpretations. You have fl exibility in structuring this part of a paper to best present your contributions. Many papers separate Results from Discussion, but others combine them in a variety of ways. However you choose to organize this material, that choice should be grounded in two core principles of writing and science:

1. Make the reader’s job easy (our principle no. 1): present results and interpretations in a way that best develops the story.

2. Readers must be able to distinguish what you found from what you think.

I take that second principle further and argue that there are three types of material in a paper:

1. Data: Your actual results. 2. Inference: Th ese are the clear and robust interpretations of the data that

almost any practitioner in the fi eld would draw; these are sometimes so obvious that we treat them as data themselves.

3. Interpretation: Your thoughts, hypotheses, and speculation about what the results may mean for the larger problem you identifi ed.

Somewhere in a paper you should address each of these items. Optimizing the mix, however, is a balancing act between the author’s taste and confi dence and those of the reviewers and editors. Deciding how to structure the presentation is equally a balancing act.

Fields vary in how they deal with results versus interpretation/discussion, depending on the length of papers (short papers tend to integrate) and on the nature of data presented. In fi elds such as biology and environmental science, where the core information reported is straight data (e.g., chemical concentra-tions, DNA sequences, etc.), the norm leans toward separate Results and Discussion sections. In more theoretical fi elds, such as physics, raw data are oft en processed through theory and models to convert them into the information reported; there is less separation between result and interpretation, so papers tend toward a more integrated presentation.

Using a combined Results and Discussion is also common in observational/analytical disciplines such as geophysics, where scholars collect information in the fi eld, analyze samples for chemical or isotopic composition, and then use these data to try to reconstruct the history and dynamics of a region. Because each type of information adds an extra dimension to the discussion, it makes more sense to

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Action 71

describe a data set and its meaning before going on to discuss the next line of evidence. In modeling papers, it also frequently makes sense to break the presentation into modules, rather than separate all the results from any discussion of them.

Even in experimental fi elds, there are times when an integrated approach is most eff ective. For example, when experiments are sequential, with each based on the results of the previous, it can be impossible to intelligibly present all the data before discussing it. Such work usually calls for a more chronological narrative organized by experiment, with each section including both Results and Discussion.

Another time to use a combined approach is when there is a strong integration of data and inference. Consider example 8.4, a paper evaluating a transmembrane protein in Mycobacterium tuberculosis . 2 Th e authors divided the combined Results and Discussion into four subsections.

Example 8.4 Sections within a Combined Results and Discussion

Th e B and C Domains of M. tuberculosis Rv0899 Form Two Independently Structured Modules Th ree-Dimensional Structure of the B Domain of Rv0899 Implications for the Biological Function of Rv0899 Implications for the Organization of Rv0899 in the Mycobacterial Membranes

Th e authors could have split these, putting the fi rst two sections into Results and the latter two into Discussion, but they didn’t because the fi rst sections are not just data. Th ey contain analyses that relate to the proteins’ specifi c biochemical functions, which were necessary to discuss but did not develop the larger story about Mycobacterium ’s pathogenicity.

Th is is illustrated in the following paragraph from the fi rst section, which weaves together data and inference.

Example 8.5 Paragraph Integrating Results and Inference

Notably, the spectra of Rv0899-B (Figure 3B, red) and Rv0899-C (Figure 3B, blue) form perfect complementary subsets of the spectrum from Rv0899-BC (Figure 3A), spanning both domains, with the exception of some peaks from residues in the BC connecting region. Th is demonstrates that the B and C domains constitute independently folded modules, as suggested by sequence hom*ology. Th e resonance line widths measured in the three spec-tra are very similar, further indicating that all three polypeptides exist as

2. P. Teriete, Y. Yao, A. Kolodzik, J. Yu, H. Song, M. Niederweis, and F. M. Marassi, “ Mycobacterium tuberculosis Rv0899 Adopts a Mixed R/ β -Structure and Does Not Form a Transmembrane β -Barrel,” Biochemistry 49 (2010): 2768–77.

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monomeric species in solution. Since the line widths are not appreciably larger in the spectra of the BC polypeptide, the B and C domains may be signifi cantly dynamically decoupled.

Because the fi rst two sections integrated data and inference, calling them Results would have mislabeled the material. Pulling all the analysis out, however, would have disrupted the paper’s overall fl ow. Instead, the authors used a partially integrated structure that fl ows from more Result-like to more Discussion-like material. Within this hybrid structure, they distinguished results from interpreta-tion by presenting the data fi rst and by using words like demonstrates and indicat-ing to identify inferences. Th is was nicely done.

Imagine, however, if they had written this as follows.

Example 8.6 Th e B and C domains constitute independently folded modules, as indicated by the fact that their spectra form perfect complementary subsets of the spectrum from Rv0899-BC.

I would characterize this sentence as pure Discussion. Th ough it refers to the data, it does so to support an argument and the data come aft er the argument. Whenever the data come fi rst, it feels like you are drawing your interpretations from them, and so are obeying Lamott’s dictum of “listen to your characters.” When conclusions come before the data, it feels like you are imposing plot. Th at is true even within a single sentence, as illustrated by examples 8.5 and 8.6.

Th e important point here is that while it is always essential to distinguish results from discussion of them, it isn’t critical to separate them physically. Each scientifi c discipline has its own standards for dealing with this, even though most rely on OCAR for the overall story structure. As an author, you decide which approach best fi ts your fi eld and best serves your story.

8.2.2. Choosing Data to Present

Th e most important decision in describing results is not how to present your data but which data to present. We oft en collect a lot of data, not all of which is needed to build the story. Which to condense? Which to eliminate? Th ese decisions are diffi cult, both intellectually and emotionally. Deleting data from a paper hurts — it feels like saying your work was wasted. But it wasn’t — collecting those data helped you fi gure out the story and identify the parts that could be cut.

An example of using story to decide how to trim data is a paper that a former student of mine wrote evaluating the seasonal patterns of diff erent forms of plant-available nitrogen in Alaskan tundra soils. 3 Mike Weintraub spent months

3. M. N. Weintraub and J. P. Schimel, “Th e Seasonal Dynamics of Amino Acids and Other Nutrients in Alaskan Arctic Tundra Soils,” Biogeochemistry . 73 (2005): 359–80.

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developing a high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method to ana-lyze soil amino acids, more months generating the raw data, and still more months processing those data. Two results were central to guiding the decision of which data to present: (1) all the amino acids followed the same trends through the year, and (2) because it is diffi cult to identify and quantify every amino acid in soil, a quick and easy colorimetric analysis of total free amino acids (TFAA) was a better estimate of amino acids as a nitrogen source than the more involved HPLC method. So was all the HPLC work wasted? Not at all — it was essential. Th e only way to fi nd this out was to invest the time and run both methods in parallel. But this raised the question of how to present the amino acid data. Th e natural temp-tation was to present all of it. But that was a huge data set, while the simple story could be collapsed to two words: “they covaried.” Th e reader didn’t need all the data to get that point; in fact, it would have been a distraction.

Weintraub bit the bullet and collapsed the amino acid data (fi gure 8.1 ). Th e top panel is critical because it shows concentrations of the three forms of plant-available N: ammonium (NH 4 + ), nitrate (NO 3 – ), and TFAA. He considered

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74 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

not showing any data for specifi c amino acids and saying “all amino acids followed the same trends across time (data not shown).” However, he included the lower panel to more concretely show that you don’t need those data and can focus on the TFAA data in the upper panel. Years of work was collapsed into a few subordinate panels in one fi gure in the paper. Weintraub was able to make the decision to cut so drastically because he knew the story; it was about seasonal patterns of bioavailable N, not only amino acids. Painful, yes, but eff ective story-telling and eff ective science writing.

Writers talk about having to “murder your darlings” — the parts you adore but that don’t contribute suffi ciently to the overall piece. It’s good advice for scien-tists, too.

With our increasing ability to include information in electronic appendices and archives, what you should do in a case like this would be to archive all the data. Others may need those data for modeling, meta-analyses, or other kinds of postpublication use. Increasingly, funding agencies are requiring that data be archived and accessible, and journals are beginning to follow suit. So it’s a good idea to get in the habit. Too much valuable data has withered away in the fi ling cabinets of retired faculty.

8.2.3. Presenting Data

Aft er deciding which results to present, you need to fi gure out how to present them. You could tell us “X was 42,” but that would leave the reader wondering why you presented that datum, what it means, and how it fi ts into the story.

To make it easy for the reader to understand your results, you need give us more than the raw data. You need to synthesize them into a pattern and fi t them into the larger story to provide context. You do this by telling a short story about each data set with a clear opening to introduce and frame the presentation.

Most results call for an LD structure: fi rst frame the major point or pattern, then fl esh out the detail. Don’t present all the details and then synopsize them, or worse, present them without synopsizing or synthesizing at all. Without a frame-work, readers struggle with details.

Example 8.7 illustrates this LD approach. It comes from a paper that evalu-ated the factors that regulate the diversity of soil bacteria. 4 Th e investigators col-lected soils from across North America, extracted DNA, and used a fi ngerprinting technique to estimate bacterial diversity.

Example 8.7 Soil bacterial diversity varied across ecosystem types (fi gure 8.2 ). Of all soil and site variables examined, soil pH was, by far, the best predictor of soil

4. N. Fierer and R. B. Jackson, “Th e Diversity and Biogeography of Soil Bacterial Communities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (2006): 626–31. I reproduced only fi gure 1B, and have deleted text from this paragraph that refers to fi gure 1A.

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bacterial diversity (r 2 = 0.58, P < 0.0001) with the lowest levels of diversity observed in acid soils. Because soils with pH levels > 8.5 are rare, it is not clear whether the relationship between bacterial diversity is truly unimodal, as indicated in fi gure 8.2 , or whether diversity simply plateaus in soils with near-neutral pHs. Likewise, because our fi ngerprinting method underesti-mates total bacterial diversity, we cannot predict how the absolute diversity of bacteria changes across the pH gradient. When we compare paired sam-pling locations with similar vegetation and climate but very diff erent soil pHs, we fi nd evidence for the strong correlation between bacterial diversity and soil pH at the local scale. For example, two deciduous forest soils col-lected in the Duke Forest, North Carolina, showed that the soil with the higher pH (Site DF2, pH = 6.8) had an estimated bacterial richness 60 % higher than the more acidic soil (Site DF3, pH = 5.1). Similarly for two trop-ical forest soils collected <1 km apart in the Peruvian Amazon, the soil with the higher pH (Site PE8, pH = 5.5) had an estimated bacterial richness 26 % higher than the more acidic soil (Site PE7, pH = 4.1).

Note how the authors describe this graph; they start with a clear lead — bacterial diversity varied and that variation was driven by pH. Elsewhere in the paper they show the lack of relationship with other environmental variables to reinforce the conclusion that pH is the main control. Aft er making that point,

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Figure 8.2. Th e relationship between soil pH and bacterial and phylotype richness, defi ned as the number of unique phylotypes. Symbols correspond to general ecosystem categories, and labels denote individual soils. Copyright © 2006 National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. Reprinted with permission.

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76 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

they off er two caveats: they can’t tell whether diversity declines at high pH or pla-teaus, and a fi ngerprinting technique is not an absolute measure of total bacterial diversity. Th at done, they go into more detailed analysis of the data and show how more specifi c comparisons reinforce the overall conclusion — even when soils are close together and have similar vegetation, the more acid soil has lower diversity. Th is was a very clear LD structure — you get the entire story in the fi rst two sen-tences, even though the paragraph goes on for an additional fi ve.

8.2.4. Statistics and Stories

In many fi elds of science, statistics are at the core of data presentation. Statistics allow us to distinguish treatment eff ects from random variation. Although statis-tics are essential for establishing the credibility of your conclusions, remember that the story is not in the statistics — it is in the data themselves. When you tell the story through the lens of the statistics, by focusing on the statistical analysis rather than on the data, you steal both clarity and power from the story.

To illustrate telling the story through the lens of the statistics, imagine that you were writing fi ction. Would you write “John’s aff ection for Jane was signifi cantly greater than zero”? Of course not, it sounds silly. More important, though, it isn’t what we want to know. What we want to know is whether John likes having the occasional cup of coff ee with Jane or whether he is desperately, madly, passion-ately in love with her. Either would mean that he “signifi cantly” likes her, but the story is in the amount.

Similarly, consider a study examining the eff ect of elevated temperature on methane emissions to the atmosphere, a process important in the climate system. Is it adequate to say “warming signifi cantly increased methane emissions ( p < 0.05)”? Again, no — the story is in the amount. To model the climate system, you need to know how much warming increases emissions. Is it by a factor of 1.2 or of 12? Th e p -value establishes credibility by describing the data’s quality — the diff er-ence is not random variation — but it doesn’t say anything about their meaning. A better way to describe these data would be “warming increased methane emis-sions by a factor of 3.4 ( p < 0.05).” By focusing on the data and making the statis-tics supporting information, you can tell a story that says more about nature and is more engaging without forgoing rigor.

As an example, consider fi gure 8.3 . In panel A there is a large diff erence (the treatment is 2.3 x the control) that is unquestionably statistically signifi cant. Panel B shows data with the same statistical signifi cance ( p = 0.02), but the diff erence between the treatments is smaller. You could describe both of these graphs by saying, “Th e treatment signifi cantly increased the response ( p = 0.02).” Th at would be true, but the stories in panels A and B are diff erent — in panel A, there is a strong eff ect and in panel B, a weak one. I would describe panel A by saying, “Th e treatment increased the response by a factor of 2.3 ( p = 0.02)”; for panel B, I might write, “Th e treatment increased the response by only 30 percent, but this increase was statistically signifi cant ( p = 0.02).”

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78 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Th e tricky question is what to write about panel C. Th e diff erence between treatment and control is the same as in panel A (a factor of 2.3), but the data are more variable and so the statistics are weaker, in this case above the threshold that many use to distinguish whether there is a “signifi cant” diff erence at all. Many would describe this panel by writing, “Th ere was no signifi cant eff ect of the treat-ment ( p > 0.05).” Such a description, however, has several problems.

Th e fi rst problem is that many readers would infer that there was no diff erence between treatment and control. In fact though, they diff ered by a factor of 2.3. Th at is never the “same.” Also, with a p value of 0.07, the probability that the eff ect was due to the experimental treatment is still greater than 90 percent. Th us, a statement like this is probably making a Type II error — rejecting a real eff ect.

Th e second problem is that just saying there was no signifi cant eff ect mixes results and interpretation. When you do a statistical test, the F and p values are results . Deciding whether the test is signifi cant is interpretation . When you describe the data solely in terms of whether the diff erence was signifi cant, you present an interpretation of the data as the data, which violates an important prin-ciple of science. Any specifi c threshold for signifi cance is an arbitrary choice with no fundamental basis in either science or statistics. 5

I might approach panel C by describing the results as they are: “Th e response in the treatment was 2.3 times higher than in the control ( p = 0.07)” or, to be con-servative, as “Th e response in the treatment was 2.3 times higher than in the con-trol, but the diff erence was only signifi cant at p = 0.07.” Th ese each present all of the information — the diff erence and the probability.

Another example of data versus statistics is in fi gure 8.4 . Is this a strong or weak relationship? If you evaluate these data through the lens of the statistics, you would describe it as a strong relationship because p = 0.001: “there is a highly signifi cant positive slope.” If you look at the data, however, you would see this relationship as weak — the x variable explains only 10 percent of the variation in y .

5. D. S. Moore and G. P. McCabe, Introduction to the Practice of Statistics (Freeman, 2006).

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Figure 8.4. Describing the strength of a relationship: fi t versus signifi cance.

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Action 79

In their own ways, each perspective is correct. Th is is a robust but weak relation-ship. Th e x variable has some infl uence over the y , but other factors explain most of the variance. Th e best description of this graph, that is, the most complete and accurate, would be “the relationship between x and y is weak ( R 2 = 0.10) but sta-tistically signifi cant ( p = 0.001) .”

By focusing on the data, being concrete, and showing the whole story, you eff ectively and honestly present your results and allow the reader to evaluate them, fulfi lling core principles of both writing and science.

8.3. DISCUSSION

Discussion is where you present your thoughts and interpretations, where you answer the questions you posed in the challenge, and where you show your con-tribution to the larger problem framed in the opening. You have great fl exibility in structuring this material, and disciplines diff er in their norms for doing it. Giving formulaic advice on how to write the Discussion would therefore be both pre-sumptuous and dangerous. Writing a good Discussion is the critical act of creativ-ity in science that no book can teach.

As you sit down to write the Discussion section, however, the fi rst decision you have to make is which internal story structure to use. Th e Discussion needs to build toward the resolution of the paper, but as a section it should develop a story on its own and have a coherent structure . Some writers use an OCAR structure, opening by reminding readers of the challenge and the question, and then working through to the resolution. Other papers use an LDR structure, opening the Discussion by framing the conclusion — what they showed — and then using the rest of the Discussion to support that argument, building to the overall resolution.

Following are excerpts from several papers; in each example, I present the opening and closing sentences of the discussion. First consider some OCAR examples, where the authors lay out the issue but not the conclusion. Th e fi rst (example 8.8), is from the fi eld of organic chemistry.

Example 8.8 It is well-known that factors such as the nature of the nucleophile, solvent, and leaving group directly aff ect the rate of the bimolecular nucleophilic sub-stitution (SN2) reactions; yet, in the case of carbanions, little has been docu-mented with absolute rate constants. . . .

Photoinduced decarboxylation of suitable substituted carbanions pro-vides a route for the formation of substituted cycloalkanes that proceeds in high yields in nonhydroxylic solvents and with good leaving groups such as bromide and iodide. 6

6. L. Llauger, M. A. Miranda, G. Cosa, and J. C. Scaiano, “Comparative Study of the Reactivities of Substituted 3-(Benzoyl)benzyl Carbanions in Water and in DMSO,” Journal Of Organic Chemistry 69 (2004): 7066–71.

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80 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

In this case, the opening of the Discussion reads like a reiteration of the chal-lenge, reminding the reader of what it was, but without posing any conclusion. A similar pattern is illustrated in Example 8.9, which examines how poliovirus enters target cells. Poliovirus has no capsule to fuse with the cell membrane, and the mechanism wasn’t clear.

Example 8.9 Th e extracellular forms of viruses face formidable challenges. Th e virion itself must be suffi ciently stable to protect the viral genome during the pas-sage from host to host and cell to cell, and yet, upon reaching the target cell and encountering the appropriate trigger, the virion must initiate pro-grammed steps that result in the release of the viral genome into the appro-priate compartment of the cell. For nonenveloped viruses, the conceptually simple mechanism of membrane fusion is not an option. . . .

Aft er binding the cell surface, the virus is internalized through a clath-rin-, caveolin-, and fl otillin-independent, but actin- and tyrosine kinase–de-pendent, pathway. Aft er internalization (and only aft er internalization), the virus releases its RNA rapidly from vesicles that are located within 100–200 nm of the plasma membrane without requiring endocytic acidifi cation or microtubule-dependent transport. Our results have settled the long-lasting debate of whether PV [poliovirus] directly breaks the plasma membrane bar-rier or relies on endocytosis to deliver its genome into the cell. Th ese results have also opened interesting questions for this important virus that await further investigation, including what characteristic of these endocytic vesi-cles near the plasma membrane triggers RNA release; and aft er release near the cell surface, how is the released RNA transported to replication sites. 7

Th is Discussion starts by reiterating the problem and reenergizing curiosity before going on to nailing down the answer with the resolution.

Contrast these OCAR Discussions to some that use LDR structure. Example 8.10 illustrates this with a paper about chemotherapy. Th e study devel-oped a new, nontoxic inhibitor of gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT), an important enzyme in the development of cancer.

Example 8.10 We have identifi ed a novel class of GGT inhibitors that are not glutamine analogues. Kinetic studies of the lead compound OU749 revealed that the mechanism of inhibition was uncompetitive relative to the γ -glutamyl sub-strate, indicating that the inhibitor bound the enzyme-substrate complex. In contrast to competitive inhibitors, which lose potency as substrate

7. B. Brandenburg, L. Y. Lee, M. Lakadamyali, M. J. Rust, X. Zhuang, and J. M. Hogle, “Imaging Poliovirus Entry in Live Cells,” PLoS Biology 5 (2007): e183. DOI:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050183.

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Action 81

concentration builds, uncompetitive inhibitors become more potent as the substrate concentration rises in an inhibited open system. . . .

Development of less toxic GGT inhibitors, such as OU749, holds great promise for enhanced cancer therapy. 8

Th e fi rst sentence addresses the paper’s specifi c challenge and identifi es the important result from the research: a new class of inhibitors. Th e Discussion elab-orates on the properties and benefi ts of this group of chemicals. Th is builds to the resolution, which closes the circle back to the paper’s opening, which was about developing new chemotherapeutic agents.

Th e last example is from theoretical physics and off ers new developments in string theory.

Example 8.11: In this paper, we have shown how to construct various D-branes in the type IIB plane-wave background that preserve half the dynamical supersymme-tries of the background. . . .

Th e connection of the instantonic branes we have constructed with instantonic branes in AdS5 × S5 is more obscure. Understanding this could lead to an understanding of the relation between the D-instanton and instan-ton eff ects in the dual Yang-Mills fi eld theory. It would also be interesting to understand the eff ect of the D-instanton on the plane-wave dynamics. Finally, one should be able to analyse the D-instanton contributions by considering the eff ects of the R4 and related terms in the eff ective low energy IIB action in this background. 9

Th is Discussion starts by identifying the main contribution of the paper: con-structing D-branes. It then develops and elaborates that result. Th e paper resolves by framing interesting new questions that grow from the work. To be honest, I haven’t a clue what any of this means, yet the story structure and the message are clear. Th at is a testament to the writing.

Both OCAR and LDR work well for the Discussion — they each provide a coherent structure that allows you to develop a clear and compelling story. Of the two, LDR is more common; some books even say it is the “right” way to write the Discussion. But that is a rule and so is malleable. With any story you have a choice of structure, and the Discussion should form a story within itself.

8. J. B. King, M. B. West, P. F. Cook, and M. H. Hanigan, “A Novel, Species-Specifi c Class of Uncompetitive Inhibitors of Gamma-Glutamyl Transpeptidase,” Journal of Biological Chemistry 284 (2009): 9059–65.

9. M. R. Gaberdiel and M. B. Green, “Th e D-instanton and Other Supersymmetric D-branes in IIB Plane-Wave String Th eory,” Annals of Physics 307 (2003): 147–94.

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82 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

EXERCISES

8.1. Analyze published papers

Go through the papers you have been analyzing. Are all the data they presented necessary for the story? Did the authors do a good job of structuring how they present the data — did they use an eff ective story structure?

8.2. Write a short article

Revisit your short article. Did you use an eff ective LD structure in presenting the results?

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Ending well is the best revenge.

Why do we need to get the last word in an argument? Why do Aesop’s fables end with a “moral of the story”? Why is the punchline at the end of a joke? Th e answer to all of these, of course, is because endings are power positions. People remember the last thing you say. Th e resolution should be your “take-home message,” your strongest and most memorable words.

A good resolution shows us how our understanding of nature has advanced, and by off ering new insights into the problem identifi ed in the opening, it wraps up the story. Th is creates the story’s spiral, closing back to the original topic, but drawing it out by showing how the starting point has moved. A good resolution achieves this by stepping backward through OCAR: it reiterates the action, answers the questions raised in the challenge, and demonstrates how those answers contribute to the larger problem.

If you put anything but that new insight in the resolution, you undercut it, and with it the entire paper. Because last words are so powerful, people will accept whatever you put there as the take-home message. If you are not careful, some weak or extraneous thought that fi nds itself in the closing position can come across as your most important.

Don’t blow the punchline.

9

The Resolution

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84 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

9.1. GOOD RESOLUTIONS

Th e fi rst example of a good resolution is straightforward, walking backward through the OCAR steps without distraction or complication. Th e paper exam-ined the enzymes that drive mammalian cells through their cell cycle, focusing on how cyclin–cyclin-dependent kinases become active at specifi c points in the cycle, driving further development. It examined inhibitor p27, which regulates a kinase complex, and asked whether it has a single mechanism — blocking the enzyme’s active site — or whether it also blocks enzyme activation via phosphorylation. Th e resolution paragraph is as follows.

Example 9.1 {1} In conclusion, {2} our data suggest that Y-phosphorylated p27 can inhibit cyclin D-cdk4 complexes by two independent mechanisms: blocking access to the T-loop and disrupting the cdk4 active site directly. {3} Our model sug-gests that p27 Y phosphorylation is a molecular “switch” that would help turn cdk4 activity on or off . {4} Modulation of Y kinase activity would permit activation of preformed, inactive p27-cyclin D-cdk4 complexes by cdk7 and may be used to regulate cdk4 activity throughout the cell cycle. 1

Th is resolution does a number of things well.

{1} Th e statement “In conclusion” is a fl ag, telling the reader that what follows is the resolution. Such road signs make it easier to navigate through a paper.

{2} Th is states that two mechanisms of inhibition are involved. Th is is the key result of this work, and it answers the question posed in the challenge.

{3} Th is statement interprets that result and synthesizes it into the idea that p27 Y phosphorylation is a “molecular ‘switch.’” Th at creates a simple message and an accessible intellectual model for how this compound works — switches turning on and off the processes that drive the cell cycle. Th is starts “widening the hourglass” by moving away from the specifi cs of how p27 inhibits, to what that means for cell cycle regulation.

{4} Th is fi nishes opening the hourglass by bringing the story back to issue the paper opened with — what regulates the cell cycle. It even puts the phrase “the cell cycle” at the end of the concluding sentence, closing the circle back to the opening sentence of the paper, which was: “Cyclin–cyclin-dependent kinase (cyclin-cdk) complexes drive progression through the diff erent phases of the cell cycle by acquiring catalytic activity only at specifi c points.”

1. A. Ray, M. K. James, S. Larochelle, R. P. Fisher, and S. W. Blain, “p27Kip1 Inhibits Cyclin D-Cyclin-Dependent Kinase 4 by Two Independent Modes,” Molecular and Cellular Biology 29 (2009): 986–99.

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Th e Resolution 85

Th is paragraph puts the right ideas in the right places, uses appropriate lan-guage to guide you through the paragraph, reiterates the key conclusions and their implications, and closes the circle to complete the story. It isn’t elegant or literary in its use of language, but it is inordinately eff ective in doing its job.

A second example is from materials science and is about producing inorganic/organic composite materials, with a specifi c focus on semiconducting fi lms that would be useful in electronic devices, including photovoltaics and LEDs. Th is is a more complex resolution but it achieves the same essential goals.

Example 9.2 {1} Th ese templated nanostructured frameworks thus hold several advan-tages for the design and synthesis of devices. {2} Films can be selectively deposited through solution phase routes using the chalcogenide affi nity to bind to gold. {3} Furthermore, the ability to control the elemental composi-tions of the nanostructured fi lms allows the band structure of the inorganic framework to be tailored for specifi c applications. {4} Current research is underway to create composite materials using an organic semiconductor as the structure directing agent. Such materials would make good candidates for device applications such as photovoltaics. Moreover, it is likely that these same band energy trends will hold for nontemplated versions of chalcogenide glass semiconductors synthesized using Zintl cluster precursors. {5} As a result, the data presented here provide a basis to predicatively synthesize a broad range of semiconductors with desired band properties using Zintl cluster precursors and simple solution phase methods. 2

{1} Th is is a statement of the overall accomplishment — the authors created a useful material. It gives a clear sense that this is the resolution and that they will fl esh out this point in the rest of the paragraph.

{2} In this second sentence, they state the key result from the work: “fi lms could be selectively deposited.”

{3} Here they start expanding back out, with a more general interpretation of that result.

{4} Th e authors continue the widening process, going beyond their specifi c research and discussing the implications of the work. Th ey expand it by pointing out that “these same band energy trends will hold for nontemplated versions.”

{5} Here in their fi nal wrap-up statement, the authors give the most general application of their work: “a basis to predicatively synthesize a broad range of semiconductors.”

In contrast to the fi rst example that used the fl ag words “in conclusion” to tell us we’re at the resolution, this uses a whole sentence to frame the point of the

2. S. D. Korlann, A. E. Riley, B. S. Mun, and S. H. Tolbert, “Chemical Tuning of the Electronic Properties of Nanostructured Semiconductor Films Formed through Surfactant Templating of Zintl Cluster,” Journal of Physical Chemistry C , 113 (2009): 7697–705.

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paragraph and guide you through it. It then, however, carries out the same functions — it identifi es the key result, opens up the hourglass, and resolves by tying back to the big picture of the paper’s opening. Th is paragraph creates a com-plete story within itself — opening, developing, and resolving, a strong approach for a longer paper and a longer resolution.

9.1.1. Concluding with a Question

In each of the foregoing examples, the authors identifi ed a result and explained its signifi cance. Sometimes, however, the most important thing you discover is that there is a new question, one you hadn’t anticipated, that you want to pose to the community. Fine. Do it, but make the question concrete, and be clear about how it grew from your work — you didn’t fail to fi ll one knowledge gap but identifi ed a new one. Ending with a concrete new question engages a reader’s curiosity and can be a powerful way to resolve a paper.

Th e following is an example of how to resolve eff ectively with a question. It comes from arctic climate science, examining the mechanisms responsible for the enormous loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean during 2007. Th at loss shocked the climate community — such massive ice loss had been predicted to be decades away.

Example 9.3 {1} Th ere was an extraordinarily large amount of ice bottom melting in the Beaufort Sea region in the summer of 2007. Solar radiation absorbed in the upper ocean provided more than adequate heat for this melting. An increase in the open water fraction resulted in a 500 % positive anomaly in solar heat input to the upper ocean, triggering an ice–albedo feedback and con-tributing to the accelerating ice retreat. Th e melting in the Beaufort Sea has elements of a classic ice–albedo feedback signature: more open water leads to more solar heat absorbed, which results in more melting and more open water. Th e positive ice–albedo feedback can accelerate the observed reduc-tion in Arctic sea ice. {2} Questions remain regarding how widespread this extreme bottom melting was, what initially triggered the increase in area of open water, and what the summer of 2007 portends for 2008 and beyond. 3

{1} Th e main part of this resolution states both the fi ndings and conclusions using clear strong language: “solar radiation . . . provided more than adequate heat for the melting” and “Th e positive ice–albedo feedback can accelerate the observed reduction in Arctic sea ice.” Th ere is no hesitation or weakness.

3. D. K. Perovich, J. A. Richter-Menge, and K. F. Jones, “Sunlight, Water, and Ice: Extreme Arctic Sea Ice Melt during the Summer of 2007,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): L11501. DOI:10.1029/2008GL034007.

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Th e Resolution 87

{2} Th e resolution goes further to frame a series of questions about both the mechanisms involved and the implications for the future. However, rather than undermining the conclusions, these questions actually reinforce and extend them; they point the direction forward. Th ey engage a reader’s interest. Even using a word like portend emphasizes the new question — it’s an ominous word.

Here is a slightly more complex example from astrophysics.

Example 9.4 {1} Finally, while the details of the solutions that we have discussed specifi -cally apply to the case of a rotating NS accreting from a disk fueled by a companion star, the general feature of a multiplicity of states available for a given mass infl ow rate of matter can probably be generalized to other accret-ing systems in which recycling occurs. {2} An example is that of an accretion disk around a rotating black hole. Numerical simulations show that while a fraction of the accreting mass is ejected through a jet, another fraction, of slower velocity and at larger angles from the jet axis, falls back into the disk, getting recycled. {3} It would be interesting to include this mass feedback process into numerical simulations of accretion disks around black holes and to investigate whether the discontinuous states and cyclic behavior might ensue in those cases as well. 4

{1} Here, the authors start with the specifi c results of the work, defi ning the system it is limited to, but start opening the hourglass back up by suggesting that this multiplicity of states “can be generalized.”

{2} Th ey develop that by highlighting a particular system that they think it would generalize to the black hole’s accretion disk and how it would fi t into their analytical framework.

{3} Finally the authors frame the new question that grows from their work and pose it to the community. It’s an interesting question and in no way undermines the accomplishment of what the authors did. Rather, it creates a natural progression. Th is is nicely done.

9.2. BAD RESOLUTIONS

All of the previous examples illustrate strong resolutions, and, despite the diff er-ent writing approaches, they all carry out the core functions of identifying the main results and their implications. Now let’s consider bad ones — resolutions that fail in those core functions. Th ere are several ways to destroy a good paper with a

4. R. E. Bozzo Perna and L. Stella, “On the Spin-up/Spin-down Transitions in Accreting X-Ray Binaries,” Astrophysical Journal 639 (2006): 363–76.

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bad resolution. You can be weak, distracting, or, at worst, you can actively under-mine your conclusions.

9.2.1. Weak

Weak resolutions fail to frame the conclusions. In this type of ending, authors usually synopsize their results and then tell you that they are important, but don’t clarify how — they don’t answer the questions they were asking and don’t synthe-size their information into knowledge. Here’s an example.

Example 9.5 A proteomic evaluation of hummingbirds under simulated migratory condi-tions revealed evidence of several stress-associated processes: protein degra-dation in wing muscle tissues, depletion of metabolic cofactors, and enhancement of stress-response proteins. Th ese results suggest that changes in the hummingbird proteome may provide new insights into the complex physiology of avian systems biology.

Th is paragraph does a good job of synopsizing the results, but then it stumbles. Rather than synthesizing new knowledge, it skips that step. Instead, it simply tells us that the research is important and has implications beyond hummingbirds. In doing so, it overreaches and underdelivers, being simultaneously unconvincing and obvious.

Th ese authors were trying to widen the hourglass to reach the largest possible audience, which is commendable, but they did it badly. Th ey tell us that it “may provide new insights . . . into avian systems biology,” but they don’t tell us what those insights are! What did these authors contribute to the wider fi eld of bird physiology and ecology? We’re left to fi gure it out for ourselves. We might con-clude that the authors didn’t fully understand their own data and are tossing them out in the hopes that we’ll fi gure it out for them. Th at isn’t the take-home message you want to give readers.

As to the work’s implications to the wider fi eld, it goes without saying. Would a scholar studying migration in geese, albatrosses, or swallows ignore a paper on hummingbirds? No. Saying it is relevant accomplishes nothing without the concrete substance to illustrate that relevance. Th is is a train wreck of a resolution.

To fi x a resolution like this, you need to identify the new insights.

“A proteomic evaluation of hummingbirds under simulated migratory condi-tions revealed evidence of several stress-associated processes: protein degrada-tion in wing muscle tissues, depletion of metabolic cofactors, and enhancement of stress-response proteins. While hummingbirds migrate long distances over water without feeding or resting, it is physiologically stressful, and the birds’ ability to manage this stress may limit the distance they can migrate.”

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Th e Resolution 89

Here, rather than trying to make a methodological but largely meaningless suggestion about how to study birds in general, the paper ends with a clear con-clusion about what these data mean — migrating is stressful — and a suggestion for what they say about hummingbird biology and behavior, suggestions that clearly relate to other birds. Th is resolution says something concrete — it resolves.

If the authors wanted to open the hourglass wider to explicitly encompass other migratory birds, they could modify the last sentence to make humming-birds a member of that larger group:

“While many birds, such as hummingbirds, migrate long distances without feeding or resting, it is physiologically stressful, and birds’ ability to manage such stress may limit the distance they can migrate.”

Th is adds “such as hummingbirds” to make it clear that they are an example; it also condenses “and the birds’” to “and birds’,” a subtle change that shift s it from referring to specifi c birds to birds in general. Th is does, however, suggest that we know migrating is stressful in other birds and that we had developed that argu-ment in the Introduction. If that isn’t the case, this might be an excessive stretch to draw from this study alone.

Here’s another example of a weak resolution, this one from the fi eld of medical microbiology.

Example 9.6 In summary, we show that X7 alters the expression pattern of extracellular proteases in the “fl esh-eating bacterium” Streptococcus pyogenes , which causes necrotizing fasciitis. If the function of X7 can be fully established, it would likely deepen our understanding of this destructive disease.

In this example, the authors clearly knew they couldn’t end with a summary of the data; they needed some kind of wrap-up. But all they could come up with was a throw-away line that included a patently obvious truth and a back-handed slap at their own data. Of course if we understand what controls the expression of protein-destroying enzymes, we would understand the disease better! And they remind us in the last sentence that they haven’t fully established the function of X7. Th ere’s nothing wrong with not fully establishing its function, but don’t end a paper by telling your readers what you didn’t achieve.

As in the previous example, the fi x is to make a concrete conclusion that syn-thesizes the results into knowledge and provides a meaningful take-home mes-sage.

“In summary, we show that X7 alters the expression pattern of extracellular proteases in the ‘fl esh-eating bacterium’ Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes necrotizing fasciitis. Th is research may off er a route to developing therapeutic agents that would minimize tissue damage while antibiotic treatments were directly attacking the bacterium itself. ”

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Th is version identifi es the work’s real conclusion — it might lead to drugs that would provide a tool for managing the disease. Th at would close the circle to the paper’s opening, which framed a story about necrotizing fasciitis, the bacterium that causes it, and potential therapies for a horrible malady.

Note that this resolution, while ending with a strong message, is carefully con-strained. It doesn’t say that X7 is necessarily going to be that new therapeutic agent, and it only says that this “may” off er a route — it might not work in vivo. You can make a strong statement without overselling.

9.2.2. Distracting

Some papers conclude with material that is distracting — ideas that should be in the Introduction or is already in textbooks and that neither synopsizes nor syn-thesizes the results. Th e next example is from a paper about forest tree nutrition, asking how much organic N is taken up by mycorrhizal fungi, which acquire nutrients from the soil and transport them to the root.

Example 9.7 Th e mycorrhizal fungal hyphae extending out from tree roots can comprise more than 1/3 of the total biomass of microbes in the soil. Th ey greatly extend the absorptive surface area of the root system and enhance total nutrient uptake by the trees. Additional work, however, is required to assess how much mycorrhizal fungi enhance the uptake of organic N forms in forest soils.

Th ese fi rst two sentences are truisms that have been known for decades — textbook material, rather than results of this particular study. Th e only thing this paragraph says about the study itself is that additional work is required to assess how much organic N mycorrhizae take up. So did we learn anything? In the paper we actually did, but not from this resolution — it resolves nothing and merely dis-tracts from the story.

A second way a resolution can be distracting is by introducing new informa-tion at the end. Th e following might appear to be a strong resolution.

Example 9.8: In arid environments such as East Africa, termites are critical “ecosystem engineers.” Th ey collect resources such as nitrogen and phosphorus from far afi eld and accumulate it in and near their mounds, creating nutrient hot-spots on the landscape. Th ese hot-spots may be sites for colonization by new seed-lings of both the native savanna trees and for novel invasive plant species.

Th e problem here is that invasive plants were never mentioned in the Introduction. Th e idea that termite mounds create invasion sites is interesting and important, but it must not be a new idea, fi rst raised in the resolution.

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Th e Resolution 91

Th e resolution must close the circle back to the opening. Instead of closing the circle, however, this resolution goes haring off in a new direction.

I would guess that the idea of termite mounds creating invasion sites devel-oped while the authors were writing the paper. Th at’s great; developing new ideas while you are writing is exactly what Montgomery meant when he said that “clear thinking can emerge from clear writing.” Never close your mind to new insights about your work and its implications. But when you have them, go back and weave them into the opening and Introduction. You are not writing a “whodunit” mys-tery where shocking plot twists are expected. You are writing science, where such plot twists are forbidden.

From the perspective of getting your message out to the widest possible audi-ence, surprise resolutions are a disaster. Th e points they make won’t get picked up in a literature search, so potential readers will only fi nd your paper by accident. Plant ecologists should know about work showing that termites facilitate inva-sion, but they probably wouldn’t learn it from this paper. Everyone loses — plant ecologists miss useful information, and the authors lose citations.

9.2.3. Undermining Your Conclusions

Th e worst possible way to end a paper is to actively undermine your conclusions, and yet this may be the most common way to end scientifi c papers. Many end by saying “more research is needed to clarify our fi ndings.” Resolving a paper this way focuses on what you haven’t accomplished. Th at is worse than throwing away a power position — it uses that power to weaken your conclusions and your science.

I understand the humility involved in “more research is needed” — we know our work isn’t perfect and that there are still questions about both the big issue of our opening and the small issue of our challenge. Uncertainties remain. But the resolution is not the place to discuss them.

A really egregious example of undermining the conclusions is in the next example.

Example 9.9 To conclude, 3-methyl-ambrosia off ers a new approach for thyroid carci-noma therapy. Our data provide evidence on safety and in vivo activity of this compound in patients with this condition, although the proof for clinical benefi t remains to be established in future clinical trials.

In the fi rst part of this passage, the authors tell us that they have a new therapy that appears safe and eff ective. Th eir take-home message, though, is that they don’t know whether it really works! Talk about destroying the story. Th is would have been much better as:

“ While further clinical trials will be necessary to establish the full benefi ts of 3-methyl-ambrosia as a therapeutic agent, our data provide evidence that it is

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safe and shows in vivo activity against thyroid tumors. 3-Methyl-ambrosia therefore may off er a new approach for treating patients with thyroid carcinoma .”

Th is version says the same things as the original, but strongly and positively. It is clear that additional clinical trials are necessary and that the effi cacy remains uncertain (it only “may off er” a new approach). But it ends by highlighting the authors’ intended message: 3-methyl-ambrosia may be an eff ective new antican-cer drug.

Th e earlier example about fl esh-eating bacteria also undermined itself with a “more research is needed” expression as well: “if the function of X7 can be fully established.”

Th is kind of “more research is needed to clarify our results” statement is fundamentally diff erent from “concluding with a question” that I illustrated in examples 9.3 and 9.4. Th ose resolved by posing concrete questions that grew from the work. “More research is needed” poses questions about the work and makes it sound like the author didn’t complete the research.

Th ere are many ways to undermine your results, including expressions such as “but the importance of this has yet to be assessed,” “we hope that this review will simulate further research to answer the many unanswered questions,” “this topic deserves more research,” and so on. All of these use fuzzy expressions that suggest weaknesses in the existing work, rather than expressing substantive conclusions or pointing out clear new questions.

9.3. HOW TO FIX A BAD RESOLUTION

Although the problems in the bad examples are superfi cially diff erent, they share the same core problem and solution. In each example, the authors ended with a line that concludes little, weakens the existing conclusions, or fails to complete the circle of the story. Each version misses some component of the SUCCES formula — frequently C, concrete.

Th e solution is to fi rst pare away the dead tissue — the fl uff , the detractions, and the new ideas. When those are important, move them elsewhere. Th en, condense your resolution to do three things: (1) synopsize the key results, (2) synthesize those results — show us how they answer your question, and (3) show us what this contributes to solving the larger problem. If you achieve those three objectives, each clearly and concretely, you will have a strong resolution that ends your paper with maximum punch.

9.4. RESOLUTIONS IN PROPOSALS

Most proposal authors recognize that they need to grab a reader’s attention quickly — the critical energy is right up front in the initial action or lead. But many

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Th e Resolution 93

go all the way to a pure LD structure. Aft er describing the proposed experiments, they end, having said everything that seems to need saying. Th ere is no synthesis, no wrap-up, no resolution.

Th at’s a mistake. Make space for a resolution paragraph that encapsulates the proposal, reiteratesthe big issue and explains how the components work together to address it — make the fi nal pitch for why the proposal should be funded. Some may argue that they have already made those points, so repeating them would waste valuable space.

But reviewers’ thoughts may not be fully crystallized. Th ey have just worked through pages of dense, detailed material. Th ey read about multiple hypotheses and lines of experimentation. Th ey are thinking about how the pieces fi t together, whether the experiments will work, whether this will really solve the problem, and, importantly, what to write in their review. Th is is your last opportunity to give them the words. To convince them to check “excellent;” or as the program offi cer holds your fate in her hand, hovering over the line on the whiteboard, asking “which side does this go on?,” to say “must fund.”

To illustrate a proposal resolution, here is one from a proposal evaluating why nitrogen availability in arctic tundra soils crashes in the middle of the growing season and how that aff ects overall ecosystem function and C-cycling.

Example 9.11 Th e Arctic tundra is one of the world’s major stores of C and the possibility that the temperature-decomposition-CO 2 fl ux positive feedback may accel-erate climate warming is a concern in Arctic and global climate studies. Th e “spin-off ” feedbacks via nutrient eff ects on vegetation change may further accelerate the climate-warming feedback. However, biogeochemical models assume that decomposition is limited by C-availability but regulated by tem-perature. Th us, the assumption is that if temperatures rise and the snow-free season lengthens, decomposition and CO 2 release will increase dramatically. However, C cycling is N-limited in tundra, at least later in the growing season aft er the nutrient crash, challenging these ideas. We propose research that will span multiple scales to evaluate the mechanisms causing the “nutrient crash,” how they are driven by seasonal weather patterns and plant phenol-ogy, and what the eff ects of the nutrient crash on C-cycling will be. Th is work will require intense mechanistic work focusing on transitions and transfor-mations that occur over only a few weeks at most, but which have profound impacts on the tundra ecosystem. We will scale this mechanistic work to the intermediate spatial scale by doing transect measurements along the Kuparuk Basin to validate that patterns that occur locally are robust. We will scale to the whole Arctic system by integrating these mechanisms, and importantly the N-eff ects on decomposition, into the MEL model that is designed to explore multiple limiting resource eff ects on ecosystem function. As an inte-grated package, this research will explore how the changing seasonal pattern that drives the crash in nutrient availability in tundra soils will alter overall

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tundra C-cycling and its role as a source or sink of C and through this its role in the global climate system. 5

Th is paragraph reiterates the entire proposal, laying out the problem, chal-lenge, research, and how it will solve the problem. Th is takes a half-page, which seems like a lot when you’re struggling with a page limit. But the feedback from the program offi cer suggested that this barely squeezed over the line into the “funded” category. We’ll never know whether that resolution paragraph was what gave it the million-dollar nudge, but I do know that a reviewer’s opinion is some-times not solidifi ed until the end. So end strong.

EXERCISES

9.1. Analyze published papers

Examine the resolutions of the papers you are evaluating. Do they eff ectively resolve? Do they briefl y sum up the most important results? Do they answer the question? Do they close the circle by returning to the big problem identifi ed in the opening? If not, how would you rewrite the resolution to achieve these goals?

9.2. Write a short article

Do the same exercise for the short articles you and your peers are writing.

5. From M. Weintraub, lead PI, “Th e Changing Seasonality of Tundra Nutrient Cycling: Implications for Ecosystem and Arctic System Functioning,” funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Arctic System Science Program.

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I fi gured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B.

— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

OCAR defi nes the overall structure of a story. Th e opening grabs your attention with characters and a setting that you care about. Th e challenge creates uncer-tainty and curiosity: what is going to happen to those characters? Novelists describe that as creating “tension” — the emotional drive to keep reading. Th e action feeds you information and develops the story. Finally, the resolution rewards your eff orts and relieves the tension — our hero and heroine fi nally get together, our questions are answered! We may not feel the emotional intensity in a science paper that we do in a good novel, but the tension that keeps us reading is fundamentally the same — it’s grounded in curiosity. We don’t bother reading a paper if we already know the story. Th is fl ow of opening, development, and resolution — building and then rewarding curiosity — creates a story’s “arc” (fi gure 10.1 ). Th e vision of story as arc also emerges from the idea that a story has a spiral structure, moving forward but coming back, at the end, to where it began.

Scientifi c writing is successful when it creates that fl ow and that arc. But papers and proposals are made up of sections, each of which tells its own story and has

10

Internal Structure

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its own arc. Th e Introduction tells us why you did the work — it opens, narrows, and resolves with the paper’s overall challenge. Th e Materials and Methods starts with the study system, then the measurements, and wraps up with how you ana-lyzed the data. Th e Discussion, too, should form a story of its own, as I argued in chapter 9. It opens by restating the issue, discusses the evidence, and resolves with the paper’s conclusion.

Th ese major sections, however, are built of discrete modules: subsections that describe a single method, a single data set, or a single argument. Th ose subsec-tions should be written to package complete ideas — that is, form story arcs of their own. When you describe a method, you should tell us what information you were trying to gain and what you did to get it. In describing a result, give the overview, the specifi cs, and the signifi cance.

Going further, each subsection is built of units fi ner still: individual para-graphs, sentences, and clauses within a sentence. Each tells its own story and has its own structure — they should each form an arc. A story, therefore, doesn’t have just a single overall arc, but a hierarchical structure, with small arcs nested within larger ones, ultimately creating the whole (fi gure 10.2 ). Th is hierarchy is analogous to the structure of matter: quarks within protons within atoms within molecules.

A good story works when this hierarchical structure works. Each little arc draws readers forward — it grabs them with a local opening, engages them with a snippet of action, and then rewards them with a resolution. Each forms one turn of the spiral, and step-by-step, carries the reader from the initial issue to the fi nal resolution.

Opening Resolution

Development: action

Buildtension

Relievetension

Figure 10.1. A story arc.

Paper

Sections

Sentences

Paragraphs

Figure 10.2. A story is a set of nested arcs.

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Internal Structure 97

Creating arcs compartmentalizes your thoughts and makes them manageable. It works because we learn by placing information into an established framework. For each new point we build a structure: we give the context and then describe the information, which makes a small story arc. Th at provides context for the next point, allowing us to construct increasingly complex stories one piece at a time. Th is is like computer programming. Good programs are built from subroutines or objects, each of which is internally complete; they interact with others by passing specifi c pieces of processed information. Bad programs look like plates of spaghetti. Writing is linear, so we have to lay out these modules in series, each building from the previous.

Eff ective arcs make it easier for readers to deal with multiple ideas in a single paper. Compare the visual patterns when you link three complete arcs and when you break them up and intersperse them (fi gure 10.3 ). Th e two patterns each contain three arcs and take the same amount of space, but the bottom one is painful to look at (it makes me dizzy). When you write that way, it’s just as painful.

Arc structure is eff ective as well because beginnings and endings are power positions. Th ey emphasize the information contained there, saying this is an important point. Without such positions, readers have a hard time distinguishing what is more important from what is less. Creating discrete arcs creates and high-lights those power positions. In the top panel of fi gure 10.3 , there are four: the beginning, the end, and the two connecting points in the middle. Th e bottom panel loses those points; even the beginning and ending are muddled.

10.1. EFFECTIVE ARCS

Th e last six chapters were all about how to build eff ective story arcs. Th ey focused on the entire paper, with its opening, action, and resolution. Th e same principles, how-ever, apply at every level of organization. I’ve discussed at length how to create the arc of the Introduction (chapters 5–7) and touched on the Discussion (chapter 8). Here I illustrate how to use the same principles to write eff ective subsections

Complete, linked arcs:

Incomplete arcs—ideas arediscussed in multiple places:

Figure 10.3. Complete versus broken story arcs: beginnings and endings are power positions.

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before going on to even fi ner scales — paragraphs and sentences — in the following chapters.

Let’s look at some examples of sections from papers that make eff ective story arcs. Th e fi rst is from a paper that evaluated patterns of nitrogen retention in watersheds in the Eastern United States. Nitrogen enters these watersheds from atmospheric deposition, fertilizer, and sewage treatment plants. It runs into rivers as nitrate (NO 3 – ) and is ultimately fl ushed into the ocean. Th e authors found that in southern watersheds, less of the N entering them reached the ocean; these watersheds “retained” more N. Th ey analyzed the factors that caused this pattern and developed a hypothesis that the warmer ecosystems in the South allowed more biological denitrifi cation, in which NO 3 – is converted to gaseous products: nitrous oxide (N 2 O) and N 2 . Th e following section develops one piece of that overall story, evaluating the eff ect of human population on the proportion of N retained versus exported. I fl agged important points with numbers in curly brackets.

Example 10.1 {1} Population density {2} Increased N export has been shown to be related to increased human population density. {3} If northern watersheds had higher population densities than more southern systems, it is possible that the attendant increase in N input could potentially result in less watershed processing and hence an increase in proportionate riverine export in northern systems. {4} However, the ranges of population densities in northern and southern watersheds overlapped considerably, and, for a given density, the proportion of N export was always higher in northern systems than in southern ones. When all watersheds were considered together, there was a signifi cant relationship between population density and riverine export due only to the infl uence of the three most densely populated watersheds (the Charles, Blackstone, and Schuylkill). {5} We conclude that population density cannot explain the diff erence in N export between northern and southern watersheds, but it is a factor to consider for explaining high N export in some watersheds. 1

{1} Th e passage starts with a subhead to identify the issue: human population density.

{2} Th is is the opening (O), which identifi es the topic and characters: N export and human population density.

{3} Th is poses the challenge (C): if northern watersheds have more people they might export more N.

1. S. C. Schaeff er and M. Alber, “Temperature Controls a Latitudinal Gradient in the Proportion of Watershed Nitrogen Exported to Coastal Ecosystems,” Biogeochemistry 85 (2007):333–46.

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Internal Structure 99

{4} Here, the action (A) starts. Th e authors briefl y analyze the data before coming to the climax: the apparent relationship between export and population density was driven by just three rivers.

{5} Th e story resolves (R) with the statement “We conclude that population density cannot explain the diff erence in N export between northern and southern watersheds.” Th e phrase “We conclude” is a fl ag that this is a resolution point.

Th is passage contains an entire OCAR story arc that completes the discussion of human population density — this is the last time the paper discuses it. Aft er this, the authors move on to analyze other factors that might explain greater N reten-tion in southern watersheds. Th is is an eff ective use of story arc structure.

A second example is from a paper that is also about global N cycling, but which asks the question: “What processes cause N to be in short supply in many terres-trial ecosystems?” When the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen (N 2 ) and bacteria can convert that N into biologically available forms, why are plants limited by N? Th e specifi c section discusses N relative to carbon (C) and how organisms have characteristic ratios of those elements in their tissues.

Example 10.2 Stoichiometry

Organisms use essential elements at characteristic ratios, and these ratios diff er systematically among diff erent groups of organisms. Element ratios are widely used in the analysis of marine ecosystems. Th eir application is usually less explicit in terrestrial ecology, but they provide the basis for using critical element ratios to predict element mineralization or immobili-zation during decomposition. One general feature of terrestrial ecosystems is that C:element ratios in plants, especially trees, are much wider than those in other organisms as a consequence of plants’ use of C-based compounds (cell-ulose, lignin) to provide structure. For N in particular, soil bacteria generally have a C:N ratio near 6, while plants oft en have C:N ratios > 100. Even the leaf litter produced in forests on infertile soils can have C:N ratios in excess of 100.

Consequently, relative to their own requirements, animals and microbes live in a C-rich, N-poor world. Animal nutrition and growth are oft en con-strained by the N content of their food, and protein defi ciency is widespread. Th is diff erence in stoichiometry can sustain N limitation to animals even where plants are not limited by N supply. Microbes also encounter little N (relative to their requirements) in the plant litter they decompose, and so they retain the N they obtain from their substrate and acquire more directly from inorganic pools in the soil. As a result, N cycling from organic matter back to biologically available forms lags behind the decomposition of plant litter. 2

2. P. M. Vitousek, S. Hättenschwiler, L. Olander, and S. Allison, “Nitrogen and Nature,” Ambio 31 (2002): 97–101.

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100 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Th is example opens by defi ning the overall issue and characters (organisms, essential elements, and characteristic ratios). Th e two paragraphs discuss these ratios and how they vary among diff erent groups of organisms. It resolves by tell-ing us about why organisms are N-limited: “As a result, N cycling from organic matter back to biologically available forms lags behind the decomposition of plant litter.” Th is section tells a discrete story, one that helps build the larger argument.

What sets this passage off from example 10.1 is that these authors split the story into two paragraphs, each of which makes its own arc. Th e fi rst paragraph develops the idea that all organisms have characteristic element ratios, but it focuses on plants. Th at focus is established in the fi rst sentence: “One general feature of terrestrial ecosystems is that C:element ratios in plants, especially trees, are much wider than those in other organisms.” Although one sentence starts by mentioning bacteria, it ends by saying “while plants oft en have C:N ratios > 100,” returning the stress to plants. Th e last sentence of the paragraph starts with “Even the leaf litter,” making plants the sentence’s subject, and so closes the story arc about plants.

Th e second paragraph, in contrast, opens with “Consequently, relative to their own requirements, animals and microbes,” which makes animals and microbes, the organisms that consume plants, the prime characters. All the sentences in this paragraph are about plant consumers, rather than about plants. Th us, it makes a story of its own.

Together, these paragraphs explain why organismal stoichiometry regulates N fl ow through an ecosystem and why N limits plant growth. Th e authors could have written this as one long paragraph, but it is stronger this way — each para-graph forms an independent arc. Th ey linked them together with the word conse-quently and in the second paragraph by picking up the idea that the environment is C-rich and N-poor.

Th rough the devices of subheads, paragraph breaks, and fl ag words such as however and consequently , successful authors guide the reader through story arcs and arguments. Individual arcs integrate to form the overall paper. Watching your arcs and ensuring they are coherent and connected gives structure and fl ow to your writing. Making and resolving complete story arcs makes the reader’s job easy.

10.2. ARCLESS WRITING

When writing lacks clear story arcs, it becomes an incoherent mass with no obvi-ous direction, no internal structure, and no points of clear emphasis. Th e reader may learn little from the work, or worse, they may misinterpret it. Example 10.3 illustrates such arcless, and artless, writing.

Example 10.3 California supports rich fi sheries off its coast. Th e high productivity of fi sh is supported by high rates of algal production. Algal growth in the ocean is

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Internal Structure 101

typically limited by nitrogen supply, but this is high off California because N-rich deep water wells up to the surface along the coast. Th is upwelling is driven by winds that push the south-fl owing surface water away from the shore, allowing deep water to rise to the surface. Th ese off -shore winds are driven by regional climate patterns, including El Niño, that are being intensi-fi ed by the greenhouse eff ect, which results from increased CO 2 in the atmo-sphere. Increased CO 2 in the atmosphere also increases the amount of CO 2 dissolved in the ocean, which reacts with water to form carbonic acid (H 2 CO 3 ), reducing the ocean’s pH. Th is reduced pH makes it hard for shell-forming organisms to make calcium carbonate shells, and so may reduce the productivity of important marine species such as abalone, oysters, and even sea urchins. Th us, increasing atmospheric CO 2 is going to have many impor-tant eff ects on marine ecosystems.

I fi nd this paragraph completely incoherent, but I wrote it to be that way. Importantly, though, it isn’t incoherent because the sentences are unclear; they aren’t — each is a simple declarative statement. It also isn’t incoherent because the sentences don’t link together. Rather, the opposite is true: each sentence builds tightly off the idea developed in the previous one. Look at the ideas each sentence starts and ends with. Th ey tie together seamlessly.

California . . . fi sheries Fish . . . algae Algae . . . nitrogen . . . upwelling Upwelling . . . winds Winds . . . climate Climate . . . greenhouse eff ect . . . CO 2 CO 2 . . . acid . . . reduced pH Reduced pH . . . damage to shell-forming organisms Th us, . . . CO 2 will aff ect marine ecosystems.

Th e problem is that although the sentences fl ow, they don’t fl ow anywhere in particular. Th is feels like the result of a game where the fi rst person writes a sen-tence, passes it to the next person, who writes one and passes it on to the next. Th e paragraph opens by identifying characters of California and its fi sheries, but then keeps adding new characters and new directions — fi rst nitrogen and upwelling, winds and climate, CO 2 , acidifi cation, shellfi sh, and fi nally marine ecosystems. It then ends with a resolution statement that, although true, has no closure back to the opening.

Th is paragraph lacked thematic coherence. As a result, the story was unclear. Is it about how climate change will aff ect California fi sheries? Or is the fi sheries example intended to illustrate the larger theme of climate eff ects on oceans?

Th e paragraph is incoherent because it fails to develop the OCAR functions into an eff ective structure. Th ere is no clear point and no arc to the story. It drift s. Th is kind of writing can emerge because the authors never knew where they were

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102 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

going, or because they got distracted in the middle by CO 2 and allowed the story to fl oat off into uncharted and unplanned territory. In revising a paragraph like this one, you need to fi gure out what the story arcs are and break them into sepa-rate units.

Example 10.4 California supports rich fi sheries off its coast. Th e high productivity of fi sh is supported by high rates of algal production. Algal growth in the ocean is typi-cally limited by nitrogen supply, and is high off the California coast because N-rich deep water wells up to the surface along the coast. Th is upwelling is driven by winds that push the south-fl owing surface water away from the shore, allowing deep water to rise to the surface. Th ese winds are driven by regional climate patterns, including El Niño, that are being intensifi ed by the greenhouse eff ect. Th us, the productivity of California fi sheries will likely change as a result of climate warming, and the changes may result via complex and unexpected mechanisms such as changes in ocean circulation patterns.

In addition, increasing CO 2 is causing the pH of the ocean to decline, and this may have separate but important eff ects on California fi sheries. As CO 2 increases in the atmosphere, more dissolves into the ocean as carbonic acid (H 2 CO 3 ) . . .

Now this passage is structured in coherent arcs — the fi rst, main one, is about how fi shery productivity is driven by ocean circulation and thus is sensitive to climate change. Th en I pulled the information about acidifi cation into a separate arc that follows but connects to the fi rst one through the climate change-CO 2 link and the language “in addition.” By creating linked arcs, the writing gained coher-ence and SUCCES-type “simplicity.” Instead of being a complex mass of interwo-ven information, it now has a series of simple messages that together add up to a larger, equally simple message: increasing atmospheric CO 2 is going to alter California fi sheries.

Th is kind of arcless writing usually results from what I call “stream of con-sciousness” writing, in which the author puts down each thought as they come to mind, one idea stimulating another and all fl owing onto the page. Many inexperi-enced authors write this way. Undergraduate essays written the night before the deadline are notorious for this, with no visible structure, ideas appearing in mul-tiple places, and incomplete arguments. Even experienced writers fi nd extraneous thoughts inserting themselves — one sentence sparks a thought, and into the para-graph it goes. What distinguishes an experienced writer is that those extraneous thoughts don’t survive to the fi nal draft . If they are interesting and germane, they go into their own arc elsewhere, otherwise they go in the trash.

To ensure that your fi nal pieces have an eff ective internal structure, go over them paragraph by paragraph and section by section and ask the following questions:

Does each unit make a single, clear point? When several paragraphs together form a section, are the linkages among

them clear?

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Internal Structure 103

Has every extraneous thought that breaks the serial arc structure been removed?

When you introduce a topic, do you resolve that discussion before introducing a new topic?

Is every major unit of the work defi ned by either a subhead or clear opening text?

If you can’t answer “Yes” to each of these questions, then you haven’t fi nished working on the structure.

EXERCISES

10.1. Analyze published papers

Go back, once again, to the papers you’ve been analyzing. Th is time look at their internal structure. Can you block out sections that form complete arcs? How do the authors indicate that they are beginning or ending arcs? Identify the theme of each arc and give it a subheader that describes that theme.

10.2. Write a short article

Go back again to your short article. Evaluate your own story arcs. Do you form complete arcs, or do you have ideas that keep cropping up in multiple places? Rewrite to ensure clear, well-defi ned arcs.

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Make the paragraph the unit of composition. — Strunk and White, Elements of Style

Words are to sentences what atoms are to molecules: the basic building blocks that control structure and function. If we extend that analogy, paragraphs become cells: the fundamental unit of life. A cell gains life from its structure, a structure that creates internal cohesion and external connection, allowing it to function as part of a larger organism. So, too, with paragraphs. Hence, Strunk and White’s second principle of composition: “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.”

But how do you make a paragraph a cell, or a unit of composition? What do those terms even mean? Paragraphs tell stories. Not surprisingly, therefore, a paragraph becomes a unit of composition when it tells a complete short story with a coherent structure, a story that fi ts into and contributes to the larger work. If you string sentences together until you need to come up for air, and then throw in a paragraph break, you will not have a unit of composition.

Grade school teaches that a paragraph has a topic sentence that makes a point, which the rest of the paragraph develops. Th is topic sentence–development (TS-D) model of paragraph structure is a simplifi ed version of the lead/develop-ment (LD) story structure I introduced in chapter 4. It works much of the time

11

Paragraphs

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Paragraphs 105

and is a good starting point. However, part of all advanced training is unlearning the simplifi cations you were taught in introductory classes. Th ose classes build simple schemas to get you started in the fi eld, but to advance you must move beyond them. Electrons don’t orbit around the nucleus like planets around the sun, single genes don’t necessarily code for single proteins, and paragraphs don’t necessarily have a TS-D structure.

You can write a paragraph using any of the story structures discussed in this book. Each paragraph needs an opening that sets the stage, and each needs to resolve by making a point, but those don’t have to be either a single sentence or the fi rst sentence. For choosing a structure, the most important decision is whether to make a point and then develop it, producing an LD structure, or to build to a conclusion, producing an OCAR or LDR structure. Joseph Williams 1 distinguishes these as “point-fi rst” versus “point-last” paragraphs.

11.1. POINT-FIRST PARAGRAPHS

Th e simplest form of point-fi rst paragraph is the classical TS-D structure. If a paper were written with only TS-D paragraphs, you could skip along, reading the fi rst sentence of each paragraph, and still get its essence. TS-D is simple, clean, and works well for most jobs. It should dominate your writing. If you go back to chapter 8 (see examples 8.1 and 8.4), you’ll note that this was how I suggested describing your methods and results. Here are several other simple TS-D paragraphs.

Example 11.1 A Result: Neither calculation reproduces the experimental strength distribu-tion. Th e distribution for GXPF1A is closer to the data, but it pushes the strength up too high in excitation energy. An even more dramatic increase occurs for the calculation with KB3G, although the strength integrated up to 7.5 MeV reproduces the experimental value quite well. Th e summed B(GT) strength up to Ex = 7.5 MeV (a total of 48 states) for the KB3G interaction is Σ B (GT)KB3G = 2 . 02 (with a further 10 % of that value located at energies up to 10.3 MeV) compared to the experimental value of 1 . 95 ± 0 . 14 up to that excitation energy. Th e summed strength up to Ex = 7 . 5 MeV with the GXPF1A interaction is Σ B(GT) GXPF1A = 2.65. A further 8 % of that value is located at higher excitation energies, fragmented over many weak states. 2

1. Joseph Williams 1981. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, University of Chicago Press.

2. G. W. Hitt, R. G. T. Zegers, S. M. Austin, D. Bazin, A. Gade, D. Galaviz, C. J. Guess, M. Horoi, M. E. Howard, W. D. M. Rae, Y. Shimbara, E. E. Smith, and C. Tur, “Gamow-Teller Transitions to Cu Measured with the Zn( t, He) Reaction,” (2009).

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106 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Example 11.2 An Argument: We conclude that the increase of the diurnal temperature range [DTR] over the United States during the three-day grounding period of 11–14 September 2001 cannot be attributed to the absence of contrails. While missing contrails may have aff ected the DTR, their impact is probably too small to detect with a statistical signifi cance. Th e variations in high cloud cover, including contrails and contrail-induced cirrus clouds, contribute weakly to the changes in the diurnal temperature range, which is governed primarily by lower altitude clouds, winds, and humidity. 3

An alternative form of point-fi rst paragraph is to use a more extended LD structure in which the lead takes several sentences. An example of this is the fi rst paragraph in example 10.2 about nitrogen stoichiometry, in which the lead takes three sentences. Th e fi rst makes the general argument that organisms have char-acteristic element ratios, an argument that is sharpened and narrowed to the fi nal clause of the third sentence, which states that these ratios may “predict element mineralization or immobilization during decomposition.” Th at ends the lead with a point the rest of the paragraph expands on.

Another example of an LD paragraph is example 11.3, which comes from a paper about synthesizing complexes between metals and aromatic carbon-60 (C60) structures. Th is came at the end of the paper’s opening, which argued that such complexes are important in nature and that new techniques were becoming available to synthesize them. It makes a critical step in the funnel, narrowing down to the specifi c problem of synthesizing metal–corannulene ion—molecule complexes.

Example 11.3 Metal-PAH [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon] complexes are important as models for surface science and catalysis; PAHs may be used to model fi nite sections of a carbon surface. Th ere is also evidence that metal-PAH com-plexes may be constituents of interstellar gas clouds; they have been impli-cated in the depletion of atomic metal and silicon in the ISM and as contributors to the DIBs [diff use interstellar bands] and UIB [unidentifi ed infrared bands]. Increasing interest in metal-PAH systems has thus motivated many groups to produce these species in laboratory experiments. Dunbar and co-workers were the fi rst to observe metal-PAH ion complexes in gasphase experiments using FT-ICR mass spectrometry. From these experiments, they determined the binding kinetics of a variety of metal and nonmetal cations with PAHs. Our group has produced a variety of metal and multimetal-PAH sandwich complexes using laser vaporization of fi lm-coated metal samples in a molecular beam cluster source. Competitive binding and photodissocia-tion experiments were successful in determining structural information and

3. G. P. Yang Hong, P. Minnis, Y. X. Hu, and G. North, “Do Contrails Signifi cantly Reduce Daily Temperature Range?” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): L23815.

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Paragraphs 107

relative bonding strengths of metals with benzene, C60, and coronene. In other experiments, we used a laser desorption time-of-fl ight mass spectrom-eter to produce a variety of metal oxide and halide PAH complexes as well as mixed-ligand complexes. Experimental work has stimulated new theoretical studies investigating metal binding sites and bond energies on PAHs. Dunbar, Klippenstein and co-workers and Jena and co-workers have been active in this area. 4

I’ve italicized the sentence that makes the point of this paragraph; it closes the lead and opens the discussion of research groups that have made metal-PAH complexes. Th e fi rst sentences discussed why they are important, and thus why researchers would want to synthesize them. Th e following sentences lay out the history of synthesis eff orts. Because this is a long paragraph, the authors used several sentences to build to the point, rather than a single topic sentence.

11.2. POINT-LAST PARAGRAPHS

In a point-fi rst paragraph, you make an argument and then fl esh it out. Sometimes, however, you need to assemble an argument, pulling threads together to weave them into a conclusion, producing a point-last structure. Th ese may be either LDR or OCAR.

An LDR paragraph opens with an argument and then develops it, similar to an LD paragraph, but then it wraps up with a synthesis: it’s strong at both opening and resolution. A good example is the second paragraph of example 10.2 about nitrogen stoichiometry. Th at paragraph starts with the strong statement that ani-mals and microbes live in a C-rich, N-poor world; it ends with a conclusion as to what that means — N recycling lags behind decomposition — hence LDR.

An additional example of an LDR paragraph is the following (example 11.4), which is about the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following battlefi eld injuries. Th e authors suggest that using morphine to ease immediate pain might also help reduce later PTSD, because its anti-anxiety eff ects can prevent the bad memories from consolidating.

Example 11.4 Although much of the research in the fi eld of pharmacotherapy for the sec-ondary prevention of PTSD aft er trauma is speculative, there is theoretical evidence that early use of anti-anxiety agents can be eff ective. Pitman and Delahanty argued that pharmacotherapeutic interventions for the preven-tion of PTSD will be most eff ective if medication regimens are imple-mented aft er exposure to traumatic events. Morgan and colleagues and other

4. T. M. Ayers, B. C. Westlake, D. V. Preda, L. T. Scott, and M. A. Duncan, “Laser Plasma Production of Metal-Corannulene Ion-Molecule Complexes,” Organometallics 24 (2005): 4573–78.

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108 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

investigators have hypothesized that opiates may interfere with or prevent memory consolidation through a beta-adrenergic mechanism. Th is theory also lends support to the idea that morphine and other opiates may prove eff ective in the secondary prevention of PTSD aft er trauma. 5

In this paragraph the lead is the general argument that anti-anxiety agents should block PTSD; this point is made in the fi rst sentence. Th e development is the discussion of the papers by Pitman and Delahanty and by Morgan and colle-agues. Th e resolution is the last sentence, which argues that because morphine is an anti-anxiety agent as well as a potent painkiller, it should limit PTSD.

Th e other way to craft a point-last paragraph is to use an OCAR structure, in which the opening sentence introduces the issue without framing an argument — it just sets the stage. Th e last sentence synthesizes the material to make the conclu-sion. Consider example 11.5.

Example 11.5 If the Great Plains mammoths routinely undertook long-distance migra-tions, then mammoths at all of the Clovis sites in this study should display similar 87 Sr/ 86 Sr ratios. However, the Dent mammoths display 87 Sr/ 86 Sr ratios that are distinct from those of mammoths at Blackwater Draw and Miami, demonstrating that the Dent mammoths belonged to a distinct population. Th us, we conclude that Great Plains mammoths did not routinely migrate between northern Colorado and the southern High Plains, which are sepa-rated by about 600 km. 6

Th e point of this paragraph is that mammoths did not migrate long distances, which is presented in the closing sentence — hence, point-last. Th e fi rst sentence poses the question (did they migrate long distances?) and the approach to answer-ing it (Sr isotope ratios). It serves as both opening and challenge, but it doesn’t answer the question and so doesn’t resolve. It acts as a guide to the story but as a classic OCAR opening, rather than as an LDR lead.

Another excellent example of a point-last OCAR paragraph is example 10.1 about population density and watershed N-export. Th at paragraph opens by argu-ing that these might be related. Th e second sentence poses the challenge, asking whether diff erences in population density could explain the diff erences in N-export between north and south. Several more sentences develop the action, leading to the resolution: population density cannot explain the patterns of N-export.

5. T. L. Holbrook, M. R. Galarneau, J. L. Dye, K. Quinn, and A. L. Dougherty, “Morphine Use aft er Combat Injury in Iraq and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” New England Journal of Medicine 362 (2010): 110–17.

6. K. A. Hoppe, “Late Pleistocene Mammoth Herd Structure, Migration Patterns, and Clovis Hunting Strategies Inferred from Isotopic Analyses of Multiple Death Assemblages,” Paleobiology 30 (2004): 129–45.

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Paragraphs 109

Point-last paragraphs are not terribly common; they might account for 25–30 percent of a paper. Writing is dominated by point-fi rst paragraphs, particularly by TS-D, which is the bread-and-butter paragraph. Th e complex structures, however, oft en appear at critical story points — openings, resolutions, and transitions — so you must learn when and how to use them. Additionally, although short para-graphs are usually TS-D, long paragraphs benefi t from a resolution to tie them together and remind the reader of the point; they lean toward LDR or OCAR.

I’ve presented these structures as distinct, but they are not; rather, they form a spectrum from paragraphs with all the power in the fi rst sentence to those with it all in the last — pure TS-D to pure OCAR. Some paragraphs may be hard to clas-sify defi nitively as TS-D, LD, LDR, or OCAR. Slight shift s in the weighting of a sentence, or of a reader’s interpretation, might change how they would defi ne the structure. It’s better when the structure is apparent, because if it is unclear, then the point may be, too. It’s okay to write point-fi rst paragraphs, and it’s okay to write point-last paragraphs, but don’t write point-nowhere paragraphs.

11.3. BAD PARAGRAPHS

Because paragraphs tell stories, they can fail for the same reasons that whole sto-ries do. Paragraphs that lack a coherent structure can seem confusing and point-less, as did example 10.3, which illustrated directionless, “stream of consciousness” writing. We fi xed that paragraph by breaking it into smaller ones, each of which had a single point; the fi rst paragraph became OCAR and the second TS-D. Anytime you come across a paragraph that seems too long, too rambling, or too incoherent, you need to look for the story arcs and elements, and restructure or break up the paragraph up to highlight them.

As an example, here is a paragraph that is about as bad as it is possible to write (example 11.6). It is about restoring damaged grasslands where phosphorus avail-ability limits plant growth. Th e researchers did two things: (1) they added com-post as fertilizer, and (2) they inoculated a native grass with symbiotic fungi (known as mycorrhizae) to determine whether these treatments would overcome the P-limitation and allow plants to grow well.

Example 11.6: Adding compost to soil promotes microbial growth, which then increases microbial production of phosphatase enzymes that release plant-available P from organic matter. Bromus carinatus is a native grass that can be used in reestablishing California grasslands. Its success in P-poor systems can be stimulated by inoculation with mycorrhizal fungi. However, the eff ects of mycorrhizal inoculation of B. carinatus on P uptake have not been assessed.

Not only is the point of this paragraph completely opaque, so is its structure. Is it point-fi rst or point-last? Does it even have a point? Th ere are several threads of argument that seem to weave aimlessly through it. First, P availability is critical

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110 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

to growing plants and restoring degraded California ecosystems. Second, there are two approaches that may enhance P-uptake by plants: adding compost and inoculating plants with mycorrhizae. Th ird, B. carinatus can be used to reestablish grasslands. Finally, the eff ects of mycorrhizal inoculation of B. carinatus are unknown. Which of these is the point of the paragraph?

Th e paper intended to connect the fi rst two ideas; the story was about integrat-ing multiple approaches to solve a problem, in this case focusing on increasing P-supply to plants to get them to grow. B. carinatus is incidental to that story; it just happens to be a useful species to use. Unfortunately, the authors introduced that point in a way that derailed the paragraph. To the authors, how this all fi t together was probably obvious, but it wasn’t to a reader. Th is kind of incoherence frequently results from the curse of knowledge. When authors know too much but write too little, ideas get overcondensed and jumbled.

How do you fi x a paragraph like this? Th e fi rst step is to identify the real story: there are two approaches to restoring degraded grasslands. Th e second step is to decide whether this needs a point-fi rst or a point-last structure. I argue for a point-fi rst, LD structure. Th e third step is to pull apart the diff erent threads of this story to clarify their relationships.

Example 11.7 Restoring degraded California grasslands requires adequate supplies of P to support plant growth. Two management approaches have been proposed to achieve this: adding compost and inoculating grasses with mycorrhizal fungi. However, which approach is more eff ective in enhancing P-uptake and resto-ration is unclear, and they may work synergistically. Compost not only adds organic P to the soil; it also stimulates microbes that produce phosphatase enzymes and so increases P-release. P uptake by plants, on the other hand, may be stimulated by inoculating them with mycorrhizal fungi.

Bromus carinatus is a native grass that may be useful in restoring degraded California grasslands as it grows extensively throughout the state and toler-ates harsh conditions. If it can be supplied with adequate P, it establishes well and starts the restoration process. A question, however, is which approach to enhancing P supply will work best with it, or whether both are necessary.

Instead of one dense, cryptic paragraph, I’ve broken this into two, added explana-tion, and ensured that each has a clear point and a clear structure: LD and LDR, respectively. Each forms a coherent story within itself, and together they defi ne a direction for the paper. I argue that as a rule, short is better than long (see chapter 16), but you should take the space necessary to frame critical ideas. If you confuse readers, you lose them. If you need to condense, condense elsewhere.

Th e key to writing good paragraphs, and fi xing bad ones, is the same as for other writing problems. Identify (1) who the story is about, (2) your point, and (3) where you should make it. Put the critical pieces of information in the right places, and use the rest of the text to tie them together smoothly.

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EXERCISES

11.1. Analyze published papers

Go to the papers you have been analyzing. Choose a selection of paragraphs in the papers; pick the critical points of opening, challenge, resolution, and transitions, as well as a random sampling of body paragraphs. Defi ne their structures: point-fi rst versus point-last. If point-fi rst, are they simple TS-D or more developed LD? If point-last, are they LDR or OCAR? Evaluate where they use each structure — is there a pattern of where the authors use each type of paragraph? Can you deter-mine why they use a particular structure in each case?

11.2. Write a short article

Go back to your short article and analyze the structure of every paragraph: TS-D, LD, LDR, or OCAR? Do they seem appropriate for the particular location and function they serve? If not (or worse, they have no defi nable structure), rewrite to give them an appropriate and structure.

11.3. Edit

A. Rewrite Example 11.2 about jet contrails and diurnal temperature variation as a point-last, OCAR, paragraph. Does it work as well?

B. Rewrite Example 11.5 about mammoths as a TS-D paragraph. Does it work as well?

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A sentence tells a story, just the shortest one possible.

It may seem strange, in a book targeted at high-level scientifi c writing, to go back to a topic that you probably studied in your fi rst class on writing, possibly when you were six years old. But you can’t write strong papers with weak sentences. To polish your writing, you need to go back to basics. Th at means sentences.

Because a sentence tells a story, basic principles of story structure apply. Readers need to meet the characters (opening), learn what they did (action), and what the outcome was (resolution). However, there are grammatical rules that we must integrate with OCAR principles to write good sentences.

Grammatically, a sentence has a subject, verb, and object. To transform a sen-tence into a story, however, you need to see those grammatical units as story units that carry out the OCAR functions.

12

Sentences

O Opening: who is the story about? = Subject

C/A Challenge/action: what happened = Verb

R Resolution: what was its outcome? = Object

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Good sentences present the OCAR elements in the most convenient order possible, establishing a framework and then placing new information into it, allowing readers to process each piece of information in turn. If you give us infor-mation out of order, we have to hold it aside until you provide the essential pieces. Imagine helping someone build a house. First you hand them a board, then the nail to pound into it, and only then the hammer to pound it with. If you reverse that order, they’ll hang the hammer on their belt and hold the nail in their teeth while they wait for the board to put in place. It’s harder that way.

With longer stories, we can choose where to place the emphasis — either in the opening in LD, or in the resolution in OCAR or ABDCE. Most sentences, how-ever, are short enough that you don’t have that fl exibility. It’s in the nature of English that the last word or phrase in a sentence’s main clause carries the stron-gest emotional weight, so simple sentences invariably follow OCAR.

A sentence’s condensed form and constrained structure is why Joseph Williams in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace ,” defi nes the terms “topic” and “stress” for the critical opening and resolution positions, terms that are more specifi c in how they refl ect their function in a sentence.

12.1. OPENING: THE TOPIC

In any story, the opening identifi es the characters and setting. In a long story, there may be a number of elements to introduce — people, places, concepts, and so on. However, a sentence is more limited and should deal with a more limited suite of characters, frequently just one — it has a single topic .

Whatever you put at the beginning of a sentence, readers interpret as the topic: who or what the sentence is about. Because the topic presents the context for what is to come, it should be a schema or character that readers are familiar with, either because it is common knowledge or because you introduced it earlier. Th en you develop the schema by adding new information. If you break that pattern and put new information at the beginning of a sentence, readers may be confused — you’re giving them new information but suggesting it’s old.

12.2. RESOLUTION: THE STRESS

Endings are always power positions — last words carry the greatest weight. Because of that emphasis, Williams defi nes the ending of a sentence as the stress . Th at is why I made “the stress” the last words in the previous sentence — I wanted to emphasize the new term. In a multiclause sentence, the ending of each clause is a minor stress position. Use the power of the stress by putting key words there — the main message and new ideas or terms.

To illustrate the power of the stress position, consider the ending of Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fi ght them on the beaches” speech. Read it aloud and hear where your voice comes down in emphasis.

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Example 12.1 “ … and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

What words did you fi nd yourself hitting? Was it not the end of each clause? With a big punch on the fi nal words — the sentence’s overall stress?

Churchill wrote it this way because he knew the words and ideas he wanted to emphasize, so he put them in stress positions.

12.3. PUTTING TOPIC AND STRESS TOGETHER

Some writers seem to think that if they get the right facts into a sentence, readers will get their point. Th ey are wrong. Shift ing information between topic and stress changes how readers interpret it. You must put the right information in the right place if you want readers to get your intended point. Consider the following three sentences; they all contain the same facts, but they tell diff erent stories.

Example 12.2 A. Viruses were not studied in the sea until 1989 yet are its most abun-

dant biological entities. B. Th e most abundant biological entities in the sea are viruses, yet they

were not studied until 1989. C. Th e most abundant biological entities in the sea were not studied until

1989: viruses.

In the fi rst sentence, viruses are “old information” that we’re learning some-thing new about. Th at new story is defi ned in the stress — viruses are the sea’s most abundant biological entities. Th is expands your understanding of where viruses are important.

Sentences B and C, on the other hand, put “biological entities in the sea” in the topic position. Th ey build on a “sea creature” schema, which is probably about fi sh, rather than on a “virus” schema. Th ough these sentences both have sea creatures as their central character, they tell diff erent stories. Sentence B empha-sizes when they were fi rst studied — isn’t it surprising that it wasn’t until 1989? Sentence C emphasizes that the surprising new information is that the most abun-dant entities are viruses. It tells the opposite story from A, inverting old and new information.

Just putting “viruses,” “1989,” and “most abundant biological entities in the sea” into a single sentence doesn’t create one message — it creates six potential messages (of which I showed three). Th e diff erence between these sentences and how you interpret them isn’t length or language, but structure — what information

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goes where? You must choose which story you want to tell and structure your sentences accordingly.

Recognizing how readers respond to information in diff erent parts of the sentence off ers a tool for controlling those responses. Let’s consider another example, one with information that may not be as easy to assimilate.

Example 12.3 Net mineralization represents the nitrogen available to plants because it refl ects the diff erence between microbial nitrogen release and uptake in soil.

Only a minority of you likely knows what “net mineralization” is or have a schema for it. So when I start a sentence with it, the sentence (and ideas) may be challenging. Starting with more familiar concepts makes the sentence easier.

“Th e amount of nitrogen available for plants is controlled by net mineraliza-tion — the diff erence between microbial nitrogen release and uptake in soil.”

Th is sentence says eff ectively the same thing, but it starts with an idea that most people understand — plants need nitrogen. It builds off a widely held schema and educates readers about the role of microbes in controlling plant N. All it took to make the story more tractable was switching the topic. Whereas the fi rst sen-tence might have seemed opaque, this should seem more transparent.

By shift ing the order of the ideas in the sentence, I also buried “net mineraliza-tion” in the middle, minimizing the weight on the term itself and letting you slide over it. For people in the fi eld, referring to the term, even in a low-emphasis posi-tion, may strengthen the message. If, however, I were writing for people outside the fi eld, who don’t hold the net mineralization schema, I could leave the term out and simplify the sentence to:

“Th e amount of nitrogen available for plants is controlled by the diff erence between microbial nitrogen release and uptake in soil ”

Th is sentence says exactly the same to most people — perhaps more, as it is shorter and contains no unfamiliar information to distract.

If I wanted to defi ne “net nitrogen mineralization” and create a schema for it that I could build on, I would move it to the sentence’s overall stress position:

“Th e amount of nitrogen available for plants is controlled by the balance between microbial nitrogen uptake and release in soil; we defi ne this balance as net N mineralization.”

Th is emphasizes “net N mineralization” as a new term I want readers to remember. I would write it that way in a textbook. I would not, however, write it that way for a specialist journal — experts wouldn’t need the term defi ned. For them it’s an established schema. If I wrote the sentence that way for a paper in

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Soil Biology & Biochemistry , readers might interpret the writing as that of a novice for whom this is new material.

Th e weighting of words in a sentence follows a consistent order: the stress car-ries the greatest emphasis, the topic is next, and the middle carries the least. Th is pattern is described by Roy Peter Clark, in Writing Tools , as the 2–3–1 rule of emphasis. Managing this pattern will help you put the right information in the right places; it will guide you in selecting the appropriate topic and stress to write sentences with both clarity and power.

12.4. SUBJECT–VERB CONNECTION

Managing topic and stress is about managing opening and resolution. Writing strong sentences also requires managing the action. Sentences are highly con-densed stories; there is no time for a long, gentle opening. Introduce the key char-acters and then get right to it. Th e longer the gap between actor and action, the duller and more confusing a sentence becomes. Th e verb (the action) should immediately follow the sentence’s subject.

As examples of tight subject–verb connection look back to example 12.3 and the fi rst suggested rewrite; each immediately follows the subject with the verb:

“Net mineralization represents . . .” “Th e amount of nitrogen available for plants is controlled . . .”

In the second version, the subject is long (seven words), but the verb (is controlled) immediately follows it.

Example 12.4 off ers a case where the authors inserted a phrase into the middle of the sentence, set off with commas, and so disconnected the subject and verb, and as a result made it unnecessarily hard to follow.

Example 12.4 Th e pooled eff ect sizes, both with and without adjustment for environmental risk factors, were larger for DNA-based than RNA-based viruses.

Th e subject is “pooled eff ect sizes” and the verb is “were,” but those are sepa-rated by the discussion of adjusting for environmental risk factors. To reconnect subject and verb, move that parenthetical out of the middle of the sentence.

“Th e pooled eff ect sizes were larger for DNA-based than RNA-based viruses, regardless of whether environmental risk factors were adjusted for.”

12.5. MANAGING REAL SENTENCES

Th e examples I’ve used so far are straightforward, with few extra words or clauses to add information or nuance. To express more complex thoughts, we need to be

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able to write more complex sentences, but these oft en get out of control. Rather than elaborating the message, we end up hiding it, burying it under clutter. Th e key to writing complex sentences is holding their structure together. Topic, action, and stress need to be well chosen and well placed.

12.5.1. Pick the Right Topic

When we add words or clauses to the beginning of a sentence, we bury the topic and risk that it will be missed or misconstrued. Tightening the structure means picking the right topic. For example, in the following sentence, what is the real topic?

Example 12.5 It has been predicted that the global average temperature will increase at a rate of 0.2˚C/decade.

Th e OCAR structure here is weak because there are two sets of actors and action: (1) someone predicted, and (2) temperature will rise. Why open with the implied nameless people who did the predicting, when the story is almost cer-tainly about global average temperature? Make that the topic:

Global average temperature has been predicted to increase at a rate of 0.2˚C/decade.”

Th is collapses all the action — both the prediction and the increase — into a single short action section, making the sentence clearer. It has a better internal arc structure.

Th e following is a case where the author only had one potential actor but still managed to bury the sentence’s topic.

Example 12.6 In this study, taking advantage of a well-annotated genome map and eff ective targeted-mutagenesis techniques, we analyzed the role of Bac17 in pathogen-esis by Candida albicans .

Here, the authors added a long incidental qualifying clause to the beginning of the sentence. Since we don’t yet know what is being qualifi ed, we are likely to skim over that material because we don’t have a framework for it. It would be better to move the real topic of this sentence closer to the beginning:

“We analyzed the role of Bac17 in pathogenesis by Candida albicans by taking advantage of a well annotated genome map and eff ective targeted-mutagenesis techniques.”

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12.5.2. Unburying the Stress

Sometimes the problem with a sentence is that there are words dangling aft er the real stress. To strengthen such sentences, you need to either delete those extra words or move them into the middle of the sentence, thereby shift ing the important words into the stress position. For example, the following sentence (example 12.7) ends weakly. How would you strengthen it?

Example 12.7 Th e number of commercial products containing nanomaterials has risen rapidly; in 2006 there were only 212 while in 2009 there were over 1000 products on the market.

What is the point in this sentence? Th e fi rst clause makes the argument that nanomaterial use is increasing, whereas the second elaborates that by showing us how much it has increased. Th e point to emphasize, therefore, should be 1000, rather than “products on the market.” So cut those trailing words; we’ve already said “commercial products,” so we know what the numbers refer to:

“Th e number of commercial products containing nanomaterials has risen rapidly; in 2006 there were only 212 while in 2009 there were over 1000.”

Example 12.8 Plants can increase their resistance to bacterial pathogens by increasing leaf alkaloid concentrations and by synthesizing tannins to bind to bacterial enzymes within plant tissues.

Th e dangling words “within plant tissues” are confusing. Does “within” refer to where tannins are synthesized or to where the enzymes are? Th e message to stress is not where it happens but that tannins bind to bacterial enzymes.

“Plants can increase their resistance to bacterial pathogens by increasing leaf alkaloid concentrations and by synthesizing tannins to bind to bacterial enzymes.”

Th e following suff ers from a buried stress, but this one can’t be solved by deleting the trailing words; the sentence would make no sense if you did that.

Example 12.9 Th e data did not support our initial hypothesis, as no clear trend in reaction rate with pH was observed.

So what is the problem here? Th e second clause is supposed to illustrate and support the initial argument. But the important information is the absence of a

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trend in reaction rate, so that should be stressed. As written, though, the stress is on “was observed”; the information about reaction rate is buried inside the sentence. Rewrite this to stress the reaction rate response:

“Th e data did not support our initial hypothesis, as there was no clear trend in reaction rate with pH.”

Th is strengthens the action by focusing on the trend and not on its observa-tion, and improves subject–verb connection, moving the verb to the front of the clause, “as there was.”

Possibly the authors thought it important to imply some uncertainty by empha-sizing that they didn’t observe a trend, rather than to state categorically that there wasn’t one. In that case, it would be better to rewrite the sentence this way:

“Th e data did not support our initial hypothesis, as we did not observe a clear trend in reaction rate with pH.”

Th is puts the important information in the stress and moves the point about observation into the middle of the sentence, the 3-position in the 2–3–1 rule of emphasis. Th is leaves the qualifi cation in place without making it the point of the sentence.

Many sentences pose even more complex problems. In some, both the topic and stress are buried. Th at’s probably not uncommon in longer sentences, espe-cially those written by developing writers. Example 12.10 off ers an example.

Example 12.10 Th e qualitative agreement between caribou’s preference for feeding on young leaves and the trend for protein to decline with leaf age supports the hypothe-sis that caribou migration is driven by the patterns of leaf-out and maturation spatially and temporally through their home range, rather than by weather.

Th is is a long, complex, and confusing sentence, but it’s a simple idea: caribou migrate to follow the availability of high-quality, nutritious food. We should be able to state a simple idea simply.

Step 1: Fix the topic. Right now the grammatical subject takes 21 words — everything before “supports”; that’s way too long and complex. Th e point is that caribou prefer young leaves, but that is in the middle of the opening clause and is weakly stated. Th e authors were suggesting that caribou like young leaves because they are protein-rich, but were trying to leave open the possibility that other factors contribute to that preference. Th ey were trying to be careful, but by trying too hard and doing it badly, they ended up being confusing.

To fi x this sentence, let’s make the topic caribou’s food preference: young leaves that are rich in protein. Let’s do it in fewer than 20 words: “Caribou prefer to feed on young, protein-rich leaves . . .” Th is condenses the opening to a simple, nine-word clause that has a one-word topic immediately followed by a verb.

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It even leaves causality open; it says that the leaves caribou like are protein-rich, but doesn’t specify that is why they like them. Here, we say more by saying less, using structure instead of words to carry the message. It is easy to write yourself into a corner by over-explaining.

Step 2: Fix the stress. In the original version the stress is “weather.” It should be the argument that caribou follow food: “. . . the spatial and temporal patterns of leaf-out and maturation.”

Step 3: Finish. Having unburied both topic and stress, any additional informa-tion can be packaged into the middle. Th e complete sentence now reads:

“Caribou prefer to feed on young, protein-rich leaves, supporting the hypothesis that migration is not driven by weather but by the spatial and temporal pat-terns of leaf-out and maturation.”

Th is sentence is now much clearer, and not just because it’s shorter. Th e topic-action-stress is tighter, giving it a better structure. We got there by following a few simple guidelines:

1. Th e topic should be short and clear. 2. Th e main verb should follow it immediately. 3. Th e key message should come at the stress.

Th ese apply to individual clauses as well as to the sentence as a whole. Remember the hierarchical structure of story arcs. Th e fi nal sentence of example 12.10 now has three clauses, each of which is tight and clear.

12.6. LONG SENTENCES

Most books on writing argue that short sentences are easier to read than long ones. Th ey aren’t wrong, but that is one of the simplifi cations you should unlearn. Th e example from Winston Churchill was 141 words long and was neither short nor bad writing — a crime few would dare accuse Churchill of.

Good, clear sentences can be short or long, and the best writers use a mixture of both. Th e key to writing a good long sentence is holding together the structure, but straight OCAR won’t work. If readers have to wait to the end of the sentence to get the point, they will get lost. To write a good long sentence, you need to use an LD structure: make the key point in a short initial main clause, and then add others that add depth and nuance. Th is is what Roy Peter Clark describes as a “right opening sentence.” Even though we lean toward short sentences in science writing, it’s a useful skill to be able to craft a clean long one. For example, I fi xed the subject–verb connection in example 12.4 by giving it an LD structure — I made the fi rst clause tell the story and added the elaboration in a subordinate clause.

Here’s an example of a right-opening sentence from a paper that recon-structed the historical climate of east Africa by analyzing the past level of Lake Tanganyika.

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Example 12.11 At the beginning of the second millennium AD, lake level at Lake Tanganyika fell and remained relatively low during the period from ~1050 – 1250 AD, which corresponds to the timing of the MWP [Medieval Warm Period] in many locales, albeit with a later onset than in some areas. 1

Th is sentence is long (more than 40 words), with a complex multiclause struc-ture, but the story is simple and clear: Lake Tanganyika was low for several hun-dred years aft er 1000 a.d . Th e opening clause sets the stage for the main message, “Lake Tanganyika fell.” Fell is a powerful verb that immediately follows the sub-ject. From there, the authors added additional clauses that created extra dimen-sions. Th e sentence uses a right-opening LD design. It sketches in the main story and then colors in the picture, essentially building and then growing a schema. Although long, this sentence feels simple because its structure works.

Consider what this sentence would look like if we wrote it to put the key action (the lake fell) in the stress of the overall sentence:

“During the early part of the second millennium AD, from ~1050 – 1250 AD, a period corresponding to the timing of the MWP in many locales, albeit with a later onset than in some, lake level at Lake Tanganyika fell and remained rela-tively low.”

Th is is much harder. As readers work their way through this sentence, they are asking themselves “Who’s this story about?” or “What’s the point?” Th ey would have no old-information framework on which to hang the information about timing, and so they would lose the thread. Get to the topic quickly, then to the action, and then add nuance if needed.

Here’s another example of a long sentence that uses the right-opening approach to tell a story about two GTPase proteins.

Example 12.12 We focused on two members of this family: Rab5, which controls transport from the plasma membrane to the early endosome and regulates the dynamics of early endosome fusion, and Rab7, which governs membrane fl ux into and out of late endosomes. 2

1. S. R. Alin and A. S. Cohen, “Lake-Level History of Lake Tanganyika, East Africa, for the Past 2500 Years Based on Ostracode-Inferred Water-Depth Reconstruction,” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 199 (2003): 31–49.

2. M. C. Pascale, S. Franceschelli, O. Moltedo, F. Belleudi, M. R. Torrisi, C. Bucci, S. La Fontaine, J. F. B. Mercer, and A. Leone, “Endosomal Traffi cking of the Menkes Copper ATPase ATP7A Is Mediated by Vesicles Containing the Rab7 and Rab5 GTPase Proteins,” Experimental Cell Research 291 (2003): 377–85.

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Th is sentence reads easily because the authors structured it carefully. Th eir fi rst two words are a short subject and an action verb: “We focused.” Th en they hit us with critical information in the stress of the opening clause; they focused on “two members of this family.” Th at clause fully framed the story and the colon suggests that the authors will follow up by describing each member, which they do. First they name Rab5 and then describe it, and then they come back to Rab7 and describe it. Th is created a sentence with a doubly branched, right-opening struc-ture. Th at sounds (but doesn’t feel) complicated; it worked because the authors held the structure together when it easily could have fallen apart.

As you can see from the examples, the secret to writing strong sentences is the same as for writing strong papers and paragraphs: make the OCAR elements clear and put them in their right places. Develop story elements into coherent arcs placed in series. Find the topic, make it the subject, and move it toward the begin-ning of the sentence. Find the action verb and connect it closely to the subject. Find the stress and move it to the end of the main clause. If you have additional material to add, move it to the right so that it modifi es, rather than intrudes in, the main story. By doing so, you should be able to take even painfully confusing and complex sentences and make them tight, clear, and easy to read.

EXERCISES

12.1. Evaluate published papers

Pick sentences from several of the paragraphs you analyzed for the exercises in chapter 11. Evaluate what the authors chose to put at the topic and stress posi-tions. Were they good choices? If the authors used more complex sentence struc-tures, did they maintain strong subject–verb connection? If there are sentences that are poorly structured, can you rewrite them to make them clearer?

12.2. Write a short article

Go through every sentence in your article and examine sentence structure. Have you chosen the right topic and stress? Have you ensured tight subject–verb con-nection? Rewrite them, if necessary, to strengthen them.

12.3. Write new sentences

A. I argued that taking three elements allows you to create six possible stories. Take the elements I used in example 12.2 (viruses, 1989, and biological entities in the sea) and write the three that I did not include.

B. Take the following pieces of information to write three diff erent sentences with three diff erent stories: benzene, cancer, groundwater.

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12.4. Revise the following sentences to strengthen them

A. Due to uncertainties resulting from interferences in the X-ray microanalysis, it remains unclear what the crystalline nature of kryptonite is.

B. By reducing diff usion and increasing physiological stress, drought reduces soil microbial activity and causes a build-up of biodegradable C that is rapidly respired upon rewetting.

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Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.

— William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Best-selling novels are oft en described as “page turners.” Best-cited papers and best-funded proposals are the same. Th ey draw readers in and lead them through the story — they fl ow. A break in that fl ow can derail a reader and abruptly change a piece from “page turner” to “re-turner” with a rejection letter attached.

Th ere are two approaches to creating fl ow. Th e fi rst is to write paragraphs where all the sentences are on the same team — dealing with a coherent theme and working together for a common goal. Th e second is to write sentences so the team forms a relay — each passes a baton at the transition, allowing an idea to fl ow cleanly from start to fi nish.

When you write a paragraph, the opening sets its theme. As long as every sen-tence has a topic that fi ts into that theme, the paragraph will hang together. All paragraphs need this kind of thematic coherence, and when they lack it, we suff er. For example, the stream-of-consciousness paragraph about California fi sheries in example 10.3 had eight separate topics that didn’t fi t a pattern; it was incoherent.

13

Flow

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Flow 125

In contrast, in this paragraph the topic of every sentence is either “paragraph” or “sentence,” ideas that fi t comfortably together; I think it is coherent.

Th e greater challenge, which I focus on in this chapter, is helping readers avoid derailing at transitions — helping them follow you through your arguments and between the story arcs. If you lose readers at those critical points, you may lose them for good. To carry readers through, sentences need to link seamlessly to each other. Achieving this fl ow involves a delicate balancing act. Each sentence must tell a coherent story, but each must also function within a paragraph, advanc-ing the larger story. Th is requires tying together stress and topic, weaving old and new information into an unbroken chain.

Th e critical element in building this chain is managing the topics. Th ese should refer to information that is familiar from earlier text. Th is is a backward-looking function. But the topic also tells you what the story is going to be about, which is a forward-looking function. For a story in a series, a sentence in a paragraph, the topic is like the Roman god Janus (fi gure 13.1 ), simultaneously looking backward and forward, connecting past to future.

When people read a story, they need the opening of each arc to provide that Janus function — both context and launching point. When your topics achieve that, your ideas will be easy to follow. When they don’t, they may feel disjointed.

As a starting example, consider the following sets of sentences.

Example 13.1 Molecules are comprised of covalently bonded atoms. Molecules’ reactions are controlled by the strength of the bonds. Molecules, however, sometimes react slower than bond strength would predict.

Figure 13.1. Janus, the god of doors and beginnings.

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126 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

In example 13.1, the topic of each sentence is “molecules.” Th e sentences form a list of facts about molecules without any structure to those facts. In example 13.2, the topic of each sentence ties to the stress of the previous one. Th at links past to future, fulfi lling the Janus function and creating fl ow. Linking topic-to-topic creates a list of statements about a thing, while linking stress-to-topic creates a story about that thing (fi gure 13.2 ).

Pure lists are hard; the reader has to fi gure out why the facts are important and how they fi t together. To make several points about a single topic, we need an LD story structure, which gives an overview to defi ne the theme for the list to follow. Th en several sentences can link back to the theme developed by the lead.

Example 13.2 Molecules are comprised of covalently bonded atoms. Bond strength con-trols a molecule’s reactions. Sometimes however, those reactions are slower than bond strength would predict.

Th ese short paragraphs say the same thing. You probably felt, however, that 13.1 is choppy and reads like a list of facts, whereas 13.2 was smoother and makes a coherent story. Why are they diff erent? How do they vary structurally to produce those responses? Let me sketch the sentences out and identify their topics and stresses.

Topic ... Stress

Topic ... Stress

Topic ... Stress

Topic ... Stress

Linkage

Linkage

List

Story

Figure 13.2. Creating a list versus a story: the role of topic and stress.

Molecules... bonded atoms

Topic ... Stress

Molecules... bonded strength Molecules...bonded strength would predict.

Topic ... Stress Topic ... Stress

Molecules... bonded atoms

Topic ... Stress

Bond strength...reactions Reactions...bonded strength would predict.

Topic ... Stress Topic ... Stress

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A story makes the reader’s job easy, highlighting each fact and its relationship to others. It builds a framework for each piece of information, socketing new into old. To create these links, you may end and begin sentences with a single word, as I did between the second and third sentences in example 13.2, repeating “reac-tions.” More oft en, you will repeat an idea or a theme, as I did between the fi rst and second sentences; I picked up the idea of “bonds” but transformed “bonded atoms” into “bond strength.” Th ose are clearly on the same team but not quite the same idea. Th e two faces of Janus are not identical.

Let’s explore how to build fl ow by looking at real examples, rather than the simplistic ones about molecules. Example 13.3 is a passage in which the individual sentences are reasonably well written but where there is a fl ow problem.

Example 13.3 Salvage logging is an increasingly common way of harvesting forests that have been attacked by insect pests. In salvage logging, trees that have been attacked are selectively harvested. Cavities in standing dead trees serve as nesting sites for birds. Th e population biology of cavity-nesting birds is there-fore likely aff ected by salvage logging.

Did you feel a break in the fl ow? Th e fi rst sentence opens with a clear topic. salvage logging. But then, the third sentence introduces a new topic and a new story arc — dead trees and cavity-nesting birds. Th ose two story arcs don’t connect: To make this passage fl ow, we need to link the arcs together. How? Th e easiest way is to reach back and grab the idea of “harvesting” from the fi rst arc and make it the topic of the second. “Th e dead trees that are harvested, however, can provide cav-ities that are nesting sites for birds.” Now read the whole section:

“Salvage logging is an increasingly common way of harvesting forests that have been attacked by insect pests. In salvage logging, trees that have been attacked are selectively harvested. Th e dead trees that are harvested, however, can provide cavities that are nesting sites for birds. Th e population biology of cavity-nesting birds is therefore likely aff ected by salvage logging.”

Th e fl ow of ideas is now seamless and the structure of the argument easier to follow. As with example 13.2 about molecules, I didn’t repeat an exact word; rather, I grabbed an idea — trees that have been harvested. Note that I made the passage fl ow by making the subject of the transitional sentence longer, normally a bad thing. But by breaking the rule, I fulfi lled the principle of making the reader’s job easy.

To fi nish analyzing this passage, consider it as a story. Th is is a clear OCAR paragraph. Th e fi rst sentence provides the opening and topic — it’s going to be about salvage logging and its eff ects. Th ere is action that fi lls you in on these eff ects. Th en, there is a resolution that makes the paragraph’s point and frames the challenge for the paper — salvage logging aff ects bird population biology. Th is paragraph forms a tight circle by opening and resolving with the same words,

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128 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

“salvage logging,” but it pulls that into a spiral: by the end, your understanding of salvage logging has changed.

Th e second issue to look at in this paragraph is when it does and does not explicitly link sentences. Look at the fi rst two sentences:

Salvage logging is an increasingly common way of harvesting forests. In salvage logging, trees that have been attacked are selectively harvested.

Both open with “salvage logging,” and so form a list, rather than a story. Is this a problem? Not in this case. Th ese two sentences work together as a unit. Th e fi rst makes a general statement that the second elaborates. By using the same topic for each, this arc gains thematic coherence; a short list is fi ne. But when the paragraph shift s arcs, it needs to help readers across the transition.

Example 13.4 raises diff erent issues in developing fl ow.

Example 13.4 Groundwater level is an important control of the fate of contaminants within the groundwater: are they taken up plants and microorganisms in the surface soil? Industrial landscapes are frequently disturbed, and the eff ects of this disturbance on the system’s ability to process contaminants has not oft en been studied. Low water tables could reduce an ecosystem’s ability to process groundwater contaminants by moving these contaminants out of the reach of plant roots and microorganisms in the surface soil.

Does this paragraph fl ow? No. Th e fi rst two sentences don’t connect themati-cally, and their stress-topic linkage is nonexistent: “Groundwater . . . microorgan-isms in the surface soil? Industrial landscapes . . .”

So how do we improve the fl ow between them? Th is is a trick question — we don’t. Th e real linkage here is between the fi rst and third sentences. “Groundwater . . . microorganisms in the surface soil? Low water tables . . .” Th ese sentences connect because there is coherence among the terms groundwater , surface soil , and low water tables : they all relate to level in the soil column. So make the con-nection by deleting the second sentence:

“Groundwater level is an important control of the fate of contaminants within the groundwater: are they taken up plants or microorganisms in the surface soil? Low water tables could reduce an ecosystems ability to process groundwa-ter contaminants by moving these contaminants out of the reach of plant roots and microorganisms in the surface soil.”

Now there is no break in the fl ow. Th e fi rst sentence poses a question about groundwater level, while the next picks that up and discusses possible answers. Th ese sentences thematically link stress to topic.

Th e original second sentence about industrial landscapes may make an impor-tant point, but if so, put it somewhere else. Make it its own story arc and tie it back

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into this one. Don’t just squash it in here to introduce the characters of “industrial development” and “landscape disturbance.” Find a way to give them a proper introduction in their own space.

Th is example illustrates how you sometimes have to take a global view of a problem to ensure you have accurately diagnosed it. In this case, it was mixed-up, rather than poorly connected story arcs. Diagnosing and solving the real problem solved the apparent problem. Fixing the arc structure fi xed the fl ow.

If I had taken a narrow approach, I could have forced connection by rewriting the second sentence in the passive voice to reach back and grab the fi rst sentence’s stress.

“ Groundwater level is an important control of the fate of contaminants within the groundwater: are they taken up plants or microorganisms in the surface soil? Th ese organisms may be disturbed by industrial development, but such eff ects on contaminant fate have not oft en been studied . Low water tables could reduce an ecosystems ability to process groundwater contaminants by moving these contaminants out of the reach of plant roots and microorganisms in the surface soil .”

Th is makes the fi rst sentence’s stress into the second one’s topic, and moves “industrial development” to the right into new material space.

Th e fi rst two sentences now connect, but the second and third do not. I haven’t solved the connection problem, I’ve just pushed it down the paragraph. Th at also pushes the story into a diff erent direction (probably the wrong one). Th is used a tactical approach to solve a problem better addressed by strategy — restructuring the fl ow of my thoughts. Revising should be a top-down process that never loses sight of the big picture even while you are dealing with details.

13.1. L INKING PARAGRAPHS WITHIN A SECTION

A paragraph break indicates that you are shift ing ideas and moving into a new story arc. But readers expect the new paragraph to build off the previous one, developing a larger story. To make them connect, you need to use the same stress-topic, resolution-opening strategies we discussed for individual sentences. Example 13.5 illustrates such an approach from a paper on the fate of nanomateri-als in the environment.

Example 13.5 Most previous studies on the aggregation of nanomaterials have focused on the behavior of uncoated particles in dilute aqueous suspension with few contaminants present. However, particles released into natural settings are likely to have organic coatings and will be exposed to humic acids in solution. Th e interactions of coatings and humics can alter surface redox potentials and particle aggregation.

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130 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Nanotitanium oxide particles coated with hydrophobic coatings showed higher aggregation in a medium with high concentrations of humic acids than in control waters. Particles coated with hydrophilic coatings, however, showed reduced aggregation in the presence of humics.

Do these paragraphs fl ow? I don’t think so. Yet clearly there is a connection — the fi rst paragraph lays out general arguments about particle behavior in nature, while the next picks up on that and lays out the results of this research. Th e prob-lem is the lack of overt connection.

Th e fi rst paragraph focuses on the aggregation of nanomaterials. It uses an OCAR structure that resolves with an argument about coatings, humics, and aggregation. Th e topic of the second paragraph, however, is specifi c: nanotita-nium oxide particles. To make this work as a story, we need to tie the opening of the second paragraph back to the resolution of the fi rst. We can do that by grab-bing the theme of “aggregation” and restructuring the second paragraph to emphasize it.

Th e interactions of coatings and humics can alter surface redox potentials and particle aggregation.

Aggregation of nanotitanium oxide particles coated with hydrophobic coatings was higher in media with a high concentration of humic acids than in control waters. . . .

Th is now explicitly links the paragraphs by using the same word to open the second paragraph that resolved the fi rst.

Th e following example suff ers from the same problem and can be solved using the same general approach, but it illustrates that linking paragraphs isn’t always as easy as grabbing a single word. Sometimes you need to go with a larger concept.

Example 13.6 Any trait that increases a bacterium’s ability to survive an environmental stress, such as heavy metals or antibiotics, can be considered a stress-adaptation mechanism. Traditionally, however, studies have focused on internal mechanisms of adaptation: either a bacterium’s ability to either repair cell damage (e.g., DNA repair) following stress or on mechanisms that make the cell more able to resist the damage in the fi rst place (e.g., producing chaperones and transporters). However bacteria also have mechanisms that work outside the cell to reduce the intensity of stresses in the fi rst place.

E. coli provides an excellent model system for studying how the relative physiological costs of diff erent stress-adaptation mechanisms vary between heavy metal and antibiotic stressors. We understand E. coli ’s metabolic path-ways well enough to assess the full energetic costs of internal adaptation mechanisms such as DNA repair and exporting toxic agents from the cell vs. external mechanisms such as producing chelating agents to bind heavy

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metals and extra-cellular oxidase enzymes to break down antibiotics before they enter the cell.

Th ese paragraphs don’t feel connected. Th e fi rst paragraph discusses mecha-nisms of microbial response to environmental stress. Th e second tells a story about E. coli and its utility for studying the physiological costs of stress adaptation. Th ese are related to each other, but as you start reading the second paragraph, it doesn’t help you see the link. Th ere is no connection between the resolution of the fi rst paragraph and the opening of the second. What connects them is that they share the same stress: responses to environmental stressors. If topic-topic makes a list, and stress-topic makes a story, what does stress-stress make? Confused readers.

To make the writing fl ow, we need to connect stress and topic. Once again, the easiest approach is to open paragraph 2 by repeating the stress from the previous. Th at is the idea that bacteria have multiple mechanisms for dealing with environ-mental stressors. I would write the opening sentence of paragraph 2 as:

“An excellent model system for studying the relative costs of diff erent stress-adaptation responses to heavy metals and antibiotics is E. coli.”

Th is gets the ideas from the fi rst paragraph (stress adaptation) and provides con-text for driving the story forward. It moves the new information — E. coli as a model system — to the opening sentence’s stress, from where it fl ows smoothly into the next. Th is version uses a long subject — 19 words — and so breaks the short-subject rule I discussed in chapter 12, but this is a case where following the principle of making ideas connect means breaking the rule.

When you are trying to make paragraphs connect, don’t forget example 13.4 on groundwater. Sometimes the simple “reach back and grab” approach creates local fl ow but global disruption. Th e problem may not be that the second para-graph starts in the wrong place but that the fi rst points in the wrong direction. In these cases, fi x the fi rst paragraph.

For example, if we wanted the second paragraph in example 13.5 to be about E. coli as a model system, we could rewrite the end of the fi rst paragraph:

“However bacteria, such as E. coli, also have mechanisms that work outside the cell to reduce the intensity of environmental stressor in the fi rst place.

E. coli is an excellent system for studying the relative costs of these external mechanisms relative to internal mechanisms in response to heavy metal and antibiotic stressors. We understand E. coli’s metabolic pathways . . .”

In this version, I introduce E. coli as a model in the fi rst paragraph, and then use the whole fi rst sentence in the next to reach back and grab. I can’t tell you which of these approaches is best — only you know your story.

In many cases, as long as sentences fi t into the theme set by a lead or topic sentence, the writing will feel coherent. But to carry readers over the rough spots,

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132 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

you need to do more. Make your ideas connect so tightly that we can’t get lost. By linking stress and topic, resolution and opening, you can tie together sentences and paragraphs and make the sweep of your arguments compelling. You can make your papers and proposals page turners.

EXERCISES

13.1. Evaluate published papers

Pick two of the papers you’ve been evaluating: one that reads well and smoothly and one that doesn’t. Evaluate how each manages the fl ow of ideas between sen-tences and between paragraphs. Do they use the techniques discussed in this chapter to develop fl ow? If they don’t are there places where you could rewrite them to enhance the fl ow and ease the writing?

13.2. Write a short article

Revisit your short article and look to see whether you could enhance the fl ow of ideas by working more actively on linking your sentences and paragraphs together. If you can, do it.

13.3. Edit

A. Revise these sentences so the ideas fl ow smoothly.

Studies comparing iron-resistant and sensitive cell lines confi rmed that protein X17 is denatured in the presence of Fe. Protein X17, however, reverts to its native form when cellular Fe concentrations decrease.

B. Revise the following paragraphs so that the ideas link clearly.

Th e TREE2 promoter is upstream of the tryb gene. However, Silva et al. (2008) showed that the STEM3 promoter is also upstream of this gene and appeared to be involved in tryb regulation. We showed that both are neces-sary and they interact to further upregulate tryb : knocking out TREE2 reduced transcription by 50 % , knocking out STEM3 reduced it by 75 % , and knocking out both prevented transcription entirely.

When LEA was absent, however, even with both promoters intact, tran-scription rates were only 50 % of control levels. It appears that LEA inter-acts with TREE2 and STEM3 to induce greater promotion than either can eff ect on their own.

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Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream. — Mark Twain

Good stories are driven by action. But the drive comes from seeing and feeling it; the old lady has to come on stage and scream — no disembodied howls in the dis-tance. Writers condense that idea to the mantra of “show, don’t tell.” In science writing, the two C’s of SUCCES — credible and concrete — both emerge from showing. We show the reader our data, and we show them our logic. Isn’t the phrase “data not shown” always a little suspect?

Within a sentence, showing action is the job of verbs and it’s an important job. Good writers use their verbs well, imbuing their papers with life. Bad writers use them poorly, stealing energy from the story, leaving it dull and listless. While bureaucrats are the grand masters of turgid text, some scientists compete with them for the title. Th ere are many ways to overburden your writing, including three notable ways to emasculate your verbs: (1) passive voice, (2) fuzzy verbs, and (3) nominalizations.

14

Energizing Writing

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134 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

14.1. ACTIVE VERSUS PASSIVE VOICE

Th e simplest structure for any story is straight OCAR, which gives the reader information in the sequence that they can most easily process: who did it (O), what they did (A), and what happened (R). Th e sentence structure that most directly matches OCAR is as follows.

John called Jane Actor Action Acted-on

Subject Verb Object

Th is is the active voice. It is clear, concise, and direct. It is also visual and evoc-ative. You can see the actors because they are named up front, and you can visual-ize the action because it is carried in a verb that immediately follows the subject. Hence, Strunk and White’s commandment: “Use the active voice.”

Sometimes, though, we don’t want to tell a story about the actor but about the acted-on; we want to talk about Jane, not John.

Jane was called by John

Acted-on Action Actor

Subject Verb Object

Th is is the passive voice. To create it, we make the acted-on the sentence’s sub-ject and make the verb by coupling some form of “to be” to the action verb; in this case, “was called.” Th e passive voice is a powerful tool. It allows you to control who or what, in a sentence, the story is about. It allows you to select the grammatical subject and object of the sentence relative to the actor and acted-on of the story . It allows you to control what goes in the topic and what goes in the stress. And it does all that without changing the action. Whether you write “John called Jane” or “Jane was called by John,” John still made the call. Only our perspective has changed.

But the passive voice carries a price: it weakens the story structure. “With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. Th e subject is just letting it happen” (Stephen King, “On Writing”).

Without an actor front and center, action is intangible. All we can do is say the old lady screamed; in the passive, we leave her off stage.

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Energizing Writing 135

14.1.1. Controlling Perspective

Because the passive voice is weaker storytelling than the active, we should avoid it as a matter of course, but it has several good uses. Th e fi rst is in controlling perspective: who the sentence is about. Being able to shift a sentence’s topic between actor and acted-on is critical for developing eff ective story arcs and fl ow, as I discussed in chapter 13 and illustrated in example 13.3. Th ere I rewrote the transitional sentence to start with a passive expression:

“In salvage logging, trees that have been attacked are selectively harvested. Th e dead trees that are harvested , however, can provide cavities that are nesting sites for birds .”

Th at created a single entity that was the subject for a larger, active voice sentence. Oft en though, you may need to write the entire sentence in the passive voice to get the appropriate subject up front, as illustrated by the following sentence pairs.

Example 14.1 Active: A magnetospheric source produces variable electric fi elds. Passive: Variable electric fi elds are produced by a magnetospheric source.

Example 14.2 Active: Soil porosity infl uences water retention. Passive: Water retention in soil is infl uenced by porosity.

In each case, if this were the entire story, the active voice version would be better — a stronger message and a shorter sentence. But if we are telling a story about variable electric fi elds or water retention in soil, the passive would put the right term in the right place and so would be the voice to choose. In allowing you to shift perspective this way, the passive voice shines. It’s a tool that weakens a single sentence, but in a way that can allow it to fi t more snugly into a paragraph, strengthening the whole.

14.1.2. Hiding the Actor

Th e strength of the active voice is that it forces you to make the actor and action clear. Th e weakness of the active voice is that it forces you to make the actor and action clear. Sometimes, we don’t want to or need to name the actor. Th e passive voice can do this. Th e classic example is “mistakes were made,” which is used fre-quently by politicians and bureaucrats to dampen the intensity of the action and dodge blame. Converting “mistakes were made” to the active voice requires put-ting an actor up front — identifying who screwed up.

Being able to leave the actor off stage, however, is useful for solving a variety of writing problems. For example, even in Materials and Methods sections it has

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136 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

become generally acceptable to use fi rst-person active voice, for example, “We collected samples.” Th at is fi ne when it’s true. However, in a paper, “we” means the authors. What do you say if there were technicians or interns who helped with the work but aren’t coauthors? I know some projects where dozens of people con-tributed to sample and data collection, and the authors may not even know who specifi cally collected which samples! Using the passive allows the author to cleanly and honestly tell us what we need to know: samples were collected.

We also use the passive to refer to work when the specifi c attribution isn’t important. For example, I wrote a paper once evaluating when the composition of soil microbial communities aff ects ecosystem processes such as plant litter decom-position.

Example 14.3 It has been argued that such processes should be insensitive to microbial community composition (Schimel 1995). 1

I deliberately wrote that using the passive phrase “It has been argued” because I had made that argument in an earlier paper but my thinking on the subject had evolved. Th e new paper was modifying the argument to refl ect that evolution. If I had used the active voice, I would have had to say “In a previous paper, I argued . . . but now I think I was wrong,” which I thought sounded bad, even if changing our thinking is what we are supposed to do. It might have trivialized the point by making it seem that I was having a private debate with myself. In fact, I wasn’t; other papers had made similar arguments or reinforced those I made in the fi rst paper. Because the passive voice doesn’t specify who or how many people made the argument, I could leave that open. Even citing my earlier paper didn’t mean it was the only one to make the argument. Using the passive to say “It has been argued” allowed me to avoid these issues.

For those times that we need to say what happened and not who did it, the pas-sive is an eff ective tool. However, it was a long-standing tradition that scientists should divorce themselves from the work by describing their actions in the pas-sive voice, as illustrated in example 14.4.

Example 14.4 When expression of Chla and Chlb were compared, similar patterns of tran-script abundance were observed in plants at diff erent developmental stages.

Someone did the comparing and observing, and most likely it was the authors. So why not make this clearer by naming the actor and shortening the subject? “When we compared Chla and Chlb expression, we found similar patterns of tran-script abundance in plants at diff erent developmental stages.”

1. J. P. Schimel, J. Bennett, and N. Fierer, “Microbial Community Composition and Soil N Cycling: Is Th ere Really a Connection?” In: Biological Diversity and Function in Soils, ed. R. D. Bardgett, D. W. Hopkins, and M. B. Usher (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 171–88.

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Energizing Writing 137

It’s possible that this was one of those cases where someone who wasn’t an author did the work. More likely, though, the authors were following the passive voice tradition. Why did scholars insist on using the passive? Why ban the more powerful storytelling tool? ? Th e argument was grounded in concerns of scientifi c objectivity, as expressed in this excerpt: “Using the passive voice in scientifi c writ-ing allows the researcher to stand at a distance from his or her work. By standing at a distance, an unbiased viewpoint is much more likely to be reached. An unbi-ased viewpoint encourages a world view and an open mind, surely prerequisites for good science.” 2

Th is is impassioned plea, and it contains some important truths — but some equally important fallacies. It argues that writing in the passive forces you to remain at a distance from your data and be dispassionate and objective about your work. I agree that objectivity is a prerequisite for good science. However, objectiv-ity does not come from how you treat your writing but from how you treat your data . Th e idea that by removing ourselves visibly from the writing we remove our prejudices and imperfections is plain wrong. We did the work, and we wrote the words. Th ey are inextricably ours. You can’t change that by changing the writing voice.

True objectivity grows from Anne Lamott’s advice in chapter 2: listen to your characters. Be attentive to your data and allow the story to fl ow from them. Once you have done that, tell the story in the clearest, most eff ective language possible.

It is a principle that all tools in English have their value, including the passive voice. Even Strunk and White moderate their dictum about using the active voice: “Th is rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

As with all tools, you must know their strengths and limitations to make good decisions about when to use them. Th e passive voice is for when you need to make the acted-on the subject of the sentence or when you have an honest reason to avoid naming the actor. Use it for those jobs. Otherwise, listen to Strunk and White: use the active voice.

14.2. FUZZY VERBS

Science writing isn’t supposed to use colorful language to evoke image the way fi ction does, although it can be more colorful than most of us make it, as illus-trated in examples 5.8 and 7.1. We are, however, supposed to be clear, and verbs that show action make writing clear. Verbs that mask the action are weak and can be confusing. Consider the following.

Example 14.5 Controls on the expression of homeobox genes have been evaluated in sev-eral model systems.

2. S. R. Leather, “Th e Case for the Passive Voice,” Nature 381 (1996): 467.

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Here the verb is “evaluated;” it’s passive, but that isn’t the problem. Th e problem is that this tells us something happened — controls on expression were evaluated — but what we really want to know is either how they were evaluated or how they diff er between organisms.

Th is sentence is the opening of a paragraph that goes on to tell how controls diff er develops into an interesting story. But the opening would be stronger if it identifi ed what that story is going to be: varying patterns of control. An opening sentence that uses an action verb to introduce that would be:

“Homeobox gene expression is regulated diff erently among plants, fungi, and animals.”

Not only does this make the model systems concrete, it uses a stronger verb and has a stronger message — “is regulated diff erently.” Th at makes it obvious that the paragraph will discuss how expression varies across these organisms.

Th e verb is still passive, but the passive allows us to make this sentence about homeobox genes rather than about plants, fungi, and animals. We could turn it around to activate the verb, but that would make it into: “Plants, fungi, and ani-mals regulate homeobox gene expression diff erently.” Th is makes the topic the organisms, instead of the genes. It also forces apart the verb and adverb. Th e orig-inal, passive voice version avoided that.

Another example that suff ers from a fuzzy verb problem is example 14.6.

Example 14.6 Herbivores facilitate the invasion of exotic grasses by mediating competition between exotic and native plants.

Th e verbs are “facilitate” and “mediate,” but we are likely to ask “what do her-bivores do to mediate competition?”

“Herbivores preferentially eat native plants, giving exotic grasses a competitive advantage that allows them to invade.”

Th is sentence now uses verbs that show action: “eat,” “give,” and “invade.” It says what the animals physically do; they eat native plants. Th is allows exotics to invade the gaps created. If this sentence were the opening of a paragraph, it would now eff ectively introduce the characters (herbivores, native plants, and invading exotic grasses), the actions, and the challenge (how herbivores infl u-ence invasion). It even puts the critical action, “invade,” in the stress position to emphasize it.

Fuzzy verbs say that something happened but not what; action verbs show you what (see table 14.1 ). Action verbs are powerful, concrete storytelling tools. Th ey make your writing more interesting, which is nice, but also clearer, which is vital.

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14.2.1. Fuzzy Hypotheses

Th e worst place for a fuzzy verb is in a hypothesis, yet many are wishy-washy and unfalsifi able. I’ve read proposals with hypotheses like the following.

Example 14.7 Microbial community composition is controlled by the chemical nature of plant inputs, water availability, and soil chemistry.

Here the verb is the passive and fuzzy “is controlled,” and this is a truism rather than a falsifi able hypothesis. Is it conceivable that microbial community composi-tion is not controlled by plant inputs, water, and soil chemistry? Fuzzy hypotheses almost guarantee that your proposal will end up on the “do not fund” list. To make a hypothesis compelling, you need to use concrete verbs that make a testable state-ment. To transform example 14.7, consider an alternative:

“Th e chemical nature of plant inputs is the single strongest control on the com-position of soil microbial communities and on their distribution across the landscape. ”

Th is is in the active voice and the verb is simply “is.” It is a declarative statement — the chemical nature of plant inputs either is or is not the single strongest control; we can test that. Th is version doesn’t ignore other factors, but it puts them in perspective. Th is was the actual hypothesis of a proposal, a successful one.

I think people use fuzzy verbs when they are afraid that if they make strong statements, someone may challenge them or they may be wrong. If people feel chal-lenged, you have engaged their interest, and that is good. Challenging proposals sometimes get funded; boring ones never do. Also remember, you are a scientist — it is not your job to be right. It is your job to be thoughtful, careful, and analytical; it is your job to challenge your ideas and to try to falsify your hypotheses; it is your job to be open and honest about the uncertainties in your data and conclusions. But if you are doing cutting-edge work, you are not always going to be right.

Table 14.1. Fuzzy verbs versus action verbs

Fuzzy Verbs (Weak)

Occur Facilitate Conduct Implement

Aff ect Perform

Action Verbs (Strong)

Modify Increase React Accelerate

Accomplish Decrease Inhibit Migrate

Create Invade Disrupt

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You may have some aspects of the system right but others wrong; your piece of the system may be counterbalanced by others; you may even have misinterpreted your data. As long as you did it with honesty, integrity, and intellect, you did right, even if you weren’t right.

People must be able to understand your work and how it infl uences our understanding of nature. Being concrete and challenging may achieve that and move the fi eld forward, regardless of whether you are right. Being nebulous and timid to avoid being wrong ensures that your work will contribute little. As a result, it will likely be rejected or uncited. One of my mentors, a leader in the fi eld, took gleeful delight in tossing out ideas and stirring up the pot; some ideas were brilliant, others off the wall. He left it to others to fi gure out which were which. Th e brilliant ideas stuck and motivated new research; the others faded. Being interesting is ultimately more important than being right.

14.3. NOMINALIZATIONS

Fuzzy verbs are energy thieves. Th ey steal energy from the action by telling, rather than showing. You can, however, go a step further and kill the action entirely. Using a strong verb, you might say something like the following.

Example 14.8 We investigated the eff ect of elevated CO 2 on plant growth.

Here the action is expressed in a verb, “investigated,” but many would write this sentence as: “We conducted an investigation of the eff ect of elevated CO 2 on plant growth.” Th is sentence has a verb — the fuzzy “conducted.” But did you con-duct an investigation, a train, or an orchestra? Th e action is contained in “an investigation,” but that is a noun. Th is sentence names the action and introduces a new verb that hides it.

Th is process of turning a verb into a noun is known as creating a nominaliza-tion. As a result of using a noun rather than a verb to describe action, example 14.8 lost energy and gained length, but contains no more information. Th at is all bad, yet using nominalizations, instead of verbs, is a common failing in academic writing. Examples of nominalized verbs are shown in table 14.2 .

To illustrate, example 14.9 nominalizes every important action.

Example 14.9 Systemic infusion of fetal stem cells appears to be the most practical mode of administration; however, limited migration of cells to the target tissue may act as a constraint on its eff ectiveness.

Th e only verbs are “appears,” “to be,” and “act,” which is sad, as there is no shortage of actions: “infuse,” “administer,” “migrate,” “constrain,” and even “target.” We can convert many of those actions to verbs, tightening this sentence:

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Example 14.10 Although models exist to calculate reaction rates as a function of molecular size, a failure to reproduce the experimental data is oft en observed.

Th is combines a nominalization with a passive to create a sentence with the minimum possible punch. Th e author is making an important point — these models oft en fail. However, that is nominalized to “a failure.” Th is pushes the pas-sive verb phrase “is oft en observed” to the sentence’s stress, and it buries the criti-cal action in the bowels of the sentence: “a failure to reproduce the experimental data.” Th is would be better if the sentence’s two clauses were eff ectively linked and if there were an active verb early in the second clause:

“Although models exist to calculate reaction rates as a function of molecular size, they oft en fail to reproduce the experimental data.”

Th is works. It opens the second clause with the pronoun “they” to tie it back to the models, and then it hits the important point: “they oft en fail.” Th is makes good subject–verb connection and puts the verb in the important place — the beginning of the main clause.

Table 14.2. Verbs and their nominalized equivalents

Verb Nominalization

Move Movement

Diff er Diff erence

Suggest Suggestion

Interact Interaction

Analyze Analysis

Develop Development

In some cases, the verb and nominalization almost have the same form

Infl uence A infl uenced B versus A had an infl uence on B

Approach A approached the problem versus A took an approach to the problem

Yield Th e reaction yielded a product versus Th e yield of the reaction was . . .

“Th e most practical way to administer fetal stem cells is to infuse them systemically; however, if cells don’t migrate to the target tissue, this will fail.”

Sometimes forcing the action into a nominalization pushes it out of a critical position in the sentence, as illustrated by example 14.10.

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Another problem with verb nominalizations is that they are necessarily connected to fuzzy verbs. Because the action is named in the nominalization, and a sentence still needs a verb, it will be weak. Scan your work for nominalizations — there are probably more than you imagined. As a rule, turn them into verbs.

14.3.1. Adjective Nominalizations

Th ere is another form of nominalization: converting an adjective into a noun. Examples of adjective nominalizations are illustrated in table 14.3 .

Nominalizing adjectives also steals color and energy from writing. Th ey leave it heavy and fl at. For example, compare the following pair of sentences. Which is stronger?

Example 14.11 A. Th e characteristics of this condition are the oxidation of

membrane lipids, the denaturation of proteins, and a reduction in growth rates.

B. Th is condition is characterized by oxidized membrane lipids, denatured proteins, and reduced growth rates.

Version A nominalized every adjective: “characteristics,” “oxidation,” “denatur-ation,” and “reduction.” In contrast, version B makes them all adjectives; the sentence is shorter and sharper.

Sometimes fi xing a nominalized adjective can take several steps, as illustrated in example 14.12.

Example 14.12 A. Th ere was a diff erence between the reaction rates of treatments

X and Y. B. Reaction rates were diff erent between treatments X and Y. C. Reaction rates diff ered between treatments X and Y.

Table 14.3. Adjective nominalizations

Adjective Nominalization

Diff erent Diff erence

Diffi cult Diffi culty

Able Ability

Capable Capability

Similar Similarity

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Energizing Writing 143

Th ese all say the same thing with the action contained in some version of the word “diff er.” In version A, it’s a nominalization — “diff erence” — and “was” is the only verb, a weak one. Version B is better, turning it into a real adjective — “diff erent” — but it still uses the weak “were” as the verb. Version C puts the action into the verb “diff ered,” and as a result it is both the shortest and most vigorous.

14.3.2. Why Do Nominalizations Exist?

If nominalizations are so horrible, why do they exist? Certainly, they weren’t invented to clutter language, steal clarity, and make thoughts impenetrable! Naming something makes it concrete. Names hold magic. We use nominalizations to name concepts, which is useful. Could you imagine having to explain these ideas every time you used them?

Taxation without representation Gene expression Aromatic molecule Ecosystem services Epigenetics

Naming a concept is powerful because it defi nes a new schema, but it is also dangerous. It’s dangerous because when you use the name, you assume that the reader knows and understands that schema. If your reader understands that an “aromatic molecule” is a ring with conjugated double bonds, you have eff ective shorthand for quickly and effi ciently communicating a complex chemical con-cept. If they don’t know the schema, however, and interpret “aromatic molecule” as “perfume,” you can create some interesting miscommunication.

If your reader doesn’t hold the schema, a nominalization becomes jargon — an unclear term that seems designed to exclude noninitiates from the club. With some audiences, you can safely use a nominalization, whereas with others you must defi ne it. For the public, you would need to defi ne “aromatic molecule” and would look arrogant if you didn’t; for a paper in Organic Chemistry , on the other hand, you would look silly if you did.

Th e ability to nonimalize complex ideas also allows you to write sentences like “Th e arguments developed above . . .” In this case, “arguments” is a nominalization that encapsulates what may have been paragraphs’ worth of text into a single word. Th at is powerful.

For a potent use of nominalizations, lets go back to example 12.1 from Winston Churchill: “until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” Churchill put the nominal-izations “the rescue” and “the liberation” in the sentence’s stress. He could have made them verbs: “until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to rescue and liberate the old.” Th is is weaker — the verbs don’t have the same mass and solemnity, and Churchill deliberately left the action

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on “steps forth.” He was encouraging the United States to step forth so that Britain wouldn’t need rescue and liberation! Churchill cleverly used a tool to create elo-quence. He also used parallelism and repetition ( the rescue and the liberation ) to add weight to his message, and drove it in by putting it in the sentence’s stress. Churchill was a master of the English language; he knew when to break the rules, and how to use all the linguistic tools available to him. You might not save the world with your writing, but you might fund your graduate students.

Find the action in your sentences, put it in your verbs, and put them early in their sentences. If you do, your writing will be clear and lively. Sometimes a pas-sive or nominalization will strengthen your writing, and sometimes they are essential. Every time you use them unnecessarily, though, you make your writing heavier and more opaque. A single unnecessary nominalization won’t destroy your writing, but remember is wasn’t the last straw that broke the camel’s back — it was the accumulation of all the straws. Don’t accumulate straws.

EXERCISES

14.1. Analyze published papers

Look at the papers you have been analyzing and read the critical paragraphs that defi ne the opening, action, and resolution. Evaluate the actions and the verbs. Do the authors put the action in their verbs? Do they use active verbs? If not, try rewriting those paragraphs using stronger verbs.

14.2. Write a short article

Go back to your short article. Go through it sentence by sentence, noting the actions you describe and the verbs you use. Is every action in an active verb? If not, can you convert them into active verbs? If you choose to leave any action as anything but an active verb, justify your choice.

14.3. Revise

A . Increased mobility of predatory nematodes in soil would increase opportunities for ecological interactions and so alter bacterial popula-tion dynamics.

B . Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls present enormous challenges in remediation, invoking large fi nancial costs and presenting signifi cant health risks to the workers who face expo-sure to the compounds.

C . It was demonstrated that extraction of soils by NH 4 Cl caused an enhance-ment in the recovery of Al relative to an extraction with K 2 SO 4 .

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In literature, the ambition of the novice is to acquire the literary language; the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.

— George Bernard Shaw

As I said in chapter 11, words are to sentences what atoms are to molecules. Th ey control the chemistry and “voice” of your writing — how it sounds and feels. Some atoms are inherently dense and toxic, like lead. With others, toxicity comes from their specifi c combination; carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen can produce fresh and fruity aldehydes but with just a slight tweak become rancid acids. So, too, with words. You can poison your writing with toxic words and toxic combinations.

Choosing words is not easy. English has amassed words from many sources, and diff erent words convey diff erent impressions of what you are saying and even of who you are. Just consider “fornicate” and its four-letter synonym, “f---.”

Academics have an almost proverbial fondness for long, heavy words. Some use them because they think it makes writing sound more scholarly or because they want to show off their erudition, as Dennis Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature once accused the author of a notably convoluted piece of academic writing: “Th is sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they

15

Words

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are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.” 1

More of us, perhaps, learn to write in a heavy academic style because we imi-tate what we read and strive to “acquire the literary language.” Over time this style becomes ingrained habit, creating a self-sustaining cycle. Writing this way also identifi es us as members of the club, but one increasingly isolated from broader society.

Th e other reason we write “heavy” is because written and spoken English are diff erent. We think diff erently when we write compared with when we speak. Written language is more formal, and our papers will outlast us, reinforcing a formal writing style. We lean toward longer and more elaborate words than we might otherwise choose.

But scientifi c writing can have life and energy — you can be professional with-out being pedantic. In earlier chapters, I’ve included examples of lively writing and discussed some ways to achieve that. Th e last method is to choose good words.

Written English is diff erent from spoken English, but the diff erence should be primarily in sentence structure, not vocabulary. When you write a big word, ask yourself: “would I use it if I were talking to a friend?” For example, medical papers use language such as: “the therapy was effi cacious.” Education researchers write about “students with diff erent learning modalities.” Would you say either in normal conversation? I wouldn’t. I would say, “the treatment worked” or “students with diff erent learning styles.” To most of us, these alternatives mean the same thing. Or maybe not — to some, “learning modality” might mean nothing at all, whereas “learning style” is clear as a bell.

Why not impress your readers with the sophistication of your vocabulary, showing that you can write technical-sounding language with the best of them? As a simple answer let me pose a question: when you last read a paper that was hard to read, were you impressed by how scholarly the authors were? Or were you frustrated trying to fi gure out what they were saying? We notice language when it’s awkward, and may blame ourselves for not being smart enough to fi gure it out. When the writing is good, we notice the ideas and the data, and those are what make the science.

15.1. JARGON

Many describe science as fi lled with jargon, by which they usually mean arcane and uninterpretable terms that obfuscate our ideas. Naturally, most books recom-mend avoiding jargon as critical for clear writing. Yet science is technical and

1. Dennis Dutton, On Philosophy and Literature’s annual “Bad Writing Contest,” Wall Street Journal , February 5, 1999.

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requires many specialized terms. When is a term avoidable jargon, and when is it a necessary and irreplaceable technical term? I distinguish them as follows:

Jargon : (A) A term that refers to a schema the reader does not hold. (B) A term for which there is an adequate plain language equivalent.

Technical term : (A) A term that refers to a schema the reader does hold. (B) A term for which either there is no plain language equivalent or where using it would be confusing.

Th is distinction is fuzzy and fl uid and depends on the reader’s knowledge. In one context, a word may be a technical term, but in another it may be jargon. If you use a term without defi ning it, it may be jargon, but if you defi ne it in language understandable to your readers, you may transform it into a useful term. If you defi ne a word that is well known to your readers, however, you may appear igno-rant. A chemist would never defi ne “mole” in a research paper, and a molecular biologist would never defi ne “gene.” Even high school science students should know those terms.

As an illustration of the fl uid boundary between technical terms and jargon, consider the phrase “net primary production” (NPP). Th is is a measure of plant growth — the live biomass produced in an ecosystem. If I were giving a public talk and discussed NPP, the audience would be confused, so I would just say “plant growth.” But if I said “plant growth” to an audience of ecologists, they would be confused — did I mean NPP, gross primary production, net ecosystem production, or some other measure of plant growth?

You need to use the terms that work for your audience. When you are trying to expand that audience, be sensitive to language and whether your technical terms are their jargon. Can you use simpler terms that will expand your audience with-out annoying the experts?

15.1.1. Avoiding Jargon

How and where you introduce a term may determine whether readers react to it as jargon. Remember the old/new information structure readers expect in your sentences? If you introduce a term in the topic position, readers interpret it as something they are supposed to know and are more likely to see it as jargon. If, however, you introduce a term in a sentence’s stress, you dejargonize it. It will feel like you are defi ning the term, which might be good or it might be overkill. I illus-trated this in example 12.3 about N mineralization.

What do you do with a term that might be too well known to put it in the stress but not well enough for the topic? See how the authors handle this in example 15.1; this is from a paper about the role of solvents in regulating the thermodynam-ics of chemical reactions. Th e authors discuss linear response theory, a theory most readers would probably know. However, the authors didn’t make that assumption.

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Example 15.1 Th is idea that excited states relax with rates determined by the solute-solvent system’s ordinary energy fl uctuations, commonly called linear response theory, is a critical component in the success of transition-state theories of chemical reaction rates in liquids. 2

If you have studied basic chemistry, you should know that chemical reactions go through a high-energy transition state that breaks down into the fi nal prod-ucts; it should be an easy step to accept that the solvent can aff ect this transition. Voilà! You’ve learned what linear response theory is about. If you are a physical chemist and already knew the theory, this defi nition would merely feel like a com-fortable reminder. Th is paper manages to reach out to and educate the broadest possible audience without alienating the core. I don’t understand the details of the paper and the title is gobbledygook to me, but I do understand generally what it is about and why it is interesting.

Note how the authors achieved this balance — they use topic and stress posi-tions to control where they introduce information. Th e topic introduces concepts that are known to any chemist. Th en they put the theory’s name in the stress of a clause set off by commas. By putting the name at the end of its own clause, they put it in a local stress position and give it some emphasis, but by putting that clause in the middle of the sentence they limit the emphasis, making it feel like a reminder, rather than a new defi nition. Th ey eff ectively used Clark’s 2-3-1 rule of emphasis that I introduced in chapter 12.

Introducing the term this way required a longer sentence (37 words) than most reading ease calculators recommend, but it actually made comprehension easier. Long sentences aren’t necessarily bad — you just have to write them well, as Moskun and coauthors did. Example 15.1 was both clear and sensitive to the readers — excellent writing.

Here is another example of using the 2–3–1 approach of embedding potential jargon in a parenthetical clause (the 3-position) to remind you of the term.

Example 15.2 Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is prominent in neural progenitors and appears to play an important role in the development of the cerebral cortex. 3

Th ese authors placed the word apoptosis in a short clause where it reminds readers of the term but doesn’t feel like they are defi ning it for everyone.

2. Moskun et al., “Rotational Coherence and a Sudden Breakdown in Linear Response Seen in Room-Temperature Liquids,” Science 311 (2006): 1907–11.

3. J. N. Pulvers and W. B. Huttner, “Brca1 Is Required for Embryonic Development of the Mouse Cerebral Cortex to Normal Size by Preventing Apoptosis of Early Neural Progenitors,” Development 136 (2009), 1859–68.

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Together these examples suggest a general pattern for using technical terms in diff erent places in a sentence:

Beginning of the sentence : You assume that every reader knows and understands the term. You run the risk of it appearing to be jargon if they don’t.

End of the sentence : You defi ne a new term for everyone. You run the risk of appearing ignorant if it is already an accepted schema in the fi eld.

Middle of the sentence : You assume that most readers know the term. You are also indicating that the term itself isn’t critical to your story. You run the risk of people missing the term.

Th ere is no single perfect place to introduce terms. You have to evaluate your audience and what they know. If you err, err on the side of overdefi ning. Any irri-tation an expert might feel at seeing a term defi ned unnecessarily would be slight and short-lived. Th e confusion a novice might feel at not having a term defi ned could be large and permanent — they might stop reading your paper.

15.1.2. Jargon and Acronyms

Th e worst form of jargon has to be undefi ned abbreviations and acronyms (at least you can look up words you don’t know). In searching for examples, I occasionally ran into papers that had opening sentences like the following: “DCs are APCs that initiate immunity.” In this sentence, DC stands for dendritic cell, a term used in the title, so I was able to fi gure it out, but APC was not defi ned anywhere in the paper. It was only by going online that I was able to fi gure out that it stood for “antigen presenting cell”; another defi nition for APC — “armored personnel carrier” — seemed unlikely. Tossing around a fi eld’s jargon is a fi ne way to show that you are part of the in-crowd, but you should be making your work accessible to the largest community practical. Th at is why the Chicago Manual of Style dic-tates that “terms must be spelled out on their fi rst occurrence.” Using an unde-fi ned abbreviation assumes that everyone who might ever read the paper already knows what it means. How likely is that? Most people reading a paper in immu-nology presumably knew what DCs and APCs are, but making the abbreviations the opening words of an entire paper excludes new readers, rather than reaching out to them. It isn’t harder to write: “Dendritic cells (DCs) are antigen presenting cells (APCs) that initiate immunity.”

Spelling out your acronyms and abbreviations the fi rst time you use them takes a few more words but makes the paper easier for everyone involved. It won’t off end an expert because you’re not defi ning a term they don’t need defi ned, and it will help the novices. Th e only exception to this rule is abbrevia-tions that are so common that every reader knows them. You don’t need to spell out DNA; your aunt knows what DNA is but would be baffl ed by deoxyribonu-cleic acid.

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When we create acronyms and shorthand names, we almost always do it for our own convenience. Th en we get so used to using our terms that we start to assume that they are obvious. Th ey usually aren’t. Remember principle 1 is to make the reader’s job easy. Name things for their convenience, not yours. For example, if you studied two forests, one deciduous and one coniferous, you might label them DEC and CON, not ASP and HBR aft er the places you sampled. We have to learn many terms to do science — don’t add unnecessarily to the list.

15.2. UNNECESSARILY TECHNICAL

Using jargon that readers don’t know actively excludes them. A lesser evil is using terms readers do know, but where a nontechnical word would do the job more powerfully. Frequently this type of jargon results from being overly specifi c and as a result, undercommunicative. Consider the following example.

Example 15.3 Current models suggest that climate warming could release 200 times more nitrogen from soils than is taken up annually by terrestrial autotrophs.

Th is statement argues that the potential N release from soils is huge. But using the phrase “terrestrial autotrophs” weakens that message. Plants are a subset of autotrophs; others such as lichens and algae take up N as well. So 200 × terrestrial autotrophs is actually a bigger number than 200 × plants, but it would have been better to write “200 times the amount of nitrogen taken up annually by plants.” Th e common word is more powerful — it engages a stronger schema.

Th e following is another case of adding words ostensibly to create precision.

Example 15.4 California has a Mediterranean climate regime, in which the heaviest storms occur when moist subtropical air is entrained by major Pacifi c storms.

Th e word I have an issue with here is regime . A regime is a pattern of condi-tions, but climate is a pattern of weather conditions (i.e., a regime). So a climate regime is no more than a climate! “Climate” for some, sounds too common, it’s something everyone understands, whereas “climate regime” sounds technical. But that’s the problem — it sounds like it means more than just climate and so it can be confusing. 4

Example 15.5 shows a diff erent reason for creating an overly qualifi ed term. I think these authors were so caught up in the habit of avoiding action verbs that they created an elaborate nominalization to avoid it.

4. Climatologists use regime as a technical term, that is, a shift in the Pacifi c decadal oscillation is a regime shift , but that isn’t how it’s used here. Th is is putting on a more complex implication to clutter a simple term.

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Example 15.5 Th is suggests that SRT may be a causative agent of chronic pain syndrome (CPS).

Why not say “SRT may cause chronic pain syndrome (CPS)”? We know that SRT is an “agent,” so identifying it as one adds nothing. We get trained to think that noun expressions like this are somehow more specifi c or technical than action verbs, but they are not.

15.3. EMOTIONAL WEIGHT

Technical terms defi ne the characters of the story — specifi c objects, organisms, and processes. Choosing them well is important. But it is also important to choose the words you use to describe what those characters are doing. Good choices can make them soar, bad choices can make them land, painfully.

It may seem surprising, but an important issue in choosing words in English is their origin. Academic English takes words from three main sources, Anglo-Saxon Old English, Norman-French, and Latin. As modern English was develop-ing in the Middle Ages, Old English was the peasants’ language, Norman-French the nobles’ (brought in with William the Conqueror), and Latin the scholars’. Th at legacy endures. Anglo-Saxon words feel comfortable and casual. French words feel formal. Latin words inevitably feel like jargon; they were originally coined to show off the writer’s education.

My fi eld is soil science. Soil is from French; the Anglo-Saxon word, of course, is dirt . While people occasionally say “huh?” when I say I’m a soil scientist, at least they understand I’m an academic. If I say I study dirt, they are baffl ed — dirt seems too common to study. We call it soil science because we want to play on the posi-tive connotations of the French word — soil grows plants, and the word has an elegant, fl owing sound. Soil is good. Th at is why people use it as a euphemism: “the baby soiled its diaper” is a polite way of describing a messy event. Dirt, on the other hand, is what we get under our fi ngernails. Th e word is short, clipped, and one of the more generally negative words in the English language — calling some-thing “dirty” is always an insult. Dirt derives from “drit,” the Old Norse for “excre-ment,” and it still carries a bit of the emotional legacy of that origin.

Th ere are many times where we have a choice of French or Latin words and perfectly good Anglo-Saxon alternatives, as illustrated in table 15.1 . Not only are the Anglo-Saxon words emotionally lighter, they also usually shorter. Even when both words came from French, the one assimilated earlier is generally shorter and feels more common.

Despite the benefi ts of short, light words, academics routinely fall into the cen-turies-old trap of choosing long, heavy Latin words. Many of us are still showing off instead of communicating. Given a choice of starting an experiment or initiat-ing one, we go for the Latin and “initiate.” Why use a long Latin word when a short Anglo-Saxon one will do the same job?

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Example 15.6 We performed a study of six-months duration on the mortality rate of rats following exposure to elevated levels of lead. [20 words/119 characters]

Why write this sentence when you can write the following? “We did a six-month-long study of the death rate of rats exposed to high levels of lead. [18 words/84 characters]”

Th ese sentences say the same thing, yet the second one is easier to read and 20 percent shorter as well. Proposals have page limits — you can’t aff ord to waste space.

As a guideline, words ending in -ate are derived from Latin and sound heavy and full of themselves. Words ending with -ion are French. If you’re not sure about a word, consult the Oxford English Dictionary — it gives the word’s origin and meanings. It’s worth noting that all the fuzzy verbs I listed in the last chapter are French or Latin. Th at is not surprising — common language is concrete, so when scholars reached for fuzzy verbs, they reached for Latin.

Sometimes, of course, you should use the French or Latin because the Anglo-Saxon word has a diff erent connotation. Let me go back to example 14.6 about herbivores and exotic grasses. I suggested writing that sentence as: “Herbivores preferentially eat native plants.” I think many would write this as “Herbivores preferentially consume native plants.” because the Anglo-Saxon “eat” seems too visceral and too common to use in technical writing. Yet herbivores do, in fact, eat, and there is nothing wrong with saying so. In this context the words are syn-onyms, so use the shorter word. In other contexts, however, they are not syn-onyms and you could not switch them interchangeably; for example you can say

Table 15.1. Examples of long French/Latin vs. short Anglo-Saxon words

Long French or Latin Word Short, Anglo-Saxon Word (unless otherwise noted)

Duration (French.) Length or time

Consume (French) Eat

Mortality (French) Death

Permit (French) Let

Necessary (French) Need

Demonstrate (Latin) Show

Donate (Latin) Give

Initiate (Latin) Start

Attempt (French) Try (from Old French trier )

Utilize (French) Use (from Old French user )

Methodology (Latin combined form) Method (Latin borrowed into English)

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that a fi re “consumed the fuel,” but not that it “ate the fuel.” Eat implies mouths and nutrition, whereas consume carried its defi nition “to destroy” from Latin into English. Animals eat, fi res don’t.

Another alternative to saying “Herbivores preferentially eat” might be “Herbivores preferentially forage on . . .” Forage , however, carries the defi nition “to collect from” and so implies a hunting strategy, rather than a taste test. If that nuance is desired, use the longer Latin word, but be careful about relying on nuance; some readers may not understand the distinctions.

If you are struggling with word choice, a thesaurus is valuable, but you need to back it up with a good dictionary. So-called synonyms can have diff erent implica-tions, such as “consistent” and “coherent.” My thesaurus lists these as primary synonyms for each other. Yet “consistent” suggests constancy, maybe even when it isn’t desirable. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So occasional inconsistency is desirable, but is it ever good to be incoherent?

15.4. PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES VERSUS COMPOUND NOUNS

A prepositional phrase, such as “rate of reaction” is made up of an object (reac-tion) and a modifi er (rate) tied together with a preposition (of, in, on, etc.). Th e alternative is to use an expression such as “reaction rate” in which one noun directly modifi es another: this is a compound noun (table 15.2 ). Prepositional phrases are usually nasty — longer and clunkier than the compound noun. Th ey also have a strange attraction for nominalizations and passive verbs.

Table 15.2 lists some representative prepositional phrases and the alternative compound forms.

I’m not sure why so many people default to the prepositional over the com-pound noun. I think for some it sounds more precise. Others learned that com-pound nouns can cause problems (see below) and should always be avoided, as opposed to only avoiding them when they do cause problems. Others use them because we are being careless (as I oft en do in my fi rst draft s).

Usually the compound noun is better, and for many things, we can’t even imag-ine breaking them up — consider English without such expressions as “stone wall,” “science fi ction,” or “Air Force”; or science without such terms as “benzene ring” or “nitrogen fi xation.” Th ese expressions are short, clear, and eff ective ways of combining two things to build a more complex idea. You should generally turn prepositional phrases around to condense them, as illustrated in the following examples.

Example 15.7 A. Th e rate of the reaction increased sixfold when pH was decreased

to 4.5. B. Th e reaction rate increased sixfold when pH was decreased to 4.5.

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Example 15.8 A. Th is paper presents a new procedure for synthesizing complexes of iron

and benzoate. B. Th is paper presents a new procedure for synthesizing iron-benzoate

complexes.

Example 15.9 A. Assembly is a stepwise process, starting with binding of Red22 to the

coding region followed by binding of Red25 and Blu17 to the control region.

B. Assembly is a stepwise process, starting with Red22 binding to the coding region followed by Red25 and Blu17 binding to the control region.

In each case, the second version is a little shorter and a little tighter. In the last case, fl ipping the prepositional phrase turned “binding” from a nominalization back into a verb — a double win.

15.4.1. When to Leave a Prepositional Phrase

I’ve argued, as a principle, that every tool in English has value, and that includes prepositional phrases. So, when should you use one? As an example, consider the following sentence.

Example 15.10 Th ese results suggest that modifi cation of resource allocation allowed Vaccinium . . .

You could remove the prepositional phrase “modifi cation of resource alloca-tion,” which would convert the sentence to the following: “Th ese results suggest that resource allocation modifi cation allowed Vaccinium . . .” But “resource alloca-tion modifi cation” is a jumbled mouthful of words, all the worse because they are

Table 15.2. Prepositional phrases vs. compound nouns

Prepositional Phrase Compound Noun

Source of water Water source

Supply of nitrogen Nitrogen supply

Distribution of resources Resource distribution

Kinetics of enzymes Enzyme kinetics

Burning of fossil fuels Fossil fuel burning

Cancer of the lung Lung cancer

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nominalizations modifying each other. Th is is heavy, clunky, and hard to fi gure out. Such overdone compounds are sometimes known as noun clusters, but my colleague Ruth Yanai calls them “noun trains,” a lovely term. Noun trains are worse than prepositional phrases. You can break them up into manageable pieces by using the occasional preposition.

How do you decide between a clunky prepositional phrase and a clunky noun train? If there are only two nouns, a compound is almost certainly better. If there are four nouns, break it up. Th ree is trickier; for example, “resource allocation modifi cation” is awkward, yet “science fi ction writer” is not. Several things make one a nasty noun train whereas another is fi ne. First is the complexity of the words: big words strung together form an undigestible mass. Second is whether we intu-itively lump two of the words into a single unit — we read “science fi ction” as one unit, so we see “science fi ction writer” as only two units (a writer of science fi c-tion); that’s okay. We read “growth allocation modifi cation” as three separate units and awkward.

Such extended noun trains can create confusion as to which is the core noun and which is the modifi er. For example, is “Arctic system science” the science of studying the Arctic system, or is it system science done in the Arctic? Th e former focuses on the integrated system; the latter includes studies on individual systems that comprise part of the larger Arctic system. Th is is not a purely semantic debate — it has at times controlled major research directions and funding deci-sions by the National Science Foundation.

A noun train can even create confusion as to whether a word is a noun or a verb. Consider the expression “microbial community composition infl uences” in the following sentence.

Example 15.11 Current theory suggests that microbial community composition infl uences are most likely to be observed for physiologically narrow processes.

“Infl uences” is a nominalization, but it could be a verb, were the sentence “microbial composition infl uences soil processes.” As someone reads the word, they will unconsciously assume one or the other. Th ere is a 50 percent chance that they’ll guess wrong and get pulled up short when they read the next word and have to back up and reinterpret. Any time you break the fl ow, you create problems. Here the prepositional phrase adds words but makes the idea clearer: “Current theory suggests that the infl uences of microbial community composition are most likely to be observed for physiologically narrow processes.”

One fi nal way you can use prepositional phrases is to control which word lands in a sentence’s stress position. Consider the following two sentences:

Example 15.12 A. Ecosystems can be managed to limit the eff ects of global warming. B. Ecosystems can be managed to limit the global warming eff ects.

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156 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

In this case, the fi rst sentence puts the strong phrase “global warming” into the stress, and is probably preferable.

As a last example, I want to go back to example 7.3 about signaling in visual transduction. Th at included the following sentence: “Despite the tantalizing evi-dence for DAG and/or its downstream products in visual transduction and the synergistic role of calcium, in no instance has application of such chemical stimuli fully reproduced the remarkable size and speed of the photocurrent.”

I argued that these authors used topic and stress eff ectively to put emphasis in the right places. But look at what they had to do to put the stress on “remarkable size and speed of the photocurrent.” Th ey used the phrase “in no instance has application of such chemical stimuli reproduced.”

Wow. A passive-feeling, nominalized, prepositional phrase — the verb is “has,” and the action is the nominalization “application.” Th at’s a lot of no-no’s packed into a mere six words. But it worked. Th is is a long, complex sentence, but its meaning is clear and it doesn’t sound bad.

Th ey could have written this as: “Applying such chemical stimuli has never fully reproduced . . .” Th at would have made the key word “application” into the verb “applying,” but it would have put the critical word “never” in the middle of the clause. Instead, they put “never” up at the front of the clause to highlight it — they were using the 2–3–1 rule within a clause. Breaking some of the rules allowed the authors to put the right information in the right place to make the story fl ow.

Th is chapter covers only a selection of issues involved in choosing words to write clearly and engagingly, but it illustrates the principles. You are working to become an adept, so struggle to get rid of the literary language. Use the necessary technical terms, but avoid unnecessary jargon — and be aware of the diff erence! Remember that there are ways to remind readers of terms they may be unfamiliar with. Choose short, active words and phrases over long, ponderous ones. If you can do these things, your readers will be happy, and you may have more of them.

EXERCISES

15.1. Analyze published papers

Go to the papers you’ve been reading. Pick a paragraph or two and analyze the words the authors use. Go through each issue raised in this chapter and see whether you can lighten up the writing by avoiding jargon, picking shorter words, and eliminating prepositional phrases.

15.2. Write a short article

Go through your short article, and lighten up the words you use wherever possi-ble. Can you do a stronger job of avoiding jargon, picking shorter words, and eliminating prepositional phrases?

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15.3. Revise

Lighten up the following sentences:

A. Th e ability of animals to arrive at solutions to problems has been undervalued because studies have not been done that are considered to have scientifi c reliability.

B. Rats that had been maintained under varying environmental conditions demonstrated improved cognitive ability relative to the control group, which had been maintained in conditions that were invariant.

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Brevity is the soul of wit. — Shakespeare, Hamlet

Th e Project Description may not exceed 15 pages. — National Science Foundation Grant Proposal Guide

Shakespeare had it right: good writing is tight and sleek, giving you what you need with just enough extra to create fl ow and highlight. Bloated writing is bad writing.

For a scientist, writing compact English goes beyond being an act of style. It is an act of success or maybe survival. Papers rarely have a page limit, but when your ideas are buried in words, cumbersome sentences, and extraneous information, readers get confused and frustrated, potentially leading to extra rounds of revi-sion or outright rejection. Proposals invariably do have strict page limits. Th e National Science Foundation won’t look at a proposal that goes one word over 15 pages, but my fi rst draft s are never under 18. Somehow those 18 pages must squeeze down into 15. How do you do that?

Th ere are two approaches to condensing. Th e fi rst is to tighten up your ideas and language. Th at’s a skill which takes time to develop. But if you don’t develop

16

Condensing

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Condensing 159

it, the only alternative is formatting tricks: using a smaller font, packing hypoth-eses into paragraphs instead of bulleted lists, and shrinking fi gures to the point you need a magnifying glass to read them. Th ough this does force all the words onto 15 pages, they end up looking like fi gure 16.1 — a dense mass that a reader has to struggle through to fi gure out whether the ideas are worthwhile. Don’t

Figure 16.1. A blurred page from a densely packed proposal.

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160 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

think we don’t notice. We may forgive you, but it’s a hurdle to enlisting us as your advocate.

Some people who write like this argue that they have too much to say and can’t condense the writing. Rubbish. I’ve never read something that looked like fi gure 16.1 where I couldn’t streamline the ideas or condense the language without cut-ting substantive content. Never. Inevitably dense or densely packed writing means the author lacked either the skill or the inclination to condense, not that it couldn’t be done. And they pay a price for it — rejection. By skipping the time to streamline your writing, you may feel that you are saving time, but in fact, you are squander-ing it.

16.1. A STRATEGY FOR CONDENSING

To write concisely, in Writing Tools , Roy Peter Clark gives the advice of “Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.” He elaborates by saying that “brevity comes from selection, not compression, a lesson that requires lift ing blocks from the work.”

“Prune, then shake” is excellent advice. First fi gure out what you don’t need to say; then, don’t say it. Th at’s the “prune the big limbs” part. It grows directly from SUCCES and fi guring out your simple story. Once you’ve fi gured out the story, you should be able to identify what information to include. Th e rest goes. I dis-cussed this in chapter 3 (SUCCES) and chapter 8 (e.g., fi gure 8.1).

Th e next step is shaking out the dead leaves. Th at means cutting unnecessary words from the pieces that stay. Your fi rst step should be to compact your ideas by building good story arcs. Broken arcs are ineffi cient. When you discuss an idea in multiple places, you almost always repeat things. Cleaning up the arcs lets you eliminate the repeats and the words used in transitions. Figure 10.2 illustrated how when there are three complete arcs, there are only 2 internal transitions, but when those arcs were fragmented, there were 13. In chapter 13, I pointed out how linking ideas and developing fl ow oft en requires adding words. Unnecessary tran-sitions create waste.

Aft er eliminating unnecessary material and condensing story arcs, the last step is to work with the delete key. Each word should do work; it should add content, clarify meaning, or provide coherence. Yet in almost every document, some words are slackers — empty adjectives, redundant modifi ers, and other types of fi ller.

Most of us include a lot of fi ller. Stephen King1 1 describes the best advice he ever got as “Formula: second draft = fi rst draft – 10 percent.” I count on trimming 20 percent from my fi rst draft s. In learning to squeeze proposals into 15 pages, I even developed a game to help: look at every paragraph that has a word or two hanging on a bottom line and fi gure out how to cut enough to pull them up into the body of the paragraph. Killing one word may save a whole line.

1. Stephen King On Writing. Scribner; 1st edtion (October 3, 2000), Kindle Edition .

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Condensing 161

Score! Th is helped me develop skill as a literary trash compactor and to identify several targets for the delete key:

Redundancies Obvious Modifi ers: adjectives and adverbs Metadiscourse Verbosity

16.2. REDUNDANCIES

Sometimes we use several words where one does all the work that needs doing. Th e next three examples illustrate this.

Example 16.1 I will develop, test, and apply a new synthetic approach to produce photovol-taic plastics.

Testing is part of developing, whereas “synthetic” and “produce” both refer to making things. So this sentence could easily read:

“I will develop a new approach to produce photovoltaic plastics.”

Example 16.2 Most, but not all of the test subjects responded.

“Most” means “the majority” and so, “not all.” Th is sentence could be written:

“Most of the test subjects responded.”

Example 16.3 Th e eff ectiveness of these antibodies in HIV infection provides a proof-of-principle for the feasibility of using engineered antibodies as a novel therapy.

A proof-of-principle implies feasibility, so this can be condensed to:

“Th e eff ectiveness of these antibodies in HIV infection suggests the feasibility of using engineered antibodies as a novel therapy.”

Oft en we repeat ideas in multiple sentences, in which case collapsing redun-dancy means collapsing sentences together. Sometimes we can delete an entire sentence, but oft en there is an idea, a few words, to capture.

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Example 16.4 Th e altered precipitation patterns associated with global warming will change the water regimes of most ecosystems, particularly those with arid, semi-arid, and Mediterranean climates. Th ese dry environments currently com-prise one third of the terrestrial land surface.

Neither of these sentences is bad, but this can be collapsed down to:

“Climate change will alter the water regimes of most ecosystems, particularly those in arid and semi-arid regions, which comprise roughly one third of the land surface.”

Th e original is two sentences because the authors’ fi rst was complex, so they appropriately put how much of the land is dry in a separate sentence. But most of the fi rst sentence’s complexity can be collapsed to two words: climate change. Readers understand that includes both warming and altered precipitation; men-tioning altered water regimes reinforces that. Simplifying the fi rst sentence allowed me to integrate the important point of the second into it and eliminate the transi-tion words “Th ese dry environments.” I deleted “Mediterranean” because it is a type of semi-arid climate, and it was only fl eshing out the list. If the Mediterranean climate were specifi cally important, it would be highlighted.

16.3. OBVIOUS

Obvious is close kin to redundant, as both encompass words that off er no useful information. Th e diff erence is that whereas redundancies duplicate information within a passage, obvious ideas are well known or implied and so don’t need to be said anywhere.

Example 16.5 Th ere is evidence that X17-production can be associated with enzyme induc-tion (Chu et al. 2008).

If there weren’t evidence for the statement, the author wouldn’t have said it, and there certainly wouldn’t be a literature reference. So “Th ere is evidence that” is obvious and can be deleted.

“X-17 production can be associated with enzyme induction (Chu et al. 2008).”

Th e author probably included the caveat “Th ere is evidence” to suggest that this fi nding is not confi rmed. But the word can adds that caveat all by itself. If this were an unequivocal statement, they would have written “X-17 production is associated . . .”

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Condensing 163

Example 16.6 Snow cover is a characteristic of high alpine ecosystems that is critical in regulating both plant community dynamics and hydrology.

It’s obvious that snow cover is a “characteristic” and alpine ecosystems are defi ned by being “high,” so we can delete those and adjust a few words to fi t the new structure:

“Snow cover in alpine ecosystems is critical in regulating both plant community dynamics and hydrology.”

Example 16.7 Th e greatest challenge in dealing with the crisis of a pandemic is that it is global in scope and so public health responses must operate across national borders.

Two things defi ne a pandemic: the disease is highly infectious and very wide-spread. Ergo, it is a crisis, and almost certain to be international. So, we can leave those ideas implicit without losing information:

“Th e greatest challenge in dealing with a pandemic is that public health responses must operate across national borders.”

16.4. MODIFIERS: ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES

Write with nouns and verbs. . . . Th e adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

— Strunk and White, Th e Elements of Style

Th e Adverb is not your friend. — Stephen King, “On Writing”

Adjectives modify nouns, and adverbs modify everything else (including adjectives). But good words don’t need modifying. Strong, clear nouns and verbs give writing power, a power you can’t match by decorating weak words. Eliminating unnecessary adjectives and adverbs will make your writing stronger and tighter.

Example 16.8 Th e entire reaction sequence takes less than one hour to complete.

Do you need both “entire” and “complete”? You could easily and condense this to:

“Th e reaction sequence takes less than one hour to complete.”

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You could even go further: “Th e reaction sequence takes less than one hour.”

Example 16.9 illustrates using an adverb unsuccessfully to make a point.

Example 16.9: Th e treatment dramatically increased X.

Th e author added “dramatically” to highlight that the increase in X was large. It doesn’t work. “Dramatically” is fuzzy and doesn’t carry much meaning — was the increase a factor of 2, 20, or 200? Without the concrete information on how much the treatment increased X, the adverb is weak. You could add that information:

“ Th e treatment dramatically increased X by a factor of 42 .”

But if you know the increase was by a factor of 42, then it is obvious that the increase was dramatic. So just write:

“ Th e treatment increased X by a factor of 42 .”

Th ese examples illustrate what I call “empty amplifi ers.” Th ey try to intensify the word they are referring to but don’t add meaning (see table 16.1 for more). Empty amplifi ers take up space but do no harm. If you delete them, the important thought remains. Take “dramatically” away from “dramatically increased X,” and X still increased. Take “quite” away from “quite large” and you’re still left with something big.

Modifi ers can be more insidious than these empty amplifi ers: they can hide empty thoughts. Sometimes when you strip away the modifi ers, you fi nd that there isn’t a lot of substance left , as illustrated in example 16.10.

Example 16.10 Th e immune system uses a highly eff ective control mechanism that effi ciently discriminates between self and nonself.

Table 16.1. Empty amplifiers : Adjectives and adverbs that try to intensify their referent but add no meaning

With an “ly” these are adverbs; without “ly” they are adjectives.

Certain(ly) Quite Substantial(ly)

Dramatic(ally) Rather Very

Entire(ly) Real(ly)

High(ly) Simple(ly)

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Th is sentence uses two adverbs and an adjective to emphasize how good a job the immune system does: it is both “highly eff ective” and discriminates “effi -ciently.” If you delete those words, you are left with:

“Th e immune system uses a control mechanism that discriminates between self and nonself .”

Without the modifi ers, this sentence feels like it’s missing something. We know what the immune system does, but this sentence could be rewritten to become more focused and concrete. What is the control mechanism? How is it effi cient? Th at information may follow, but it should have been here.

Th is sentence replaced substance with hype and hoped we wouldn’t notice. But decoration can never replace content. Th is sentence reminds me of the time I went to buy my father a bottle of Scotch for his birthday, and the guy at the store tried to sell me a simple blended in a cut-glass bottle, instead of the 25-year-old Macallan in a plain one.

Th is example was the opening for a story, setting up the picture that the authors fi ll in by illustrating how wonderful the control system is. So maybe it wasn’t ter-rible, but it was an empty pawn push; the paper would be stronger with a queen launch that off ered some intellectual meat.

Another example of using adjectives to create the sense that the author is saying something substantive is example 16.11.

Example 16.11 Th ermal stress induces structural and functional changes in GTH-7.

Adding “structural and functional” appears to say something about the nature of the changes. But these encompass all possible types of change, changes that almost inevitably go together. So this really adds no concrete information. Deleting this phrase collapses the sentence to: “Th ermal stress induces changes in GTH-7.”

As with the previous example, this now seems like it doesn’t say enough — it begs the question “what kind of changes?” But that question highlights the empti-ness of “structural and functional.” What we really want to know is the specifi c nature of those changes, and you’re sure to tell us in the following sentences. Instead, integrate them into this one to make one tight sentence: “Th ermal stress alters the conformation of GTH-7’s active site, reducing its affi nity for GXP.”

16.4.1. Good Modifi ers

Th e adjectives and adverbs I’ve discussed mostly reinforce the word they refer to and don’t do enough useful work to justify their existence. However, some words don’t just reinforce but clarify or defi ne their referent. To illustrate, let’s return to a modifi cation of example 16.8. In the following, you could not delete the adjec-tive “fi rst.”

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Example 16.12 Th e fi rst phase of the reaction sequence takes less than one hour to com-plete.

“First” distinguishes one phase of the reaction sequence from others; it pro-vides essential information.

Some modifi ers, rather than amplifying, alter the meaning of their referent. Th ese are powerful. To illustrate this, Roy Peter Clark uses the example of “she smiled happily” versus “she smiled sadly.” We expect smiles to be happy, so “hap-pily” is an empty amplifi er. We don’t expect smiles to be sad, so “sadly” transforms the image entirely. 2

A direct scientifi c parallel would be the diff erence between a “fi nal result” and a “preliminary result.” We assume results are fi nal, so calling something a “fi nal result” is wasting words. Describing something as a “preliminary result” suggests it’s still tentative, a distinction that may be important. You could delete “fi nal” but not “preliminary.”

16.5. METADISCOURSE: TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE DOING

We oft en include some description of our actions and thoughts, rather than limit-ing our words strictly to the material at hand. For example:

We found that . . . We argue that . . . Our initial hypothesis was that . . . Th ese data may indicate . . . To conclude . . .

Th is is known as metadiscourse — discussing the discussion. Some metadis-course is necessary to develop the fl ow of an argument, but it can be obvious or redundant. Consider the following examples.

Example 16.13 We found that aniline did not react with . . .

Th ese are new data, fi rst reported in your paper — could someone else have found it? So write: “Aniline did not react with . . .”

2. You can argue that “entirely” here is an empty amplifi er, but I like how it sounds and works. I want “transforms” as an active verb that directly follows its subject, but I also want to pull the idea of “transforms” into the stress. Putting the adverb in the stress achieves this. Remember: rules are guidelines.

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Example 16.14 “In this study, we measured Y . . .”

Th is is a common expression but if you say “We measured Y,” it’s obvious that it was in this study. Going back to the idea of good adjectives, though, if you mea-sured Y in a previous study, you would need to specify that: “In a previous study, we measured Y.”

Avoiding unnecessary metadiscourse also eliminates concern about whether you should discuss your own actions in the active or passive voice. Some still object to saying “we found that aniline did not react” and insist on using the pas-sive, leading to the cumbersome “aniline was not found to react.” Eliminating the metadiscourse sidesteps the issue and produces text that is shorter and cleaner as well: “Aniline did not react.”

16.6. VERBOSITY

I include verbosity as a separate category, but it is really the sum of multiple types of fi ller, creating sentences that ramble on endlessly. Verbose authors are oft en insecure, afraid to make a defi nitive statement, or can’t separate their own mental processes from the story they are trying to tell. Example 16.15 is a particularly egregious case.

Example 16.15 Th e data show that some enhancement in the applicability of these measure-ments can be accomplished with freeze-fracture prior to analysis by laser-ablation mass spectrometry.

It’s hard to characterize the junk that has been piled on this sentence, but if you cut it all out, the original 25-word sentence condenses to 11: “Freeze-fracture pre-treatment improved analyses by laser-ablation mass spectrometry.”

Th at is an example where the writing was awful and loaded with obese words. But verbose writing doesn’t have to be terrible. Here is an example where the authors were trying to limit how much they packed into any single sentence.

Example 16.16 Maximizing the yield of X requires both optimizing the pH and selecting an appropriate catalyst. Th e optimum pH range is narrow, between 4.5 and 5, while appropriate catalysts include Mn and Fe.

Th is is structured as an LD story, with the fi rst sentence describing the general conditions and the second detailing them. Th at would be fi ne if that detailing took an entire paragraph. But it doesn’t. Th is can be cut in half: “Maximizing the yield of X requires a pH in the range of 4.5 to 5 and either a Mn or Fe catalyst.”

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16.7. VERBS AND ACTION

I mentioned in chapter 14 that active verbs are tight, while passives, fuzzies, and nominalizations are not — they require extra words. Putting the action into verbs is a powerful tool for condensing writing. As a reminder, I off er example 16.17.

Example 16.17 Agents that can interfere with the binding of AS2 protein to DNA are capable of delaying the onset of ovarian cancer.

By converting all the actions to verbs, this sentence becomes both shorter and stronger: “Agents that interfere with AS2 protein’s binding to DNA can delay the onset of ovarian cancer.”

16.8. A FULL PARAGRAPH EXAMPLE

Th e following paragraph is 260 words and I don’t think it’s terrible. I think it may be representative of decent fi rst draft writing.

Example 16.18 A central dogma of ecology has long been that soil microorganisms must decompose organic matter, releasing inorganic N, before that N becomes available for plants to take up. In the arctic tundra, however, several lines of evidence have forced us to question the importance of microbial decomposi-tion and inorganic N uptake by plants: 1) In these soils, microbes appear to take up enough inorganic N during the growing season that they leave inad-equate supplies of N to support the N uptake needed to sustain measured plant growth. 2) Th e total annual net release of inorganic N by microbes is oft en half the value that is required to meet the demands of plant uptake, as estimated from plant harvests over the course of the growing season. 3) Several tundra plant species have been shown in lab studies to be able to take up amino acids from hydroponic solution, and can use the N to support growth. While these studies suggest that plants should take up amino acids and pos-sibly other forms of organic N in the fi eld, they do not provide conclusive evidence of this. Rather, amino acids are an excellent source of both C and N for soil microorganisms, which might be expected to outcompete plants for any free amino acids in natural soils, thus limiting the access of plants to these compounds. If tundra plants take up a signifi cant amount of their N directly as amino acids, we must reevaluate our basic view of the central role of micro-bial breakdown of organic N to NH 4 + in the tundra N-cycle. 3

How much can we condense here without losing meaning? Let’s work through it sentence by sentence.

3. Th is is adapted from early draft s of several proposals I have written.

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A central dogma of ecology Ecological dogma has long been that soil microor-ganisms must decompose organic matter, releasing inorganic N, before that N becomes available for plants to take up .

Dogma is always “central,” and implies long duration, so we can tighten the opening. Plants don’t do anything else but take N up, do they? Obvious.

In the arctic tundra, however, several lines of evidence challenge this . have forced us to question the importance of microbial decomposition and inorganic-N uptake by plants .

I deleted the metadiscourse, and instead of reiterating the decomposition/uptake concept, I encapsulated it in “this.”

Th e next two sentences relate to microbial processes but would be unclear to a reader who is not a tundra ecologist. In the tundra, microbes take up inorganic N during the summer but release it during the winter. Th e distinction between “growing season uptake” and “total annual release,” however, might be unclear to other readers. It needs to be either clearer or unsaid. Th e important point is that soil microbes don’t release enough inorganic N to support plant growth — that is what challenges the dogma. So capture the best parts of each weak sentence to make one strong one.

1) In these soils, Microbes appear to take up enough inorganic N during the growing season that they leave inadequate supplies of N to support the N uptake needed to sustain measured plant growth. 2) Th e total annual net release of inorganic N by microbes is oft en half the value that is required to meet the demands of plant uptake, as estimated from plant harvests over the course of the growing season. 1) Microbes release only half the inorganic N required to support measured plant growth.

I took the idea of “plant growth” from the fi rst sentence, because it is a stronger concept than “demands of plant uptake,” but I took the core message from the second — it was stronger.

3) 2) Several tundra plant species have been shown in lab studies to be able to can take up and grow on amino acids from hydroponic solution, and can use the N to support growth .

Th is was unnecessary detail that would be in a reference. I eliminated the metadiscourse “have been shown” and collapsed the detailed explanation into the simple “can.”

While these studies suggest that plants should take up amino-acids and possibly other forms of use organic N in the fi eld, they do not provide are not conclusive evidence of this .

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By condensing “amino acids and other forms of organic N,” to “organic N” I kept the important distinction of inorganic versus organic N. Condensing sharpens that message. In the last clause I cut the nominalization “conclusive evidence” to leave “conclusive” in the stress position.

Rather, amino acids are an excellent source of both C and N for soil microor-ganisms, which might be expected to should outcompete plants for them. any free amino acids in natural soils, thus limiting the access of plants to these compounds.

Th e last phrase was implied — if microbes outcompete plants for amino acids, they necessarily limit plant access to them. Th is phrase may sound like it’s adding information, but it isn’t.

If tundra plants take up a signifi cant amount of their N directly as amino acids, we must reevaluate our basic view of the central role of microbial breakdown of organic N to NH 4 + in the tundra N-cycle .

Since we are reevaluating it, it is necessarily “our basic view.” Nature doesn’t change as a result of research — only our perception of it does. Th is is unnecessary metadiscourse. “Central” is an empty adjective. Now let’s look at this condensed paragraph.

Ecological dogma has been that soil microorganisms must decompose organic matter, releasing inorganic N, before that N becomes available for plants. In the arctic tundra, however, several lines of evidence challenge this: 1) Microbes release only half the inorganic N required to support measured plant growth. 2) Several tundra plant species can take up and grow on amino acids. While these studies suggest that plants use organic N in the fi eld, they are not conclusive. Rather, amino acids are an excellent source of C and N for soil microorganisms, which should outcompete plants for them. If tundra plants take up a signifi cant amount of amino acids, we must reevaluate the role of microbial breakdown of organic N to NH 4 + in the tundra.

Th is is only 122 words: over 50 percent reduction with no loss of information. Because it carries less baggage, the message shines brighter.

16.9. CONDENSING TO CLARIFY

Sometimes you’re faced with text that feels long and wordy but is also confusing. Oft en, the best way to clarify the message is to start by stripping away the excess to bring into focus what the text says (or doesn’t say). Once you can see the message, it’s easier to sharpen. As an example, consider the following passage.

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Example 16.19 In the modern era of genomics, access to whole-genome sequence data is critical, but inadequate for the purpose of analyzing networks of physiologi-cal processes. Th e challenge is to eff ectively assimilate whole-genome sequence data based on objectively defi ned criteria in ways that facilitate interpretations and biological assessments.

Th e reaction most people have to this is simply: “Huh? What does that mean?” Is that reaction because the ideas are complex? Or because the language is? I argue the latter. Th is passage is rife with problems, including a massive defi ciency of verbs (only four; can you fi nd them?) and a surfeit of nominalizations. It violates almost every rule on word choice — so much so that the message is buried. To clarify, we can start by stripping this down to its bones. I underscore everything I think is fi ller and discuss it in the table.

In the modern era of genomics, access to whole-genome sequence data is critical, but inadequate for the purpose of analyzing networks of physiological processes. Th e challenge is to eff ectively assimilate whole-genome sequence data based on objectively defi ned criteria in ways that facilitate interpretations and biological assessments .

If we clear all this away, this collapses down to the following, which is roughly 40 percent shorter.

Access to whole-genome sequence data is critical, but inadequate for analyzing physiological networks. Th e challenge is to assimilate the data in ways that facilitate biological interpretation.

In the modern era of genomics We know what era we’re in — this is cliché and pompous. It’s also a prepositional phrase.

purpose of analyzing Verbose, nominalized way of saying “to analyze”

networks of physiological processes

Redundant and a prepositional phrase. Physiology implies process. Th is can be condensed to “physiological networks.”

eff ectively Empty adjective: of course we want to assimilate data eff ectively.

whole-genome sequence data Repeats this phrase.

based on objectively defi ned criteria

Implied — we assume that criteria are objectively defi ned unless specifi ed otherwise.

Assessments Since we don’t know what kind of assessments, this says nothing

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A little work with the delete key improved this substantially. Not only is the point starting to emerge, but the writing feels more alive. By cutting clutter, it increased the verb-to-word ratio to 4 out of 27, a comfortable number. Doing this also exposes the second problem with this piece: most actions are nominalized.

1 . What are the actions? Access to whole-genome sequence data is critical, but inadequate for analyzing physiological networks. Th e challenge is to assimilate the data in ways that facilitate biological interpretation .

2. Where are the verbs? Access to whole-genome sequence data is critical, but inadequate for ana-lyzing physiological networks. Th e challenge is to assimilate the data in ways that facilitate biological interpretation.

Th e only actions that are verbs are “to assimilate” and “facilitate,” and they are heavy Latin words that don’t show action. Th e other actions are nominalized. Th ese problems make the writing longer and more confusing. It is also deperson-alized: to whom are the data critical? Who is challenged? Th ere is no “old lady screaming” anywhere in this passage. To make this more compelling, we can put the action into verbs and use active voice.

To analyze physiological networks, we need whole-genome sequence data, but such data alone are inadequate. Th e challenge is to assimilate them in ways that allow better biological interpretations.

Th is now puts the actor, “we,” in the topic position and follows immediately with the action verb: “need.” Real people are going to analyze these networks, and those people are us; because the data are critical, we need them. I shortened “facil-itate” to the lighter “allow.” I could, perhaps, have shortened “assimilate” to “use,” but when modelers talk about assimilating data into models it implies a suite of specifi c mathematical tools, whereas “use” does not. Th is is actually two words/three characters longer than the previous, but it reads more easily. It is much shorter and more intelligible than the original.

16.10. WHEN NOT TO KILL EVERY POSSIBLE WORD

In this chapter, I focused on how to cut every unnecessary word. You should apply those text-squishing tools to everything you write. Th ere are, however, two caveats to these guidelines. First, especially if you are working with coauthors, it’s alright to be a little verbose in your fi rst draft s. It’s easy to strip down over-loaded writing. It’s harder to go in the other direction and fi ll in the gaps in under-loaded writing, which can be cryptic and disjointed. To fi gure out what is missing, you need to know the data and the story well. Advisors and coauthors, however,

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rarely know the story as well as you do, and they don’t know what is in your head. Don’t be afraid to give them enough that their main work will be trimming.

Second, words that build fl ow and coherence are not unnecessary. Any word that helps your readers understand your message does useful work. Th at is why I voted for keeping “entirely” in my discussion of empty amplifi ers in section 16.5.1. To further illustrate the value of a few extra words to build fl ow, compare the following two pieces.

Example 16.20 A . Writing can get stripped down to the point that it becomes barren.

Some fi ller can add fl ow, so use it, but carefully. B. Writing can get too barren. Filler can add fl ow. Use it carefully.

I like the fi rst. It’s longer, but it reads well. Th e second is painful. Learn to put your writing through the trash compactor. Once you have done

that, work on fi nding the golden balance between over- and underloaded, between bloated and cryptic. When you hit that point, your writing will be tight and sleek, with grace, style, and power.

EXERCISES

16.1. Write a short article

Take your short article and condense it by at least 10 percent. In chapter 2, I suggested that the article should be between 800 and 850 words. Now it should be between 720 and 765 words. If you can go shorter, see how much shorter you can go.

Edit your partners’ articles and edit the down at least 10 percent. See whether you would all suggest the same edits.

16.2. Edit: condense the following

A. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls are chal-lenging to remediate: it costs a lot of money and it threatens the health of workers who are exposed to the compounds.

B. When expression of Chla and Chlb were compared, similar patterns of transcript abundance were observed in plants at diff erent develop-mental stages.

C. Inherent resistance is an evolved response to living in environments that are constantly harsh. Inherent resistance doesn’t require a plant to induce any specifi c physiological mechanism in response to an imposed stress. Rather plants that are inherently resistant are charac-terized by traits such as high root biomass, extensive chemical defenses, and relatively low maximum potential growth rates.

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Th ese ten or twenty lines might readily represent a whole day’s hard work in the way of concentrated, intense thinking and revision, polish of style, weighing of words.

— Joseph Pulitzer

Th e greatest challenge in environmental toxicology is that contaminants rarely come one at a time — that oily sludge may also contain PCBs, mercury, and lead. Treatment that you would use for oil might not work on the mixture, or would leave you with a toxic residue that needs additional clean-up. Decontaminating the site requires a series of processes, each of which solves one problem but may create others.

Writing is the same. Rarely will you fi nd a single problem by itself. Rather, they come in a convoluted mix. Broken story arcs travel with weak linkages; preposi-tional phrases with passive verbs; jargon with nominalizations. Disentangling such toxic writing (i.e., most of our fi rst draft s) requires bringing all of our tools into use and requires multiple passes through a piece, each solving one or two problems and sometimes unmasking others in the process. Few of us are good enough editors to see all the way from clunky start to graceful end.

Th ere are no simple rules for fi xing multiple problems because each piece is unique, but there are some general approaches. I start with the big structural issues and then work down into fi ner and fi ner details of word use and style.

17

Putting it All Together: Real Editing

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Putting it All Together: Real Editing 175

Get the story right, make sure the OCAR elements are in place, and then work on getting the language right. Th is leads to the sequence SCFL.

Structure: get the structure of the story into shape. Clarity: ensure that your ideas are clear and concrete. Flow: make the ideas fl ow, linking one thought to the next. Language: make it sound good.

You won’t, however, be able to revise a piece by doing just four passes, each dealing with one issue. Th ey overlap, and solving one usually requires considering others. Even while focusing on structure, you can’t ignore clarity and language. If the topic is unclear, it’s hard to defi ne the structure, and a lack of clarity oft en results from weak language. You may have to repeat the SCFL process several times. Clarifying your language may force you to rethink the structure of your arguments.

Here is a short example that is representative of a lot of fi rst-draft writing and how a careful writer uses the SCFL approach to convert it into a polished fi nal draft . Th is is the opening to a paper on how plants compete under varying light levels and how that aff ects community composition. You can see how this author revised the fi rst draft into a strong fi nished piece by considering multiple aspects of their writing even while focusing on one of the SCFL elements.

Example 17.1 Plant behavior in response to dynamic resource availability, such as changing light regimes, has been well studied. Adjustments made at the organelle to canopy level to modify light interception exemplify how responsive plants are at a range of scales to their resource environment.

17.1. STRUCTURE

Because this a short opening to a paper, the most important structural issue is to ensure that it accurately frames the paper’s direction. A secondary goal is to make the sentences fi t together.

Th e fi rst sentence defi nes a story arc about plant behavior, the sentence’s sub-ject. But the verb is “has been studied,” a passive verb that doesn’t appear until the end of the sentence and is badly separated from its subject. Worse, this verb makes the sentence’s point unclear. Is it that plant behavior has been studied, so this is about the history of science? Or is the story about biology — what those studies revealed? To defi ne the structure for the paper, the authors needed to clarify; then they could rewrite to capture either of those story lines.

A. History: Many studies have examined plant responses to varying resource availability.

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B. Biology: Plants use a range of approaches to respond to varying resource availability.

Each of these options uses an active verb that directly follows its subject; they capture the directions this story could go. Th e author moved forward with B — the paper is about plant biology.

Note that they dropped the last clause, “such as changing light regimes,” to tighten this sentence and leave the important idea of “varying resource availabil-ity” in the stress position. Th e point of this fi rst sentence is to make the general statement introducing the story. Th is is a pawn push, positioning move.

17.2. CLARITY AND FLOW

Now look at the second sentence. It doesn’t mesh well with the fi rst, raising structural issues, but it also lacks both energy and clarity because of the language. Clarity is the biggest problem; the actions are that plants “adjust” and “respond” to varying resource levels, but those aren’t expressed in verbs. Rather, the fi rst is in the nominalization “adjustments” and the second in the adjective “responsive.” Th e verb is “exemplify,” which misses the real story. Because of the weak language, the sentence isn’t concrete — what are the adjustments that occur at the organelle and canopy levels? Th e reader wants to know not just where the adjustments are but what they are.

A lesser clarity issue is that the grammatical subject (“Adjustments . . . inter-ception”) is 12 words long, so long that the verb is lost in the depths of the sen-tence. Technically, this isn’t poor subject–verb connection because the verb actually does immediately follow the subject. But it feels disconnected because the subject is so long, and that is what matters to the reader.

In terms of structure and fl ow, look at the topic-stress–topic-stress linkage:

Plant behavior . . . has been studied "! Adjustments . . . resource environment

Topic Stress Topic Stress

Th ere is no connection between the stress of the fi rst sentence and the topic of the second, even though the second is clearly supposed to illustrate the general point made in the fi rst. Th ese have to connect. In attacking the second sentence, therefore, the key issues to address were:

Clarity: Activate the verb and fi x the subject–verb connection. Make the action concrete: what are the adjustments?

Flow: To connect to the opening sentence, make the topic relate to “a range of approaches to varying resource availability.”

To do these, the author moved the ideas of “exemplify” and “varying resource availability” up front and connected the subject (plants) to a clear active verb (modify).

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Putting it All Together: Real Editing 177

For example, as light varies, plants modify light interception by mechanisms that range from organelle-level physiological shift s to canopy-level changes in architecture.

Starting with “For example” makes it clear that this illustrates the fi rst sen-tence’s general argument. Th at allowed dropping the phrase “such as changing light regimes” from the fi rst sentence, sharpening and shortening the passage.

Th is sentence then moves on to “as light varies,” capturing the theme of “vary-ing resource availability” that was the stress of the fi rst sentence. Th e connection between the two is now solid, linking stress to topic.

Th e author made the sentence concrete by connecting the subject and verb—“plants modify” and briefl y identifying the types of modifi cations at each level — physiology at the organelle and architecture at the canopy (how tall? how does it branch?). Th at isn’t a lot of information, but it is enough to feel concrete.

17.3. LANGUAGE

At this point, the structure, clarity, and fl ow problems were fi xed, but the language was still clumsy. Th e sentence repeats expressions and the prepositional phrase “changes in architecture” felt awkward. Th e author couldn’t simply eliminate that phrase because then it would become “canopy-level architecture changes,” which is a bad noun train. So the author tried another approach, one that took all the words that expressed change: “shift s” and “changes” and condensed them into one.

For example, as light varies, plants modify light interception by mechanisms that range from shift s in organelle-level physiology to canopy-level architecture.

Th is left an awkward phrase, “mechanisms that range from,” the prepositional “shift s in,” and repeated the words “light” and “level,” all of which made the sentence clunky. One more round of editing fi xed those issues.

For example, as light varies, plants modify its interception by mechanisms working at diff erent scales, from organelle physiology to canopy architecture.

Th is eliminated a redundant “light” by using the possessive pronoun “its” and eliminated the awkward “mechanisms that range from” and the repeated “scale” by rewording it to “mechanisms working at diff erent scales.” Th is sentence is now concrete, identifying conceptually what the mechanisms are. It also has some music to it, ending with a nice parallelism in the stress position. Th e authors achieved these by packaging the overall story into three compact little arcs:

1. “For example, as light varies,” 2. “plants modify its interception by mechanisms working at diff erent

scales” 3. “[those scales range] from organelle physiology to canopy architecture.”

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Note that each phrase carries out a distinct OCAR function: the fi rst opens, the second describes action, and the third resolves by telling you what the mecha-nisms are. Even within a sentence, getting structure right solves many problems and makes the rest much easier.

Th rough editing and attending to the SCFL and OCAR issues, this gained clar-ity and grace while losing words. What it kept, however, is professionalism. Clarity and grace didn’t come from dumbing down, but from sharpening up, that is, good writing.

At this point, the sentences were strong and connected well, so it was time to cycle back to the beginning of the SCFL checklist to revisit structure. Th is raised a fresh question: if the paper is only about responses to varying light, why not kill the fi rst sentence? It’s just pushing a pawn, so skip it and launch a queen.

As light varies, plants modify its interception by mechanisms working at diff erent scales, from organelle physiology to canopy architecture.

Now this was ready to roll! Th is piece started with 42 words, and it ended up with only 19, not one of them wasted.

Th is multistep SCLF process should be the norm in your editing. You will always start with something rough that you have to polish, just as the authors of this piece did. Th ey produced a terrifi c third draft ; unfortunately, many people don’t. Get used to how much work it can be to take even a short piece like this and polish it into powerful prose. You fi x one set of problems and expose another. So edit it again. And again. Until it reads eff ectively and gracefully.

Th ere is one fi nal secret weapon in revising, but it is best done in privacy. Close the door to your offi ce. Print a clean copy. Clear your mind. Now, stand up, step away from your desk, and read it out loud . Awkward expressions, breaks in fl ow, clunky words — your eyes may skip over them, but not your ears.

Th e need to take multiple passes through a piece, fi xing problems as they emerge, explains a frustrating phenomenon I experienced with my advisor, my students have with me, and you probably have as well. You write a draft , someone edits it, and you make those changes. Th en, they edit their edits. Sometimes back to the way you had originally written them! Why didn’t they get it right the fi rst time? Are they just changing things to change things? Probably not. Every time you come back to a piece, you need to look at it afresh. Sometimes the changes you scrawled on a sheet of paper or typed in seem okay but don’t really work. You may only realize this when you see the whole new piece or when you read it aloud. Sometimes changes elsewhere in a paragraph mean that you need to rewrite a specifi c sentence to fi t the new structure. Remember the section on “Writing versus Rewriting” in chapter 1. Writing is a process of experimentation and revision; there is no single “right answer.” My last word of consolation on this is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It might even become fun.

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Putting it All Together: Real Editing 179

EXERCISES

17.1. Write a short article

Take your short article (or some other project you’re working on) and apply the SCFL approach to analyzing and revising it. Take one of your peer’s short articles and apply the SCFL approach to editing it.

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No plan survives contact with the enemy. — Helmut von Moltke the Elder

No research is perfect. Every study has limitations, and every data set has blem-ishes. You have to address these even while focusing on meaningful results and that understanding that grows from them. Th e question is: how do you address the negatives without undermining the positives?

Many writers address limitations using what I call a “yes, but” strategy, where they present the results and conclusions and then discuss their limitations. Th e most classic form of this is the “more research is needed” resolution. Th e problem with “yes, but” is that it puts the “but” last, making it the resolution and most powerful message.

So what is the alternative to “yes, but”? Turn it around. Instead of “yes, but,” use “but, yes.” Deal with the limitations as early as possible, get that discussion out of the way, and then get on with developing a strong story. Constrain your conclu-sions to fi t within the limitations but end with a “yes.”

“But, yes” allows you to end powerfully, making for better storytelling. Importantly, though, it is also easier for the reader to follow and, I believe, more honest. It achieves these aims by airing your dirty laundry up front, rather than

18

Dealing with Limitations

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Dealing with Limitations 181

having it feel like the fi ne print in an advertisem*nt, something you hope readers will miss. Having laid out the limitations, readers can work through your data and discussion in light of them. Th ey never have to back up and reprocess information — that takes work and creates confusion. Depending on the issues, you may need to address limitations in any part of a paper or proposal; as a rule, earlier is better.

18.1. THE INTRODUCTION: PROMISE THE STORY YOU WILL DELIVER

Many problems arise not from inherent limitations in the methods and resulting data but from a mismatch between the question and the methods. Authors ask a good question but use methods that are inadequate to answer it. Such problems can sometimes be resolved simply by revising the question. In the Introduction, frame the knowledge gap you will actually fi ll — set up expectations you can deliver on.

As an example, imagine a paper submitted to Soil Biology & Biochemistry in which the Introduction said the following.

Example 18.1 To determine the size of the bacterial population in soil, we plated bacteria on nutrient agar and counted colonies.

I would probably reject this paper without review. We’ve known for a century that at most 1 percent of soil bacteria grow on agar plates, so this method can’t possibly determine how many bacteria there are in soil. To count total bacteria, you have to do microscopic counts or DNA analyses. If on the other hand, con-sider if the paper said the following.

Example 18.2 To determine the size of the bacterial population in soil that is able to respond to inputs of fresh, high-quality organic materials, we plated bacteria on nutri-ent agar and counted colonies.

For this question, the approach is at least defensible. In fact, the methods that would work for the fi rst question (microscopy and DNA) would fail for this one. Th ose methods wouldn’t tell you which bacteria would grow if you fed them; plat-ing might. So this one I would send out for review.

Of course, if this were the challenge, we would have to revisit the opening to ensure they frame a knowledge gap about bacteria that respond to inputs, rather than about the total population. Th at redefi nes the research and constrains its scope, but doesn’t necessarily make it less interesting or important. It might even make it more interesting — I’m fi ne with small insightful questions. As I’ve said before, it is better to fi ll a small knowledge gap than none at all, which is what readers will think if questions and answers don’t match.

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182 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

18.2. MATERIALS AND METHODS

Th e second place you can address limitations is in the Materials and Methods. When limitations relate to experimental details or analytical methods, discuss them immediately to lay any concerns to rest. If you don’t, readers may decide the work is so fl awed that there is no reason to read further, or they may be distracted enough by their concerns to miss your important points. At best, they remain skeptical and you would struggle to gain their full acceptance. You are much better off if you can address readers’ concerns as soon as they arise.

An excellent example of how to do this is in a paper evaluating overwinter survival of snowshoe hares in northern Canada. One of the experimental treat-ments involved a large fenced exclosure to keep out predators.

Example 18.3 Our fi nal two treatments increased hare survival by excluding predators. One 1-km 2 area was enclosed by chicken-wire and electrical fencing (preda-tor-exclosure) from 1987 to 1996 to exclude terrestrial predators, primarily lynx ( Lynx canadensis Kerr) and coyotes ( Canis latrans Say). 1

Th e limitation here is that the design is unreplicated — they had only one exclo-sure. Traditional statistical logic might argue that without replication it is impos-sible to determine whether eff ects were due to the exclosure itself. Some people might read this and think “unreplicated and unstatistical, therefore unreliable and unscientifi c.” How to address this? Th e authors did so with this paragraph.

Example 18.4 Th e predator-exclosure and predator-exclosure + food sites were not repli-cated, owing to the high costs of maintaining 8 km of electric fencing on a nearly daily basis for a decade. Ecologists are caught increasingly in the ten-sion between the manipulations necessary to understand large-scale ecologi-cal processes and the impossibility of replicating large manipulations. Our control sites sampled a wide range of natural variation within our study area, increasing the likelihood that diff erences on the treatments were due to our manipulations rather than to underlying natural variation.

Th is addressed nonreplication in a way that was eff ective and unapologetic. First, the authors made it clear why it would be impossible to replicate. Th en they grounded this within the larger discussion of how we study ecology: we oft en can’t use nice, tidy replicated experimental designs to study messy nature. Environmental scientists must (and do) accept pseudo-replicated experiments as long as the investigators are sensitive to and deal appropriately with their limitations. Inferences of causality have to go outside simple statistics. Aft er all, we study

1. K. E. Hodges, R. Boonstra, and C. J. Krebs, “Overwinter Mass Loss of Snowshoe Hares in the Yukon: Starvation, Stress, Adaptation, or Artifact?” Journal of Animal Ecology 75 (2006): 1–13.

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Dealing with Limitations 183

“earth system science” but have only one Earth. Finally and importantly, they dis-cussed how they dealt with the limitations to convince readers that diff erences between control and exclosure were likely real treatment eff ects. Having done this, they didn’t raise the issue again. Th ey got on with discussing the real science and the important results.

Addressing methodological constraints as soon as you describe the method is even more vital in proposals than papers. When your audience is unsympathetic and critical, you can’t aff ord to give them any excuse to “go negative.” Particularly when people disagree about methods, it is important to explain why yours will answer your questions. If there are limitations, explain how you get around them. If there are things that you are not going to do, tell us why (too expensive, unnec-essary for your specifi c questions, whatever). If you avoid mentioning the nega-tives, reviewers will fi nd them anyway, criticize you for them, and probably recommend rejection. If you discuss them openly, a reviewer may still object, but you might convince them you are right, or at least that you’ve thought about it enough to get the benefi t of the doubt.

An example of this strategy is a proposal I wrote some years ago to characterize soil organic matter (SOM) in the arctic tundra. Tundra soils contain a huge stock of organic C that could be released as CO 2 , accelerating climate warming. We wanted to fi nd out the amount and chemical form of the SOM that is biodegrad-able. Th e challenge was that SOM is comprised of a complex mix of molecules, ranging from fresh plant sugars to ancient humifi ed gunk. Some of these are easy to process, whereas others are eff ectively inert. Th ere are no methods for unequiv-ocally characterizing these materials. Th ere are, however, several methods that give insight into specifi c aspects of SOM chemistry.

Th e fi rst time I submitted the proposal, I described the methods without dis-cussing their challenges. Reviewers hit on the methods’ limitations, and the pro-posal was rejected. In the resubmission, I included the following section (slightly condensed).

Example 18.5 Potential pitfalls

Each of the methods proposed has potential limitations, and the utility of several have been questioned. However, we believe that we have con-strained the limitations adequately. We have done this by being careful in interpreting what the data actually tell you (e.g. isotope equilibration as a method for estimating microbial metabolites rather than the total active fraction) and in part by carefully integrating diff erent approaches to complement each other. Th us we believe that this suite of methods will do a good job of characterizing the nature of available C and N across the tundra landscape.

Th e isotope equilibration technique relies on several assumptions. As originally construed, it required the assumption that it labels the active fraction without labeling the recalcitrant fraction. Th is is debatable since some microbial products are recalcitrant. However, the assumption that it

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184 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

labels the microbial metabolite pool is substantially more robust. Th ere is rarely extensive abiotic immobilization of either 15 NH 4 + or glucose, so the isotopes should be in the metabolite pool.

Th e utility of chemical fractionation in characterizing soil organic matter has been debated ever since the fi rst fractionations of fulvic and humic acids. Chemical fractionation of plant material , however, has been quite suc-cessful in characterizing litter quality. Since in tundra soils much of the organic matter is still plant detritus these techniques should be useful.

Th e second time around, the proposal was funded. Reviewers still commented on the methods and the challenges of the project, but enthusiastically, recognizing that we had balanced methods’ strengths and limitations and we had thought about how to interpret the results. We didn’t change the methods, just how we defi ned their results.

I sometimes say that there is no such thing as a bad method. As long as it is done well, a method gives solid data and real information. Th e “bad” part always relates to interpretation — a method may truly be bad for measuring one thing but good for something slightly diff erent. In Example 18.3, the isotope equilibration technique was bad for estimating the active fraction, but good for estimating microbial metabolites. Make sure to explain why your methods give the informa-tion you need.

18.3. DISCUSSION

When constraints are methodological detail, address them in the Methods. When they go beyond that to aff ect how you interpret the data, you must address them in the Discussion. You must openly discuss limitations but without highlighting them so strongly that they become an argument for rejecting the paper entirely. Doing this involves both story structure and language.

In terms of structure, the question is where to put the discussion of limitations. Most of the time, you should avoid the power positions of the Discussion’s open-ing and resolution. Th ose are for critical story points, and if limitations are the critical point, why submit the paper? You should generally fi nd some convenient place early in the body of the Discussion to discuss the work’s limitations and constraints.

As for language, do it briefl y and honestly, then get on with the story. Example 8.7 used this approach. Th e authors included two constraints on the conclusions, but they put them in the middle of an LD paragraph — aft er the lead but before the rest of the discussion.

A good discussion of methodological limitations comes from a paper that explored the side eff ects of inhaled cortical steroids (ICS) as a treatment for asthma. Clinical trials may underestimate side eff ects because trials are usually short and have restricted selection criteria for who participates. To better evaluate side eff ects of ICS, the researchers surveyed people who routinely used them and

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Dealing with Limitations 185

found eff ects ranging from gummy mouths to mood swings and sleeping prob-lems, some of which had not been well documented. But survey-based studies always have limitations that the authors rightfully felt they needed to bring to readers’ attention.

Example 18.6 Limitations of our research include potential selection bias. Although our response rate (56 % ) is not atypical for a questionnaire study, we acknowledge that responders may have had a greater propensity for perceiving ICS side eff ects as compared to non-responders, and it is possible that side eff ect reporting may have been infl ated in all dose groups as a result. Alternatively, ICS users in our study may have experienced relatively mild ICS side eff ects, since they continue to use ICS regardless of their perception of side eff ects. 2

Th is pointed out that there is some quantitative uncertainty about the results that can never be overcome in a survey study — you can’t make people answer, or answer honestly. But there were robust patterns in the results, off ering informa-tion that physicians should be aware of, which the authors then elaborated.

Another example of dealing with limitations in the Discussion comes from a paper about how variation between individuals can aff ect transcription patterns in diff erent tissues, ultimately leading to diff erent physiology.

Example 18.7 Despite the limited number of validated examples, osteoblast-specifi c tran-script isoforms are present and indicates that expression of certain alterna-tively spliced variants in bone tissue are controlled by diff erent regulatory SNPs and vary between individuals and/or populations, with potentially important biological functions. 3

Th e authors start with the opening clause “Despite the limited number of vali-dated examples,” which frames the “but”; they then give the “yes” by saying that osteoblast-specifi c transcript isoforms are present and suggest the implications of that. Th ey use the “but, yes” approach within a single sentence. Th ey remind us of the limitations but don’t dwell on them.

2. J. M. Foster, L. Aucott, R. H. W. van der Werf, M. J. van der Meijden, G. Schraa, D. S. Postma, and T. van der Molen, “Higher Patient Perceived Side Eff ects Related to Higher Daily Doses of Inhaled Corticosteroids in the Community: A Cross-Sectional Analysis,” Respiratory Medicine 100 (2006): 1318–36.

3. Kwan et al., “Tissue Eff ect on Genetic Control of Transcript Isoform Variation,” PLoS Genetics 5 (2009): e1000608. DOI:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000608.

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186 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

18.3.1. An Initial Methodological Considerations Section

Although you should generally avoid raising constraints and limitations in power positions, on rare occasions it is necessary. When experimental approaches are unusual or novel, it can be important to give readers some calibration on their strengths and weaknesses before discussing the results themselves. In these cases, it is useful to open the Discussion with a section that weaves the methods consid-erations into the opening of its story arc.

An example of this approach is a paper I wrote evaluating controls over nitro-gen movement between decomposing leaves in forest litter. As leaves fall, they form a layer on the soil surface, a layer that might include leaves from diff erent tree species, some of which are N-rich while others are N-poor. Th is creates a complex environment in which the movement of N from rich to poor leaves may regulate the decomposition of the whole litter layer.

Th e experiment used an 15 N isotope tracer to follow N movement from 15 N-labeled leaves to unlabeled leaves, but it used the “microcosm” design shown in fi gure 18.1 : two leaves (one labeled, one not) held together with wire and wrapped in plastic to prevent them from drying out — not quite what happens in an actual forest. Because it was a horribly artifi cial experimental design, we felt it important to be explicit about the constraints this placed on data interpretation, and we put that discussion in a prominent place that a reader couldn’t miss. We started the discussion with an “Experimental Considerations” section.

Example 18.8 Experimental Considerations

Th is experiment used a rather artifi cial structure: pairs of individual leaves held together to ensure contact and minimize diff usion limitations. We labeled [with 15 N] only the microorganisms growing on the litter and so

Figure 18.1. Th e set-up for an experiment evaluating N movement between decomposing leaves.

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Dealing with Limitations 187

were evaluating the short-term movement of N as regulated by the release and uptake of N by communities growing on diff erent substrates. Although fungi were likely involved in decomposing the leaves, we did not observe fungal mycelia developing between them; such mycelia are thought to be important in moving N through a natural litter layer. Th us, this design pro-vides little information about the amount of N that would actually move within natural litter layers decomposing in situ . However, this controlled experimental design allowed us to do a 15 N budget on each individual leaf-pair microcosm and thereby evaluate the bi-directional N movement among leaves of diff erent species and N-levels, and to evaluate the separate role of source and sink N concentrations in regulating N movement within the microcosms. 4

Th is was honest about the limitations of the experiment and that it told us little about the rates of N-movement in the fi eld. But it provided a venue for arguing that we could assess mechanisms that controlled movement and that this off ered a useful insight. Th is discussion also allowed us to remind readers of the knowl-edge gap we were targeting and the questions we were asking.

18.3.2. Within the Conclusions

You should never make limitations the conclusion, but sometimes you may need to mention them within the conclusions. In such cases, you need a tightly defi ned “but, yes” structure to frame the limitations as quickly as possible and then to push on to the conclusions — what you learned.

A particularly clever approach to doing this is illustrated in example 18.9. Th is is from a paper that evaluated approaches to estimating the mortality of children under fi ve years old in nations that don’t keep records of births and deaths. Th ere was no absolute data set to use as a reference to assess the reliability of the esti-mates. Th at left uncertainties that constrained the conclusions. But if the authors had included that entire discussion in the concluding paragraph, it would have overwhelmed it. Instead, they discussed the limitations in the next-to-last para-graph, which was long and involved (21 lines). Th e fi nal conclusions paragraph was only 11 lines.

Example 18.9 Despite these limitations, the methods proposed here represent a major advance on current practice and off er the prospect of vastly increasing our knowledge about levels, recent trends, and inequalities in child mortality. If we are to make rapid progress with the unfi nished agenda of reducing child deaths, policy and practice must be better informed by more comprehensive,

4. J. P. Schimel and S. Hättenschwiler, “Nitrogen Transfer between Decomposing Leaves of Diff erent N Status,” Soil Biology & Biochemistry 39 (2007):1428–36.

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188 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

relevant, and timely information. Systematic application of the methods pro-posed here will establish that evidence base, and thereby increase account-ability among countries and the global health community to accelerate eff orts to reduce the global toll of child deaths. 5

Th is reminds us of the constraints, but with a tidy nominalization (“these lim-itations”) that refers back to the previous paragraph. Th is simultaneously high-lights and minimizes them! By separating the negatives and the positives into separate story arcs and using eff ective language to link them together, the authors addressed the constraints honestly in a way that did nothing to undermine the power of their conclusions. Th is was nicely done.

As I said at the beginning of this chapter, no research is perfect, and there is nothing to be embarrassed about in admitting it. Rather, the opposite is true — it’s our responsibility to address our work’s limitations. Th e “but, yes” approach does this in a way that is open about the limits but highlights the conclusions. It makes the presentation clear, strong, and credible. By clarifying both the limits and the power of your work, it will motivate others to pick up and build from it, that is, to cite it.

5. J. K. Rajaratnam, L. N. Tran, A. D. Lopez, and C .J. L. Murray, “Measuring Under-Five Mortality: Validation of New Low-Cost Methods,” PLoS Medicine 7 (2010): e1000253. DOI:10.1371/jour-nal.pmed.1000253.

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Life isn’t fair.

Science is increasingly dominated by scholars for whom English is a second lan-guage and by nations with developing scientifi c cultures. Th ese don’t necessarily overlap: Germany was a founder of the modern scientifi c tradition, whereas India, where English is well established, has a developing science program. Language and scientifi c culture, however, can each pose challenges to publishing in the international marketplace of high-impact journals.

Many people understandably feel language is the struggle. Writing a scientifi c paper seems daunting when even ordering dinner at a restaurant can be a trial. If English is your second language, you may feel that writing science must be easy for native speakers. If that were true, I wouldn’t have written this book. Writing is hard for all of us.

Th e hardest part of writing science, though, is developing the story and laying it out cleanly. Th e essence of getting the story across is structure: knowing what to put where. Structure comes before language in the SCFL formula I discussed in chapter 17, and most of this book is about structure. Story structure transcends language; OCAR isn’t about English.

19

Writing Global Science

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190 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Ultimately, the greater challenge is learning to do the kind of science that lead-ing journals are looking for. Th at was a challenge for me, and I had teachers who were the academic off spring of generations of leaders. Figuring out how to be competitive in a sophisticated game without world-class mentorship is tough. Look at how long it has taken the United States to learn to play soccer.

19.1. DOING GLOBAL SCIENCE

To get papers published in an international English-language journal, you must structure an eff ective story and write it in correct English. But the fi rst and most important step, of course, is to do good science. Learning to do good science is hard — you have to stretch your intellect and creativity to push the boundaries of knowledge. To develop those skills, most of us need training and mentorship, yet many places are still in the process of developing a culture of inquiry that supports and trains researchers to take risks, challenge established ideas, and question authority.

Doing science is inherently an act of both confi dence and humility. Confi dence in developing your own ideas and data, doing the work knowing it may fail, and then putting it out in public where people can criticize it (and you). Humility in that you know that those data and ideas are imperfect and incomplete, and you have to admit openly to the limitations. Too much confi dence can blind you to the limitations; too much humility can blind you to the accomplishments.

Getting the balance between confi dence and humility right is one of the great-est challenges all developing scientists face, in both doing and writing science. Most of us struggle with confi dence — I went through the phase I call “academic adolescence” halfway through my doctoral program, asking, “can I do this?” My advisors were scientists at a level of accomplishment I never imagined I could reach, yet they challenged me to develop and present my own ideas. Th ey pushed me to recognize that I had to do more than just present my results; I had to reach for new knowledge and understanding (remember fi gure 2.2). Th ey taught me that to do good science, you have to develop intellectual courage and embrace living outside of your comfort zone.

Many, however, are learning not directly from a world-leading scientist but from reading the work of world-leading scientists. Th at distinction has led to too many papers that basically say “Well-known Professor Genelle found X, and I want to see whether X occurs in my system.” I suspect this grows from a sense that “if Prof. Genelle did it, it must be good science, so if I repeat it in a new system, I’ll be doing good science, too.” When Prof. Genelle did it, it was good science because it was novel. But because she did it, it isn’t novel anymore — now it’s an old story.

If Prof. Genelle’s paper were, for example, “Fungi are more drought tolerant than bacteria in a French grassland,” what made it novel was showing that fungi were more drought tolerant than bacteria, not that it was in a French grassland — that’s just incidental qualifying information. Showing the same pattern in another

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Writing Global Science 191

system only reinforces her conclusions. For a paper to be publishable in a high-profi le journal, it would need a new story. Th at might be that Prof. Genelle’s pattern does not hold in another system, which would pose the question of why they diff ered. It might analyze the mechanism of enhanced drought toler-ance in fungi or evaluate how drought tolerance interacts with other stresses. Th ere would be many ways to take what Prof. Genelle did, fi gure out what ques-tions her work left on the table or opened up, and ask those. Th ose would be new questions.

Answering an old question in a new system won’t make the science novel. Answering an old question using new technology also won’t make the science novel. Even answering an old question in a new system with new technology won’t make the science novel. Such work merely fi lls in the information base. Leading journals look for more than that; they look for papers that provide new knowledge and understanding.

When you develop the courage and ability to ask new questions and take the risks inherent in trying to answer them, you will be prepared to do cutting-edge science. When you push beyond producing information to producing under-standing, you will be doing cutting-edge science. Th en you will be ready to write the papers major journals are searching for.

19.2. WRITING FOR INTERNATIONAL JOURNALS: TARGET THE RIGHT AUDIENCE

Science isn’t complete until it has been published, and the fi rst step in that process is identifying your audience and choosing a journal to submit the paper to. For many scientists (not just those in developing nations), there are competing pres-sures that can make sorting out story, audience, and outlet diffi cult. Th e fi rst pres-sure is to do research that is practical, solving immediate social problems. Th e second is to publish in prestigious journals.

Th e pressure to be relevant can lead to studies that provide information useful to local managers or industries but that may not off er knowledge that would be relevant to a global audience. Th e pressure to succeed, however, can lead research-ers to submit those papers to high-profi le journals even when they may not be a good fi t. I have seen many of them, and I’ve rejected the majority, many without even sending them out for review.

Being rejected is painful; no one likes to be told that their work isn’t good enough. I’ve seen authors claim instead that a paper was rejected because the editor discriminated against them or their region. We don’t. Rather, the opposite is true — we want to broaden the international base of the research (and review-ing) community. Our problem is that we see many papers that were rigorously done but only off er information . In these papers, authors oft en highlight that what is novel is that it presents the fi rst data on a process in a new region — trace gas emissions, nitrifi cation, and so on. Th ey are usually right, but that very argument is why the paper was rejected.

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Any leading journal is likely to reject a paper if all it does is fl esh out the infor-mation base: it’s the fi rst data set on a new region, it demonstrates that a reaction works similarly with a slightly diff erent substitution pattern on a molecule, or that the gene sequence from a new bacterium is only modestly diff erent from that in known bacteria.

Th is isn’t about basic versus applied research. It’s about information versus knowledge. First-rate applied research goes beyond presenting a data set — it pro-vides broader insights into the nature of the problem, insights that are useful to people working on related problems and in diff erent areas. For example, a paper on how plowing a soil alters nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions might be valuable for local managers who are trying to maximize crop yield while minimiz-ing groundwater pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Th ey need the informa-tion, and it should be published in an appropriate venue. But unless the paper also off ers new insights into the fundamentals of N-cycling or develops a new, trans-ferable management regime, that venue is not likely to be a high-impact basic-science journal — and that will be true regardless of whether the work was done in India or Indiana.

So before you submit, make sure you know a journal’s focus and intended audience. Do you want to off er local farmers improved tillage techniques or soil biologists new insights into how bacteria process N? Read a journal’s description carefully and analyze the papers it publishes. If you are still unsure, email the editor and ask for advice. Th en pick a journal appropriate for your story and intended audience. Don’t focus on the journal’s status, but on its scope. Th ere will always be a draw toward the journals with the highest impact, but submitting a paper that doesn’t fi t is a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Ultimately, journal prestige means little — the top journals publish some mediocre papers and lower impact journals publish some extraordinary ones. In the modern world of search engines and open-access journals, good papers will be found and cited whereas bad ones will be ignored, regardless of where they are published.

19.3. WRITING THE PAPER

Wrapped up with targeting your audience is fi guring out the story. Th e best gen-eral insight I can off er on this appears in the fi rst sections of the book. Be thought-ful, analytical, and critical about your data and ideas. Figure out what is novel in what you did. Remember that there are few data sets so imbued with novelty that they can’t be made dull, and few that are so dull that there aren’t novel insights that can be drawn from them. It is your job to fi nd the novelty and highlight it. If you’ve found the novelty, you’ve done the hard part — nature gives up her secrets grudgingly. We all wrestle with our data sets, trying to fi gure out their meaning and their story.

It’s only aft er this that specifi c language skills matter. You must produce a doc-ument in which, at an absolute minimum, the right words are used, they are spelled correctly, and the rules of grammar and usage are followed. It is your

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Writing Global Science 193

responsibility as the author to ensure this. Do not submit a manuscript thinking that the reviewers, the editors, or the publisher will fi x imperfect English. We won’t. 1 It isn’t our job, none of us have the time, and the journals don’t have the money. Most journals screen papers for language and bounce back those that are not up to an acceptable standard; they won’t send them out for review. We have a responsibility not to overwork reviewers by sending them papers that are not ready. Th e author’s job is to make the reader’s job easy.

Th e tool most authors rely on to fi x writing problems is their word processor. Th e spell checker is essential, but it will miss errors like “their” versus “there” and typos that create a real but wrong word, like “from” versus “form.” Th en there is the grammar checker; this can be useful in catching some errors and it’s better than nothing (but not much). As I write, I periodically check on the things it underlines — it catches some real errors, but it makes a lot of mistakes.

Better information is available in any of a number of excellent books and web-sites. I may be a native English speaker and an experienced writer, but I still have a shelf full of books on grammar and language (see appendix B for a list of my favorites) and I keep a bookmark in my Web browser to the Oxford English Dictionary . It is essential to have good references. Countless books have been written for people who are insecure in their knowledge of English. For guides to grammar and usage, shorter is better. You don’t need to understand the deepest arcana of English grammar — you need practical, everyday advice. It’s no accident that the most battered and coff ee-stained book on every writer’s shelf is the short-est: Strunk and White, Th e Elements of Style . 2

Th e advice most people will give you, however, is not a reference book, but to give your manuscript to an English-speaking colleague to go over before you submit. Th is can be useful, but I recommend against relying on a friend down the hall as your only language check — at least, not unless they are both a good friend and a good editor. I’ve sent back too many papers that were edited by friends who hadn’t done an adequate job, and I’ve had some “polite disagreements” with authors who were sure that because their American friend looked over the paper it must be okay. Editing is diffi cult and time-consuming. Most friends don’t have the time, and many don’t have the skills, to do a complete and careful word-by-word edit. Th ere are professional services that do this; some are excellent, and they aren’t very expensive. Some publishers list editing services on their websites. Aft er spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars to do the research, spending a few hundred more to ensure the fi nal paper is of the highest possible caliber is a small and worthwhile investment. When you need the job done well, use a skilled professional.

1. Actually, many of us do help with language and writing. We know that beginning writers struggle, and most of us want to help. But we usually only do so when it means tidying up and fi xing quirks of English, rather than doing a full copy edit. It is also an act of generosity you should not count on. Editors help those who help themselves.

2. If you don’t have access to Strunk and White, the original 1918 version by Strunk is available online for free, http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

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194 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

My suggestion to not rely on an English-speaking colleague changes com-pletely, however, when that colleague is a coauthor. All authors are responsible for a paper’s entire content, and that includes the language. Your English-speaking coauthor is responsible for ensuring the language is correct. When reviewers read poorly written papers with coauthors from the United States, Great Britain, or other English-speaking countries, they can be appropriately brutal. Th ey may question whether those authors were actually involved in the paper or whether they merely failed in their responsibility to ensure it was ready to submit. Either way, your coauthor doesn’t look good. Unfortunately, as fallout, you may not look good either. If you are collaborating with a native English speaker, make sure he or she will be willing to do the necessary language-editing, and make sure you allow appropriate time to do it.

As a closing story, a colleague of mine questioned whether this book would be useful for scholars for whom English is a second language. She worried that for people who struggle to write grammatical sentences, my focus on storytelling might be overkill. I pointed out that as an editor, when I get a paper where the story is strong but the language weak, I’ll send it back to get the language fi xed before sending it out for review. If I get a paper where the story is weak I’ll just reject it.

So which is more important — getting the grammar or the story down? I’ll vote for story every time. You can hire an editor to help with the language. But you can’t hire a scientist to help with the science. It’s your science and only you can develop the story. Remember, always, that science is not about information; it is about knowledge and understanding. If you can off er understanding, you are most of the way to writing a paper that will be publishable in the world’s best journals.

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Put it before them briefl y so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.

— Joseph Pulitzer

Many scientists feel that communicating to the public is a completely diff erent beast than communicating to their peers. A much scarier one. We worry that we will come across badly. We worry that we will be misunderstood and our work misrepresented. We worry that our peers will think less of us.

Yet issues such as climate change, disease, emerging technologies, and geneti-cally modifi ed crops pose challenges for society. Policy makers are acting on these issues, based on their own and the public’s perception of our science — perceptions that may be mistaken. We need to fi x that. We cannot write papers for our peers and assume that the world at large will get the message. We can’t even rely on journalists to understand the science and translate it into English (or French, Russian, or Chinese) — they also struggle to understand our work.

People don’t understand what we do. Th ey think us experts — authorities who know the answers. From science classes, that’s understandable — they are usually about memorizing. But that isn’t who we are; we’re not experts, we’re scholars.

20

Writing for the Public

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196 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

We live where no one knows the answer and the struggle is to fi gure out the ques-tion. Th is contradiction is at the root of many of our challenges with the public. In the popular imagination we are either Bwaa-hah-hah-ing our way to world domi-nation or we’re nerds in white coats. Yet science is wondrous, and scientists are human. We need to do a better job of educating the public, not only about the content of research but about the nature of research.

Our avenues for communicating that message have expanded. It used to be that we might speak to a reporter and hope they didn’t mangle the story or per-haps write an article for Scientifi c American . Newspapers, however, still exist and publish material sent to them: letters, opinion pieces, and full columns. If you’re in New York, getting something published in your local paper may be a challenge, but it’s not in smaller communities — papers are looking for content. Th e Web, however, is where opportunities have exploded, from your own website to blogs to writing Wikipedia entries. We have the opportunity to speak directly to the world. To do that well, you have to be able to tell your story.

Th e dark, dirty secret of this book is that it is really all about writing for the public. “Science” isn’t a diff erent language than “English.” It’s a dialect, and every-thing I’ve said has been about how to write science in a way that makes it closer to common English. Every suggestion has been at the heart of communicating to nonscientists.

Th e tools I discuss aim at widening your audience by sharpening the story, focusing on the SUCCES elements, and avoiding jargon. To move beyond a scien-tifi c audience, you don’t have to do any of that diff erently — you just have to do it more . And less . More story and SUCCES, less complexity and jargon.

People are fascinated by the mysteries of nature. Consider the undying allure of dinosaurs. Or subatomic physics — something no one understands, yet which gets a lot of press. Th at is driven by clever names (the “God particle”) and massive engineering (the Large Hadron Collider). Astronomy and astrophysics also get attention; the images are glorious, and stories of ultimate beginnings resonate deeply in the human psyche. But many obscure topics get picked up as well. For example, I scanned the New York Times for 2010 to see what they ran on frogs:

Endangered frogs How do frogs handle the shock of landing? Frogs use foams to make nests for their eggs Tree frogs shake branches to communicate with each other And of course: A giant frog that “hopped with dinosaurs”

Some of these stories discuss environmental threats, but more are based on “huh, who knew?” Who knew that toads stimulate their foreleg muscles 90 milli-seconds before they land from a jump — even if that means fi ring the muscles before they take off ?

More than being pure curiosity pieces, these articles show people what science is and how it works. Th ey narrow the gap between science and society and can inspire the next generation of scientists. Having friends and relatives tell you that

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Writing for the Public 197

they heard you on the radio or read about your work in the newspaper isn’t the end of the world either.

Th e other reason the public pays attention to us is because scientifi c issues dominate modern existence: technology, medicine, and environment. With such stories people are going to ask “how does this aff ect me ?” As scientists, we work on these topics because of their fascination — I didn’t become a soil microbiologist to save the world but because bugs in dirt are cool. Th e work aff ects us by off ering new insights into nature. For the public, though, that won’t cut it. Th ey are looking for application (fi gure 20.1 ): what can we do with that understanding?

Figure 20.1 illustrates one reason why people react diff erently to stories about medicine and global warming. With medicine, everyone perceives application as making their lives better. With global warming, some people fear that addressing the threat may make their lives worse. Th e pushback on application cascades all the way back to the data.

20.1. WRITING STORIES FOR THE PUBLIC

Th e way the public perceives science suggests several rules for writing our stories for them.

1. Story: a simple story is critical. 2. Focus: it must target either the “who knew?” elements or the

application — what does this mean for them or for society? It helps to talk about the people doing the work. Scientists are trained to downplay the human dimensions, but for nonscientists, people are more engaging characters than chemicals or concepts.

3. Story structure: the audience is impatient and itching to know why this story will be interesting. Th at calls for a front-loaded structure, most likely LDR, to quickly engage the SUCCES elements.

4. Language: keep it simple. Assume that you need to defi ne every technical term, or better yet, fi nd a way to avoid them. In writing for the public, a technical term will likely feel like jargon. Importantly, never introduce a technical term in the topic position of a sentence. Finally, don’t be patronizing; assume your audience is intelligent but ignorant. You are not “dumbing down” the story, you are highlighting its simple core and telling it in their language. Your job is to interest and educate your audience.

5. Scientifi c method: Th e public thinks that science proceeds through “Eureka!” breakthroughs made by brilliant men and women and expects

Data Information Knowledge ApplicationUnderstanding

Figure 20.1. Th e public’s fl ow of concern from data to application.

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198 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

stories to present those breakthroughs. But that isn’t how science works. It advances through incremental advances by many people struggling to collect diffi cult data and make sense out of the puzzles that emerge. We are about process, not product — we don’t expect to achieve the ultimate breakthrough, though we are driven by the search. Th e best stories for the public integrate our joy in puzzling out nature with their focus on results and application.

20.2. THE MESSAGE BOX: A TOOL FOR FRAMING STORY

A useful tool to help integrate these ideas and frame a story accessible to the public is the message box (fi gure 20.2 ), a concept described well by Nancy Baron. 1 Th e message box is a simple graphical tool for laying out a story’s essential elements. It will help you sort through and defi ne the SUCCES elements.

A and B. Issue and Audience. Start by identifying your overall issue and audience. Keep your eye on them as you develop the story. Th ese aren’t specifi c elements but overarching themes to weave through the story.

1. Problem: what is your specifi c problem? Th is defi nes your opening and your challenge. In a story for the public, these should be confl ated into a clear lead.

2. So what? Moving clockwise around the box, we come to “So what?” Why should readers care about your problem? Your “so what?” must be appropriate for your audience; it will be diff erent for your colleagues and relatives. If you are writing an LDR-structured story for the public, your “so what?” should be integrated into the lead.

3. Solution: having defi ned the problem, off er your solution. Th is will comprise the body of the story: the A in OCAR, the D in ABDCE or LDR.

4. Benefi ts: fi nally, what are the benefi ts of your solution? What would your audience get from it? Th is should be your resolution.

20.3. HOW TO TURN YOUR SCIENCE INTO THEIR STORY

As an example of using the message box to craft your science into a story for the public, I pose the following scenario. You’re a researcher working on the networks of genes that regulate cell growth; these form cascades in which there is a series of triggering events, with one gene regulating the next, which regulates the next, ultimately controlling cell growth. When this regulatory cascade fails, cells switch from normal growth to an out-of-control state that converts them to cancer cells.

1. N. Baron, Escaping the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter (Island Press, 2010).

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Writing for the Public 199

Th e model system you’re working in is zebrafi sh, because it is convenient: they are easy to grow, the gene cascades are similar to those in humans, and the genetics are tractable.

Th is is fascinating basic research about the processes that regulate growth and life. It raises interesting questions about complex feedbacks and sophisticated regulatory mechanisms. But your aunt, or a reporter, will ask whether you’re going to cure cancer.

You know your work isn’t going to immediately cure cancer. At best it will provide a small insight into how cells work and how they break. Coupled with the work of hundreds of other researchers, that insight may eventually contribute to creating a treatment that might prevent or cure some cancers. You may feel that saying that your work is going to “cure cancer” is such an outrageous stretch that you don’t want to even let those words slip from between your clenched teeth.

But you have to answer your aunt’s question in terms that make sense to her. Th at explanation must start with her concerns and her schema — curing cancer. If you can’t match her there, she’ll wander off , impressed with how smart you are but completely baffl ed about what you do, wondering why you didn’t go to medical school and become a doctor. A reporter might wonder why tax dollars are going to support your Ivory Tower hobby.

To develop a story about your research that your aunt or that reporter will understand, start by building a message box (fi gure 20.3 ).

A. Issue: curing cancer. B. Audience: your aunt specifi cally, and the public more generally. 1. Problem: we don’t understand the complex cascade of genetic interactions

that cause normal cells to “go bad” and start growing out of control. 2. So what? Th e switch from normal to out-of-control growth is the critical

step in developing cancer. 3. Solutions: we need to understand the genetic interactions that cause

this switch so we can prevent or reverse it. To study these interactions,

AIssue

BAudience

1Problem?

3Solutions?

2So What?

4Benefits?

Figure 20.2. Th e message box.

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200 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

we need a model system. Zebrafi sh turn out to be a surprisingly good system because they are easy to grow, their genetics are easy to work on, and they function similarly to humans.

4. Benefi ts: fi guring out the genetic interactions that cause normal cells to become cancer cells may allow us to develop treatments that would prevent or treat cancer.

Now we can take those points and write a story, using simple language.

Example 20.1 Gene Cascades in Zebrafi sh

Cancer is what happens when normal cells start growing and dividing out of control. If we want to prevent cancer, we need to know what causes that switch — why do “good cells go bad?” My research targets that ques-tion — I study how genes interact with each other to keep cells working and growing at the “right rate,” and how those interactions break down, turning normal cells into cancer cells. I work on zebrafi sh because their genes behave similarly to those of people — and you can’t grow people in an aquarium. If we learn what causes growth regulation to break down, we may be able to prevent or reverse it. So, yes, I hope that my work will ultimately contribute to curing cancer.

Th is is accurate, honest, and doesn’t make any grandiose claims. It also frames the research in a way that your aunt can understand — both why it’s intellectually interesting and how it might contribute to curing cancer. Th is might be enough of

Curing cancerIssue

PublicAudience

Problem?We don’t understand thegenetic interactions that

cause normal cells to “go bad”and start growing out of control

Solution?We need to understand the switch.That requires a good model system:

the zebrafish

So What?Switch from normal toout of control growthis the critical step indeveloping cancer

Benefits?Figuring out these

interactions may allowus to develop treatments

for cancer

Figure 20.3. A message box for studying gene cascades in zebrafi sh.

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Writing for the Public 201

an answer by itself, or it might constitute the opening for a larger story. Having laid the framework, you could easily take the next step and introduce more com-plex concepts, like gene cascades.

Th is short example works in part because it has a clean OCAR structure and plays eff ectively on SUCCES elements. It is simple, focusing on the breakdown in gene regulation of growth. It is emotional, addressing a question your audience cares about. It is concrete and credible in terms of describing the work and how it fi ts into the overall scheme of the search for a cure for cancer. Finally, it uses simple language. It might even convince your aunt that what you’re doing is a reasonable alternative to medical school.

20.4. USING THE MESSAGE BOX MORE GENERALLY

Th e message box can be a powerful tool for writing for your peers as well. Our questions and concerns as scientists may be diff erent than the public’s, but when we read we have the same questions: what is the problem, what is your solution, why should I care?

I fi lled out a message box for my project evaluating microbial activity in arctic tundra soils during the winter (fi gure 20.4 ). On the surface, the work may seem pretty abstruse — why would we care about microbial activity in frozen soils of the tundra? A message box helps identify the main points to weave into the story. Example 20.2 is condensed from the opening of a proposal I wrote to support this work.

Microbial activity in tundrasoils during the winter

Issue

ScientistsAudience

Problem?We’ve ignored winter CO2 fluxes

and so got the arctic C cyclewrong

Solution?Evaluate the magnitude andcontrols on wintertime tundra

CO2 fluxes

So What?Tundra soils hold alot of C that can be

released andaccelerate global

warming

Benefits?Enhance our

understanding of theglobal C cycle:develop betterclimate models

Figure 20.4. A message box for studying microbial activity in arctic tundra soils during the winter.

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202 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Example 20.2 Microbes in frozen soil?

Arctic ecologists have traditionally focused on the growing season, the short period between snowmelt and snowfall. As researchers packed up in August to head home for the academic year, there was a sense of “last one out, turn out the lights.” Yet, the Arctic is dominated by the 9-month-long winter. For many years, it was assumed that plants and microbes were frozen into dormancy for the winter. Soil microbes, however, continue to respire through the winter. While the rate may be slow, Arctic winters are so long that this respiration constitutes a large fraction of annual carbon budgets, a fraction that could increase with climate warming, which is greatest during winter.

Because Arctic tundra contains half of the global soil organic C — more than twice the C that is in the atmosphere as CO 2 — an increase in the rate of wintertime microbial respiration could increase atmospheric CO 2 and inten-sify global warming. Developing a better understanding of the magnitude and controls of winter microbial respiration is therefore critical to building models that can project the future climate.

Th is version condenses the actual text (I shortened the paragraphs by deleting technical material and literature citations), but the fl ow of the argument, the story, is identical. I even included the “last one out, turn out the lights” comment in the proposal. Using the message box helped structure the story of the proposal, but maybe more important, it prepared me for when a reporter called about a piece he was doing for the New York Times . 2

20.5. DEALING WITH POLICY MAKERS

Communicating clearly may be enough if you are trying to explain what you do to friends, relatives, or reporters. It is not suffi cient, however, if you are trying to work with policy makers and managers to infl uence decisions and actions. Many scientists believe that if these people understood the science, they would make appropriate decisions. But suggest that to an elected offi cial or an agency manager and you can expect either a snort of derision or hysterical laughter. Th eir deci-sions are infl uenced as much by political as by natural reality.

If you want to infl uence policy, learning to speak eff ectively to decision makers is a start. Part of this is language: congressional staff ers are usually 22-year-olds with B.A.’s in political science, not Ph.D.’s in chemistry. More of the communica-tion is story structure. You’ve got their ear for fi ve minutes in a hallway — an audience impatient enough to make a Nature editor look languid. A staff er may hear what a scientist says as “Blah, blah, carbon, blah, blah, respiration, blah, blah.

2. Paul Voosen, “Even When Frozen, Soils Get Busy Emitting CO 2 ,” New York Times , November 29, 2010.

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Writing for the Public 203

If we wait until the permafrost melts to do something about global warming, that will be bad.” Th ose last words may be the ones we thought about the least, but they are the ones they listen to the most. Th at is where they listening for your wrap-up message — what you are asking them to do.

Beyond language, however, are culture and motivation, and they are alien to those of academe. A striking illustration of this for me was when I was an assistant professor at the University of Alaska. Shortly aft er I started, the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef, and as with most Alaskan scientists, I got swept up in the damage assessment. One of the managers told us “this isn’t about science, it’s about damage assessment, but you have to use the best available scientifi c methods.” He meant sophisticated analytic tools; it didn’t seem to occur to him that it should include doing good science, which I consider the essential scientifi c method. Sophisticated but misapplied measurements have less value to me than do simple, but smart ones. Th e lawyers described what we were doing as “you’re not collect-ing data, you’re collecting evidence.” Managers and politicians face pressures beyond the science. Th ey don’t even see science in the same terms we do. Eff ecting change means working in their world, not expecting them to work in ours. To be eff ective in the policy arena requires understanding and political skills that go beyond the communication tools that are the focus of this book.

EXERCISES

20.1. Fill out a message box for your short article, with the intended audience as scientists.

20.2. Fill out a message box for your short article, with the intended audience as the public.

20.3. Rewrite your short article for the public.

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As a scientist, you are a professional writer.

When I was a student, it always bugged us that they called graduation ceremonies “commencement.” We knew that we were celebrating fi nishing, earn-ing our degrees aft er years of hard work, and that we were also mourning fi nish-ing, ending years of comradeship. Th e idea that the ceremony was a beginning was absurd, and to give it the pompous name of “commencement” only made it worse.

We were wrong, as I realized the day I fi nished my Ph.D. Aft er fl oating out of the library having fi led my dissertation, I looked at the receipt they had given me and came crashing down. All my life I had been a student; my entire self-image was built around being a student. It’s who and what I was. Yet that silly slip of paper said I wasn’t one anymore. So who was I?

No longer at the pinnacle of the student world, I was now at the bottom of the professional. Th e most junior, inexperienced, and unproven Ph.D. in a world of Ph.D.s. Th e degree I’d struggled for meant nothing; it was just an entry ticket to this new arena, where I had to start proving myself all over again. Indeed, all graduations are commencements.

21

Resolution

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Resolution 205

Now we come to the resolution of this book, and it is both graduation and commencement. Here I tell you that you have learned new tools and skills and congratulate you on your accomplishments. But this, too, is a new beginning.

21.1. LOOKING BACK: THE LESSONS

Reading this book may have expanded your perspectives on writing and commu-nicating as a part of what you do. I hope the philosophy of storytelling will make you better at highlighting what is important in your work, and so make you a better scientist. I hope as well that it will make you better at communicating that work, whether it be for the readers of Cell or for your grandmother. I focus on writing, but the messages are about communication generally. Aft er all, Homer didn’t write the Odyssey — he recited it. Only centuries later did someone capture it in the written word. But Homer understood OCAR and SUCCES.

Th e most important message I have tried to emphasize is the one I started with: as a scientist, you are a professional writer . Applying the tools of the writer will make both your writing and your science stronger. Th ose tools will solve prob-lems from whole papers and proposals down to individual sentences. Within each chapter I off ered guidelines for dealing with specifi c issues, but they all grow from principles of stickiness and story structure: SUCCES and OCAR. Remember to target your audience. Remember to focus on the critical story elements. Remember that science is about knowledge and understanding, not just data.

All the tools I off er will not enable you to turn a lump of coal into a diamond. Writing skills cannot replace other scientifi c skills — if the research is fundamen-tally weak, you can’t use clever writing to strengthen it. But writing skills will help you take a rough and fl awed gem of a data set, identify its valuable core, facet it, and polish it to play up its assets.

Working through the chapters and doing the exercises should have expanded your tool box, but that won’t make you a writer. Now you have to take those tools and work with them to develop expertise, deepening your insights and abilities. As you do that, your skills should mature to the point that you produce papers with maximum power and reach and proposals with maximum fundability.

21.2. LOOKING FORWARD: BECOMING A SUCCESSFUL WRITER

When you opened this book, you were probably a scientist who writes, a scientist who wants to write, or perhaps a scientist who has to write. I hope this book has set you on the road to becoming a scientist-writer. Learning to write, however, is a road without end. I was proud of the fi rst proposal I got funded, until I read it later and wondered what drugs the review committee had been taking. I thought I knew enough about writing two years ago to write a book on writing.

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206 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

I can’t tell you how much I have learned in the last few years, and how much better my writing has become. Th e tools I off er are just a starting point for becom-ing a successful writer and developing a successful career in science.

21.2.1. Looking Forward: Becoming a Successful Scientist

As you start your career, some will give you advice on survival strategies. I think that is a mistake — I prefer to focus on success strategies. If you clear the bar of success, you will clear the bar of survival without noticing it was there.

Survival strategies usually distill down to “publish or perish.” Unfortunately, some colleagues interpret this as arguing that quantity is more important than quality. Th ey argue that you survive by publishing and succeed by publishing a lot. Th ey recognize that administrators rarely work in our immediate fi eld and may not know whether our work is important, but they know that those administra-tors can look at our CVs and count our publications.

“Publish or perish” may be the basis for survival, but it is not the basis for suc-cess. As I argued in chapter 1, you don’t succeed by getting papers published but by getting them cited. Ultimately academic success is grounded in a piece of advice my brother gave me once when I was frustrated with university politics. He said simply “remember who your real peers are.” Th at meant soil and ecosystem scientists around the world, the people who read my papers. Your real peers will see through fl ash, splash, and numbers to identify papers that contribute. Th ey’ll cite those.

Impress your real peers, and you will impress your tenure committee and your dean. Your dean can see your citation history, and can read your record of invita-tions to present at conferences and serve on committees and editorial boards. Th ose speak loudly about your standing in the fi eld. We also rely on peers to send us students and postdocs — the people who do the work and write the papers — so quality begets quantity.

Most important, in the U.S. system the decisive part of a promotion package is letters from your peers. When I write letters assessing people for promotion, I usually don’t know exactly how many papers they’ve published, nor do I particu-larly care. I do know whether they’ve been creative. I do know whether their papers have infl uenced my thinking. I do know how those papers have moved the fi eld. I sometimes even know whether they’ve done work so clever that its value has been missed by the crowd. I respect colleagues whose papers are thoughtful and insightful, and I’ve gone to bat for them. I’ve fought for colleagues who don’t write lots of papers, but who write ones worth reading and citing.

You may survive by publishing a lot of papers, but you will only succeed by writing good ones — papers that are clearly structured and tell a compelling story. Quality ultimately trumps quantity, and it will stand out in a crowded scientifi c universe. Aft er all, Einstein’s face isn’t on T-shirts and advertisem*nts around the world because he published a lot.

Good luck and good writing.

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APPENDIX A

My Answers to Revision Exercises

5.3A: Th e problem with this example is that the opening sentence doesn’t give direction. Th is is trying to be a pawn push, introducing the idea that all chemical reactions are temperature-sensitive and preparing for the argument that this should be true in soil. However, an eff ective opening must introduce the story’s central character and major issue; that is not “all chemical reactions” but soil res-piration. So soil respiration should appear in the opening sentence.

Respiration in soils, surprisingly, doesn’t always increase with temperature as predicted by transition state theory and the Arrhenius equation. Some stud-ies have shown no respiration response to increasing temperature, while a few have even reported a negative response.

5.3B: Th is is trying to capture a very wide audience with a broad statement about the importance of chemotherapy, but it is an example of bad misdirection. Everyone knows that chemotherapy is a common treatment for cancer, so a reader would just skip over that and get caught by “development of new targeted-delivery systems.” Th at is an exciting and novel idea that would lead readers to assume the paper is going to tell us something about such systems. In fact, that was just an add-on to argue that chemotherapy is going to become even more important than it already is.

Th e real story, however, is not about drug delivery systems but overcoming resistance to treatment. Th is opening needs to get straight to that idea and cut out distracting bells and whistles. Delete the fi rst sentence and then adapt the second as the opening.

A common constraint to eff ective cancer chemotherapy is that patients may be resistant to the treatments. Such resistance is oft en closely associated with the activity of the enzyme γ -glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT), which acts to increase intracellular concentrations of glutathione and thereby block the apoptotic cascade in tumor cells. Inhibiting GGT before chemotherapy would therefore reduce tumor cell resistance and increase treatment eff ectiveness.

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208 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

11.3A

It had been thought that the lack of jet contrails over the United States caused the increase in the diurnal temperature range (DTR) during the three-day grounding of aircraft over the United States during the period of 11–14 September 2001. Variations in high cloud cover, including contrails and contrail-induced cirrus clouds, contribute weakly to the changes in the diurnal temperature range, which is governed primarily by lower altitude clouds, winds, and humidity. While missing contrails may have aff ected the DTR, their impact is probably too small to detect with statistical signifi cance.

Th is poses the question in the fi rst sentence, rather than stating the conclusion. For that to work, the remainder of the paragraph would need to present some of the results and build the argument to support the conclusion. Th is worked as a TS-D paragraph, because it is apparent that the core results are presented else-where and this just presents their essence. I think the author’s point-fi rst structure worked better than a point-last.

11.3B

Great Plains mammoths apparently did not routinely migrate long distances, such as between northern Colorado and southern High Plains sites that are separated by about 600 km. Mammoth samples from Clovis sites in the Dent site had diff erent 87 Sr/ 86 Sr ratios than those at Blackwater Draw and Miami, indicating they come from distinct populations.

To me, this paragraph feels weaker. Th e original poses a question and proposes a case study approach to answering it. To readers, the constraints on the approach are clear. Th e TS-D version starts with an argument that makes the con-straints less apparent. TS-D is a weak structure for developing a complex argument — it needs a simple topic sentence. Th e OCAR structure allowed the author to develop both the simple core story — mammoths did not migrate long distances — and its limitations. Th e TS-D version is shorter, however, and if space were at a premium that might be more important than the nuance allowed by OCAR.

12.3A

1. Viruses are the most abundant biological entities in the sea, yet were not studied until 1989.

2. It wasn’t until 1989 that it was discovered that the most abundant biological entities in the sea are viruses.

3. It wasn’t until 1989 that it was discovered that viruses are the most abundant biological entities in the sea.

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My Answers to Revision Exercises 209

12.3B

1. Benzene contamination of groundwater is linked to elevated cancer levels.

2. Groundwater contaminated with benzene can cause cancer. 3. Cancer levels are higher in areas where groundwater is contaminated

with benzene.

12.4A: Th e story in this sentence is that we don’t know the crystalline structure of kryptonite, so the critical word is “unclear.” Th at word should therefore be the stress, instead of being buried in the middle of the sentence. So move it to the end:

Due to uncertainties resulting from interferences in the X-ray microanalysis, the crystalline nature of kryptonite remains unclear.

12.4B: Th e actor in this story is “drought,” so it should be the topic. If we can’t delete the initial clause, we can move it into the middle of the sentence.

Drought reduces soil microbial activity by reducing diff usion and increasing physiological stress, causing a build-up of biodegradable C that is rapidly respired upon rewetting.

13.3A: Th ere is no stress–topic linkage between these sentences. So make Fe the topic of the second sentence.

Studies comparing iron-resistant and sensitive cell lines confi rmed that pro-tein X17 is denatured in the presence of Fe. When cellular Fe concentrations decrease, however, protein X17 reverts to its native form.

13.3B: Th e critical argument in the fi rst paragraph is that the two promoters are synergistic: together they are more eff ective than either alone. Th e second paragraph adds a new twist to explaining the synergy, but it starts by introducing a new character. Th e connection to the previous paragraph is unclear. Reach back and grab the idea of synergy.

Th e synergy between TREE2 and STEM3 that allows full transcription of tryb appears dependent on the presence of LEA. When LEA was absent, even with both promoters intact, transcription rates were only 50 % of control levels . . .

14.3A: Th is sentence has only two verbs in it: increase (opportunities) and alter (population dynamics). But what is the critical action? It is “ecological interac-tions.” What does that mean? It’s a euphemism for a nematode eating a bacterium.

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210 W R I T I N G S C I E N C E

Th e following version uses the same core words to express the ideas of costs and threats but expresses them in verbs.

Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls are challenging to remediate: it costs a lot of money and it threatens the health of workers who are exposed to the compounds.

14.3C: Th is includes most of the problems I’ve discussed.

Th at is dramatic, so make that action the verb; if eat seems too intense, you could use consume .

Increased mobility of predatory nematodes in soil would allow them to con-sume more bacteria and so alter bacterial population dynamics.

14.3B: Two things to note here: all the actions are expressed in nominaliza-tions, whereas the verbs are fuzzy and carry no sense of the action.

Action Expressed as Verb associated with the nominalization

Challenge Challenges Present

Remediate remediation Present

costs money fi nancial costs Invoke

threatens health health risks Present

Expose exposure Face

was demonstrated Fuzzy and passive

extraction Nominalization

an enhancement Fuzzy and nominalized

an extraction Nominalization

Extracting soils with NH 4 Cl instead of K 2 SO 4 enhanced Al recovery.

Here, I applied some of the rules from chapter 12 and restructured the sentence to unbury the stress as well as to energize the verbs! And no, that isn’t cheating. You are always going for the best possible sentence.

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My Answers to Revision Exercises 211

Th at wouldn’t be: “Extracting soils with NH 4 Cl enhanced Al recovery relative to extracting with K 2 SO 4 .”

15.3A. Th is sentence suff ers badly from prepositional phrases and nominaliza-tions. It also suff ers from a buried stress: the important message is that studies haven’t been done.

Animals’ abilities to solve problems have been undervalued because scien-tifi cally reliable studies have not been done.

15.3B: A lot of heavy words.

Rats kept under varying environmental conditions had better cognitive abil-ity that the control group, which had been kept under constant conditions.

16.2.A

Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls are challenging to remediate: it is expensive and dangerous for clean-up workers.

Th is is shorter, and I think it is stronger. I shortened it by condensing “costs a lot of money” and “threatens the health” into nominalizations — “expensive” and “dangerous” — and by switching an Anglo-Saxon word ( threaten ) for a French one. I broke the rules, but I collapsed short phrases into well-understood words. I think the trade-off worked. I also replaced “workers who are exposed to the compounds” with “clean-up workers.” Th ese chemicals are toxic to everyone, but since we’re talking about remediating, the workers of particular concern are those doing the clean-up.

16.2B

Chla and Chlb transcript abundance showed similar patterns in plants at dif-ferent developmental stages.

I condensed this by deleting metadiscourse. We don’t need to know about the comparison or the observation, just about the transcripts.

16.2C

Inherent resistance is an evolved response to living in constantly harsh envi-ronments. Resistant plants don’t induce a physiological response to stress; rather, they have traits such as high root biomass, extensive chemical defenses, and low growth rates.

Th e biggest problem with the paragraph is that “inherent resistance” is repeated three times. Th ere are several other expressions that are cumbersome — preposi-tional phrases such as “environments that are constantly harsh” and “character-ized by traits.” By cutting these out, I was able to collapse two sentences into one.

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APPENDIX B

Writing Resources

BOOKS

General Writing

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace , Joseph Williams (University of Chicago Press); Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace or Style: Th e Basics of Clarity and Grace (both from Pearson Longman). Th e diff erent versions of Style are, in my opinion, the best books on writing English that exist. I prefer the original Style: Toward Clarity and Grace because it’s more analytical and less of a pure textbook.

Th e Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Longman). Th e essential reference.

Writing Tools , Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown) and Th e Glamour of Grammar , Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown). Th ese are both insightful, useful, and entertaining. Th ey range from basic to very advanced insights into writing. Clark is a leading teacher of journalism and it shows.

Approaches to Writing

Bird by Bird , Anne Lamott (Anchor Books). A wonderful book by a talented fi ction writer. Many of the insights transfer to science writing.

On Writing Well , William Zinsser (Collins). Th e classic guide for journalism and nonfi ction. Science is supposed to be nonfi ction!

Made to Stick , Chip and Dan Heath (Random House). A brilliant guide to communication strategy. So much so that I spent all of chapter 3 to reprise it.

Communicating Science

Eloquent Science , David M. Schultz (American Meteorological Society).

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Writing Resources 213

Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers , Mimi Zeiger (McGraw-Hill).

Th ese are both extensive and technical guides to writing science, each targeted at a specifi c disciplinary area. Th e information in them is detailed and excellent.

WEBSITES

Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com/ . Th is is the essential language resource in English.

Merriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/ . It includes both a good dictionary and a thesaurus.

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2 – 3 – 1 rule of emphasis 116 , 148 , 156

Abbreviations 149 ABDCE story structure 27–30 , 50

in proposals 56 Abstractions 22–23 Acronyms 149 Action 96

in ABDCE structure 27–28 describing action 67–81 in OCAR structure 27 in a sentence 112 , 116 , 134

Active voice 134 vs. passive, debate 137

Actor, in a sentence 116 in active vs. passive voice 134 hiding 135

Adjective 163–166 nominalizations 142

Administrators 206 Adverb 138 , 163–164 Anglo-Saxon 151–2 Appendices, in a paper 74 Applied vs. basic research 192 , 197 Archives, data 74 Arc, story 95–100 , 125–128 Aristotle 47 Audience 4 , 21

broad vs. narrow 35 , 147 patient vs. impatient 27–31 ,

60 , 183 targeting a specifi c 21 , 40–45 , 191

Author ( also see Writer ) inexperienced 193 responsibility of 193

Azam, Farooq 41 , 44

Background material in ABDCE story structure 28 in IMRaD 32 in OCAR 50 , 56

Baron, Nancy 198 Beginning

as part of a story 26 as place to introduce new ideas 149 as “power position” 35 , 97

Bizzwidget 54 Bureaucrats 133 , 135 “But, yes” approach to limitations

180 , 187

California Environmental Protection Agency 41

Career role of writing in success 5 , 13 , 206 success vs. survival 206

Chandler, Raymond 8 Challenge, in OCAR structure 27 ,

58–65 Characters

in a story 9 , 25 , 28 , 197 “listening to” 11 , 19 , 72 , 137 scientifi c concepts as 9 , 36–38 , 52 ,

98–101 as topics of a sentence 112–113

INDEX

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216 I N D E X

Chess 47 Chicago Manual of Style 149 Churchill, Winston 113 , 143 Circle, story as ,

closing (resolution) 28 , 81 , 91 within a paragraph 127 vs. spiral 29

Citation as measure of impact 3 , 5 , 16 , 206 in establishing credibility 23 in a literature review 56 role in success 3 , 45 , 91

Clarity clear thinking vs. clear writing

4 , 7 , 91 in SCFL editing process 175

Clark, Roy Peter 23 , 116 , 120 , 160 , 166

Clause in hierarchical structure 96 , 120 linking 141 main 120 opening 119 , 185 parenthetical 148 qualifying 117 stressed 113 , 148 , 156 subordinate 120 , 148

Climax, in ABDCE 28–29 , 99 Clinton, Bill 17 , 22 Coherence

thematic 101 , 124 , 128 and story arcs 102

Compartmentalizing thoughts 97 Compound nouns 153–154 Communication

cross cultural 8 miscommunication 143 with policy makers 202

Conclusion(s) constraining 180 , 187 foreshadowing 35 how general should they be 33 in a paragraph 105 , 107 question as a conclusion 86 section in a paper 27 , 83–92 “telegraphing” 60 undermining 91

Concrete, being common language 152 element of SUCCES formula

22 , 133 importance of 63 , 89 , 139 names 143

Condensing 158–172 arguments 17 , 56 and clarity 110 , 170 data 72–73

Confi dence 7 , 70 , 190 Constraining

audience 5 , 45 conclusions 65 , 90 , 180–188

Courage 140 , 190 Credible in SUCCES formula 23 ,

133 , 201 Crossley, D.A. 32 Curiosity 21 , 24 , 41 , 51 , 55 Curricula in science classes 20 Curse of Knowledge 22 , 110

Darwin, Charles 8 , 18 Data

choosing data to present 72 collection as research goal

59 , 64 data dump 54 , 56 “data not shown” 133 fi nding novelty in 21 , 192 imposing story on 31 vs. inference and interpretation

70–72 statistical results as data 76 synthesizing into understanding

8–12 , 88 , 192 , 197 Deleting 161–167

to focus on key points 39 , 118 Development, as story section

in a story arc 96 in ABDCE structure 28 in LD structure 29 , 104 in LDR structure 30 in OCAR structure 50 in TS-D paragraph 104

Dietrich, William (Bill) 12 , 37 , 47

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I N D E X 217

Direction changing 35 , 91 , 101 defi ning 68 , 110 , 175 misdirection 38

Disciplines, academic 18 , 32 , 40 , 42–43 , 59 , 70

Discussion (section of a paper) 8 , 79 , 96 addressing limitations in 184–187 combining Results and Discussion

70–72 in IMRaD 32–33 as part of the Action (A) in OCAR

67–68 Dogma 21 , 56 , 169 Draft s 5–7 , 39 , 158 , 160 , 174 “Dumbing down” 17 , 178 , 197

Editor(s) 31 , 70 , 191 , 193 Emotion, in SUCCES formula 24 , 50 Emotional weight. 151 Empty amplifi ers 164 Ending(s)

in ABDCE structure 28 as power position 83 , 97 , 113

English history of 151 as a second language 189–194

Expert 20–22, 147, also see schema vs. scholar 196

Fields of science see disciplines Firestone, Mary (Ph.D. advisor) 12 ,

178 , 190 Flag word 56 , 84 , 85 , 99 , 100 , 102 Flow, creating 100 , 124–132 , 172 , 175 Formatting, of a page 159 Franklin, Rosalind 10–11 French 151 Friend, using to review a manuscript

193 Front-loaded story 28–32 , 60 , 92 ,

134 , 197

Graduation ceremony 204 Graft on, Sue 28 Grammar 112 , 134 , 194

checker 193

H-factor 3 Headers of sections 62 , 69 , 100 Heath, Chip and Dan 16 Homer 28 , 205 Honesty 79 , 139 , 180 Hourglass, structure of a paper 33 , 45 ,

50 , 89 Humility 91 , 190 Hypothesis 32 , 58 , 65

falsifi ability 58 , 138 fuzzy hypotheses 138

Ignorance 21 , 56 , 147 , 197 Impact Factor 3 IMRaD structure 32 Inference, vs. data 70–72 Information

processed 97 synthesizing into knowledge 11 , 24 ,

56 , 59 , 191 sequence of new vs. old 113

Interpretation vs. results 21 , 70 , 78 Introduction

as section of story 8 , 50 , 96 in proposals 32 in IMRaD 32–33 bad introductions 53–54 vs. literature review 55–56 in dealing with limitations 181

Inverted pyramid 29 Ivory Tower 10 , 198

Janus (function) 125–127 Jargon

abstractions as 23 acronyms 149 avoiding 147 , 196 defi nition of 146–147 nominalizations as 143

Journal generalist vs. specialist 31 , 60 ,

62 , 115 impact 3 , 16 , 189–190 international 190–191 open-access 192 requiring data archival 74 scope 27 , 45 , 192

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218 I N D E X

Journalists communicating with 8 , 195 newspaper vs. magazine 30 objectivity 9

King, Stephen 134 , 160 , 163 Knowledge

curse of 22 , 110 gap 21 , 41 , 50 , 54 , 86 , 181 synthesizing from data 11 , 197 schemas 21 , 39 vs. information 24 , 58 , 63 , 65 , 88 ,

192 , 205 Kolbert, Elizabeth 8

Ladder of Abstraction 23 Lamott, Anne 5 , 7 , 9 , 29 , 95 , 137 Language

colorful 41 , 137 common 147 fuzzy 54 , 92 , 137–139 , 152 literary 85 , 145 and objectivity 137 in SCFL acronym 175 , 177 “science” as a 196 simple vs. complex 20 , 170 , 197 written vs. spoken 146

Latin 58 , 151–153 , 172 LD story structure 29

describing methods and results 68 , 74

in paragraphs 104–106 , 126 for sentences 120

LDR story structure 30 in discussion section 79–81 for generalist audiences 47 in paragraphs 107–109 in proposals 32 , 92 writing for the public 197

Lead, element of a story 29 , 198 false 38 in science papers 31 , 62 in proposals 92

Leaders (in their fi elds) 4 , 140 , 190 Learning 20 , 105 Limitations, addressing 91 , 180–188 Lincoln, Abraham 17

List (vs. story) 126 Literature review 55

Magazines 30 Materials & Methods 32 , 68

as story arc 96 using fi rst person 136–137 addressing limitations 182

Mentorship 140 , 190 Message box 198- 201 Metadiscourse 166 Methods, describing 68 Middle

as section of a story 26 of a sentence 115–116, 149, also see 2–3-1 rule

of a paragraph 184 Misdirection 38 Mistakes

learning from 39 “were made” 135 by grammar checkers 193

Modifi ers 163, see adjectives, adverbs good 165 in prepositional phrase 153 redundant 161

Montgomery, Scott 4 “Murder your darlings” 74

National Academy of Sciences 12 , 18 National Institutes of Health (NIH) 47 National Science Foundation (NSF) 7 ,

41 , 59 , 94 , 155 grant proposal guide 158 targeting diff erent programs 43 , 59

Nature (journal) 31 , 47 , 53 New York Times 196 , 202 Newspaper

story structure 29–30 writing for 196

Nominalization 140–143 , 150 , 153 adjective 142

Noun clusters 155 compound 153–154 noun train 155 , 177 instead of adjectives 163

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I N D E X 219

Novel(ists) 95 , 124 Novelty 12 , 21–24 , 186 , 190–192 Novice 22 , 69 , 145 , 149

Object of a sentence 112 , 134 of a prepositional phrase 153

Objectives (of research) 54 , 58–60 , 65 Objectivity 9 , 137 Obvious, as a target for deletion

162–163 OCAR 27–30 , 189 , 201 , 205

applying to science 31–33 background material 50 in Discussion section 79 and paragraphs 107 and sentences 112 , 120 , 134 telegraphed 60

Old English 151 Opening 35–47

in defi ning an audience 40 , 42 , 44 , 55

in OCAR structure 27 of a paragraph , 105 , 107 , 138 role in developing fl ow 125 in scientifi c papers 32–33 , 50 of a sentence 112, see topic in story arc 95–96 , 125 two-step 42

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) 152 , 193

Page limits 69 , 94 , 152 , 158 Paragraph(s) 104–110

incoherent 101 , 109 LD 106 , 124 , 184 LDR 107 linking 129–132 OCAR 108 point-fi rst 105 point last 107 in story hierarchy 96 Topic sentence (TS-D) 104

Parallelism 143 , 177 Passive Voice

defi nition of 134 limitations of 134 , 141

uses of 129 , 135–138 , 156 objectivity 137 , 167

Pawn push 46–48 , 165 , 176 Perfectionism 6 , 91 Perspective, controlling 134–135 Philosophy of science 31 , 58 , 78 Platitude 26 , 46 Plot

imposing 72 in story development 9 twists 91

Policy, infl uencing 10 , 195 , 202 Popper, Karl 58 Positioning statement 37, 46, see pawn

push Power position 35 , 47 , 83 , 91 , 97 , 113 Prepositional phrases 153–155 Principles

adapt to diff erent media and audiences 44

all tools in English have value 137 , 154

author’s job to make the reader’s job easy 5 , 59 , 150

make the paragraph the unit of composition 104

OCAR as a principle 32 , 112 others should be able to repeat

work 68 must distinguish results from

interpretation 70 , 78 show, don’t tell 133 SUCCES as 205 vs. rules 32 , 127 , 131

Problem, scientifi c defi ning 18 , 26 , 35–37 , 50 , 198 failing to defi ne 53–54 solving 79 , 83

Problem, writng creating new 174 , 178 diagnosing 129

Professionalism 3–6 , 9 , 14 , 44 , 146 , 178 Proposal(s)

addressing limitations 183 hypotheses 138 page limits 152 , 158 resolutions in 92

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220 I N D E X

Proposal(s)(Cont.) reviewers 24 , 31 , 40–43 structure of 27 , 32 , 56 success/funding 5 , 24 , 139

Public, the 10 , 143 , 195–203 “Publish or Perish” 3 , 206 Pulitzer, Joseph 174 , 195

Queen launch 46 , 165 Question

importance of 21 , 24 , 32 , 51 , 58–59 specifi c 33 , 50 boring 21 , 32 , 139

Reader(s) expectations 5 , 11 , 30 , 36 , 45 , 129 schemas 20 , 39 , 63 , 113 , 143 , 147 patience 27 , 31

Redundancy 161 Rejection 158 , 191 Research, basic vs. applied 192 Resolution 27–28 , 33 , 83–94

in LDR structure 30 in a paragraph 107 , 129 in proposals 92 question based 86 in a sentence 112 in a story arc 96

Results, section of a paper 32 , 70 Review paper 32 Reviewer(s)

as advocate 24 , 93 , 193 attitude/patience 19 , 31 , 40–42 ,

70 , 183 expanding the community of 191

Revision 6 , 39 , 174 Rewriting 6–7 Rules

breaking 81 , 110 , 127 , 131 , 143 grammatical 112 , 192

Rumsfeld, Donald 50

SCFL 175 , 189 Schema(s) 20

and academic disciplines 21 , 42 in describing methods 69 jargon 147

and learning 20 , 23 , 39 , 105 , 113 nominalizations and 143

Scholar developing 39 vs. expert 195 sounding scholarly 145

Science (journal) 31 , 41 , 45 Scientifi c American 196 Sentence(s) 112–122 , 134 , 149

linking sentences 101 , 124–129 long, multiclause 120 , 148 right opening 120 in story hierarchy 96 topic sentence 104

Shakespeare, William 158 Shaw, George Bernard 145 “Show, don’t tell” 133 Simple ideas, in SUCCES formula 12 ,

17–21 , 197 Simplifi cation 105 , 120 Simplistic 17–18 Society, science and 146 , 196 Soil Biology & Biochemistry 18 , 116 ,

181 , 187 Spiral, structure of a story 29 , 83 , 95 Statistics 76–79 Sticky ideas 16 Story

arcs 95–103 elements of 26 , 95 front-loaded 32 , 197 hierarchical structure 96 modules 24 in SUCCES formula 24

Storytelling 8 , 17 , 43 , 59 , 180 , 194 Stream of consciousness writing 102 Stress, of a sentence 113 , 118 , 126 Strunk, W. Jr. and White, E.B. 22 , 104 ,

134 , 137 , 163 , 193 Style, writing 24 , 44 , 146 Subject, of a sentence 56 , 112 , 134

long 119 , 131 , 176 Subject-verb connection 116 SUCCES formula 17 Success, professional 5 , 40 , 53 ,

158 , 205 vs. survival 206

Writing Science - University of California, Irvinedust.ess.uci.edu/ppr/ppr_Sch12.pdfWriting science : how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded / Joshua Schimel. - [PDF Document] (236)

I N D E X 221

Take-home message 33 , 83 Technical terms (vs. jargon) 115 , 147 ,

149–150 , 197 Tension 95 Th eory, role in science 9 , 22 , 58 , 70 Tolkien, J.R.R 27 Toolbox, writer’s 4 , 6 , 205 Topic sentence 104 Topic, of a sentence 113 , 117 Transition(s) 125 , 160 TS-D paragraph 104 Twain, Mark 133 Two-Step opening 42

Understanding, as goal of science 10–11 , 31–33 , 83 , 191 , 197

Unexpected, in SUCCES formula 21 , 24 , 30 , 50

Unlearning 105 , 120

Verb 112 action 65 , 122 , 134 , 139 , 150 , 168 fuzzy 137 , 139 , 152 nominalizing 140

Verbosity 167 Vocabulary 146 Voice, writer’s 44

active vs. passive 134 von Moltke, Helmut 180

Watson, J.D. and Crick, F.H.D. 10 , 31

Weintraub, Michael 42 , 72 , 94 Wikipedia 196 Williams, Joseph 7 , 105 , 113 Word processor 193 Writer

being a writer 6 experienced/skilled 14 , 102 , 155 inexperienced 39 , 46 , 119 , 193 professional 3 , 133 , 205

Writing up, vs. writing 5

Yanai, Ruth 14 , 155 “Yes, but” approach to

limitations 180

Zinsser, William 7 , 29 , 30 , 35 , 47 , 124

Writing Science - University of California, Irvinedust.ess.uci.edu/ppr/ppr_Sch12.pdfWriting science : how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded / Joshua Schimel. - [PDF Document] (2024)

FAQs

How to write scientific paper pdf? ›

  1. Title - short, active form, keywords.
  2. Abstract - wide audience, search terms.
  3. Introduction - context.
  4. Results - motive, setup, observations.
  5. Discussion - interpretation, implications,
  6. Methods - detailed, comprehensive.

How to write an article for science magazine? ›

BASICS OF MANUSCRIPT PREPARATION & GENERAL WRITING TIPS
  1. “Begin with the end in mind”. ...
  2. The ability to accurately describe ideas, protocols/procedures, and outcomes are the pillars of scientific writing. ...
  3. Use figures and graphics to your advantage. ...
  4. Avoid Plagiarism and inadvertent lack of citations.

How to write a scientific discovery paper? ›

Scientific papers based on experimentation typically include five predominant sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. This structure is a widely accepted approach to writing a research paper, and has specific sections that parallel the scientific method.

What is scientific writing pdf? ›

In. scientific writing, all ideas must be supported by evidence, with appropriate citations of the source of the evidence. Using the English language to successfully communicate. scientific findings does not come easily to most people.

How do you format scientific writing? ›

Most journal-style scientific papers are subdivided into the following sections: Title, Authors and Affiliation, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Acknowledgments, and Literature Cited, which parallel the experimental process. This is the system we will use.

What is the citation style for science paper? ›

APA (American Psychological Association) is used by Education, Psychology, and Sciences. MLA (Modern Language Association) style is used by the Humanities. Chicago/Turabian style is generally used by Business, History, and the Fine Arts.

What is an example of scientific writing? ›

Three examples of scientific writing include journal articles, proposals, and review papers. While each of these utilizes scientific writing, they accomplish very different goals.

How do you format a scientific essay? ›

  1. Introduce the. Topic. Review.
  2. Relevant. Literature. Present.
  3. Relevant. Data. Interpret the.
  4. Data. Synthesise. Data and.
  5. Theories. Refute. the Major View.
  6. Clarify. Research/ Data. Conclude the.
  7. Topic. Provide. Citation.
  8. And Reference. list. Description.

What is the difference between scientific writing and science writing? ›

“Scientific writing” refers to writing by scientists for scientists, whereas “science writing” refers to writing by scientists for the public/popular audiences. The key distinction lies in the intended audience.

What does scientific writing look like? ›

In the sciences, clarity is very important. Writing should be concise and precise. Fancy imagery or ornate language can distract the reader's attention from key points, so analogies, metaphors, and other figures of speech are rarely used. Quantitative (rather than qualitative) descriptions are used whenever possible.

How to write a research paper step by step PDF? ›

The research paper should be well structured containing core parts like introduction, material and methods, results and disscussion and important additional parts like title, abstract, references. Academic writing, Preliminary research, Research paper. defines the title which will be useful for research.

What are the parts of a scientific paper PDF? ›

The basic anatomy of scientific papers is mainly comprised of the structure of the various components of a scientific paper, including title, abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, acknowledgments and references.

How do you write a scientific paper method? ›

Therefore, the methods section structure should: describe the materials used in the study, explain how the materials were prepared for the study, describe the research protocol, explain how measurements were made and what calculations were performed, and state which statistical tests were done to analyze the data.

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