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Writing Better Papers

Many people struggle with writing delightful, readable papers for publication. As scientists, we often focus exclusively on the scientific merits of our work, but presentation is just as important. If your data are beautiful but your arguments are hard to follow and your prose is tortured, then no one will read your papers. Worse, editors and reviewers will reject your submissions.

In this handout, I focus on improving the "flow" of your writing. You are ready to use the ideas in this handout if you have already written a (mostly complete) paper draft. If you are still outlining your paper or have big chunks unwritten, you should wait to implement these ideas.

What is flow? 

Flow is hard to learn and hard to teach. However, because it is so important, I'm going to outline some of the rules and activities that can increase flow in your papers. None of these rules are absolute, and there are certainly exceptions. The activities are not magic. Writing is still a lot of work, especially for academic papers.Flow is a difficult-to-describe quality of writing. Papers with good flow are a joy to read: the words and organization support the ideas fluidly, the ideas are well-ordered and follow from each other, and the writers' intentions are signaled clearly. Papers with bad flow are painful to read: the reader has to stop and query the text frequently, ideas are hidden in tortured sentences, and making sense of the paper is hard. Flow is just one part of good writing. Other parts are tone, voice, and audience. Good flow overlaps with them, so we'll focus on flow right now.

We can think of flow as existing on four levels:

  • Paper level: within a paper (or chapter), are the sections ordered well? Are there transitions between sections? Early on, is there a signaling paragraph that outlines the scope and structure of the paper? Near the end, is there a summary statement that ties the work of the paper to its aims? Generally, academic papers follow common structures and themes, and adhering to those structures makes it easier for your readers to understand you.
  • Section level: within a section (or subsection), are the paragraphs ordered well? Do they all belong in that section, or should they move to another section? Theoretical frameworks, results, or other ideas should be represented graphically where possible, and the representations should be referenced and used in the text.
  • Paragraph level: within a paragraph, are the sentences ordered well? Do sentences generally tie to the ones preceding them? Are sentences appropriate and of varied length? A common structure for paragraphs starts with a topic sentence, includes supporting information, and ends with a concluding sentence. However, this structure often varies.
  • Sentence level: within a sentence, are the clauses and words ordered well? Is the point of the sentence clear? Get rid of unnecessary phrases and words. Use punctuation to communicate structure.

To improve flow in your writing, you should start with editing existing drafts using the following exercises. Later, when you have a better sense of flow, you can incorporate these ideas into your initial 

Reverse Outlining 

This exercise helps with flow on the paragraph, section, and paper levels. In reverse outlining, you examine your paper on the paragraph level and rework it from the bottom up. You're not concerned about word choice at this point; you're trying to make your argument logical and scientifically compelling.

For each paragraph, do the following:

  1. Write a topic sentence. You should be able to say "the point of this paragraph is..."
  2. In simple sentences, write any supporting evidence which supports your topic sentence.
  3. If there is leftover material in the paragraph, move it to a new paragraph with a new topic sentence.
  4. If several of your paragraphs have the same topic sentence, combine them.
  5. Put the paragraph reverse outlines onto little cards (physical or virtual) so that they're easy to move around.

For each section, do the following using the reverse outline of the paragraphs:

  1. Thematically group paragraphs. If your groups are large, consider making them into subsections or new sections.
  2. Put them in a logical order.
  3. If there are leftover paragraphs, move them to another section. If they don't fit anywhere, delete them
  4. If there are missing paragraphs to make your argument, write them.

For the paper as a whole, using your reverse outlined sections,

  1. Order the sections and subsections in a logical, friendly order.
  2. If you need to make additional sections (introduction, conclusions, etc), now is the time to make them.

Now that you have a complete and logical reverse outline, throw your paper away. Your reverse outline is your new paper. Read your new paper. Insert transition and signaling paragraphs between major sections. You will probably need to rewrite your introduction and conclusions to support your new structure better.

Signaling words

This exercise helps with flow on the sentence and paragraph levels. In this exercise, you predominately work within paragraphs to connect the sentences together. There are two major ways to signal connectedness in paragraphs. First, you can use transition words between sentences and clauses to tell your readers how your ideas are connected. Second, you can repeat a word or phrase from the preceding sentence, elaborating it or connecting it to new ideas. You should use both of these methods (as appropriate!) in your writing. (Caveat: you should not use both of them in every sentence, because that might make your writing seem dull or juvenile.)

For each paragraph in your paper, do some of each of these:

  1. Select some sentences to repeat words from prior sentences.
  2. Write new connecting sentences between two existing ones, drawing words from both the preceding and the following one.
  3. Use transition words at the beginning of sentences to indicate how the ideas within are related.

You should strive to have most of your sentences connected to their neighbors in one of these ways. You might notice how I used these ideas in the introductory paragraph for this exercise.

Word choice

These ideas help with flow on the sentence level. Word choice is a way to support flow. While the "signaling words" exercise mostly adds words to your paper, this exercise mostly subtracts words.

In general, you want to use:

  • Germanic (short) instead of roman (long) words.  Jargon and acronyms only when necessary.
  • Short verb tenses ("it didn't go" instead of "it was going to go") and active voice ("We collected data" instead of "data were collected"). In general, perfect tenses are shorter than imperfect ones.
  • Parallel structure and alliteration to signal parallel ideas.
  • Pronouns where clear; nouns when vague.
  • Independent clauses for main points. (Bad: "it can be seen that this is brown"; less bad: "we see that this is brown"; good: "this is brown")
  • Minimal parenthetical, appellative, prepositional, or hedging phrases. Try to keep the main subject and verb of your sentence near each other.
  • Varied sentence length. Generally keep them to three clauses or fewer and 12 words or fewer.

For each sentence in your paper, ask yourself:

  1. What is the point of this sentence? If there are too many points, split the sentence.
  2. How can I say that point in fewer words?
  3. Does the cadence of this sentence flow smoothly off the tongue?

After this exercise, you might want to go back to the "signaling words" exercise again.

A quick note on "we"

In scientific papers, we used to use a stilted, artificial tone: passive voice, long phrases, lots of jargon. Now we prefer to use active voice and a more conversational tone. It's easy to go overboard (in either direction!).

In general, it's ok to use "we" -- "we built", "we collect", etc -- when it allows you to avoid the passive voice. However, it's usually not ok to use "we" when that puts the main point of the sentence into a subordinate clause.

Other tools

Expresso is a great online app for checking your writing.  You paste in some of your writing, and it will analyze it for weak verbs, filler words, passive voice, and many other common sins against the "word choice" exercise.  You can edit your prose in the window, and then return it to your document when you're happy with it. 

Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a great collection of general resources for writing academic papers.  They tend to focus on writing papers for class rather than publication.

Eleanor Sayre,
Mar 17, 2014, 1:18 PM