What I learned about Writing Science [Book Review]

At a recent professional development workshop, I was recommended Writing Science by Joshua Schimmel (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2011). I learned so much! Initially, I didn’t expect much because it’s for scientists and not the Humanities – but it was extremely helpful nonetheless. Thus, I decided to make notes of my greatest hits and create a series of blog posts, as academic writing should be a relevant topic to Epigrammetry readers. I hope I’m not giving away too much but really, this should be understood as a giant advertisement. Read that book!

How to write papers that get cited: The writer’s job is to make the reader’s job easy

In Writing Science, Joshua Schimmel discusses why certain articles gain citations over others, for example, those that continue to be referenced long after their publication. He suggests that articles making broader claims relevant to a wider audience tend to be cited more frequently.

This is achieved by connecting the data at the core of an article (main section) to broader narratives within the field (introduction, literature review and conclusion), thus making it appealing to readers beyond those immediately interested in the topic. Schimmel emphasizes the importance of integrating the research into well-known discourses, such as, in my case, for example, the alchemical fraud discourse in the historiography of alchemy, to highlight how the findings offer a new perspective on the subject.

He argues that for an article to be cited, it must clearly articulate its significance and how it changes our understanding, making it easier for readers to grasp its importance. The job of the writer is to make the job of the reader easy. They need to have a very easy time understanding why what you’re saying is important.

The introduction and conclusion contextualize your findings within broader narratives, demonstrating their relevance to a wider audience. Not everybody will be interested in the details of your niche sub-field. If you only write for that audience, there just aren’t many people who could cite you even if they loved your paper. If you want to get cited, you need to write for a broader audience who may only read the intro and conclusion and only skim over the main part because it’s not all that relevant for them, as long as they can be sure your research is of good quality.

Adhering to an Hourglass Structure

Schimmel outlines the structure of academic articles as resembling an hourglass, where the introduction and conclusion cater to a broad audience, while the body focuses on specific details (i.e. your data or historical sources, etc.). The first sentence and your lead situate you in the current discourse of your field.

To achieve that, you can use the Abstract Triad method I frequently mention (Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 4) & Try our Article Outline Template Challenge!).

Different genres of academic writing, such as grant proposals and journal articles, require slightly different approaches. Articles in journals like Nature or Science often feature extended introductions to engage a general audience, whereas specialist journals demand a focus on current discussions within a subfield. Grant proposals, targeting a competent but generalist reviewer and having the most impatient audience, must quickly establish relevance and convince readers of the project’s importance. Schimmel argues that the introduction often determines a grant proposal’s success, ergo you need to capture the attention of an impatient audience right away.

You should imagine academic articles to be structured in the form of an hourglass shape of relevance. The intro and the conclusion need to address a very broad audience, whereas the middle part narrows it down and gets very specific. A good article needs to have both because if there’s only a very broad narrative and not too much concrete information to go with it, it evokes the principle of academic skepticism and it seems untrustworthy. However, if you can, make a big claim or at least say how your detailed new observation is relevant to a larger audience. Most academics know this on some intuitive (subconscious) level: there must be some reason why you’re doing this work in the first place. What question or curiosity attracted your interest to what you’re currently doing?

However, if you start with Adam and Eve, this can feel patronizing to specialist audiences. This is a common mistake in inexperienced writers (as Schimmel states and I know from my own experience). To avoid this, cut the story until the point where it becomes relevant or where your work comes in. You need the first two sentences (or the lead) to say what the broader significance is, but then don’t narrate the whole history of the field, because that will sound patronizing to the experts that you want to engage with in the main part. The narrower middle section should cater to those specialists, providing concrete details while remaining intelligible to a wider readership.

Genre matters: Relevance and Patience

Depending on the genre of academic writing, this may have to look quite different. For example, a grant proposal is very different from an article. Schimmel, for example, discusses articles in Nature or Science that address a broader community. They often have more of an introduction and make sure the intro is very well articulated so that the broad audience can understand it. This can sometimes sound almost patronizing to a specialist audience. In a journal for a specialist audience, you need to be very concrete and very up-to-date with the discussions of that minor subfield. These audiences can sometimes be less impatient about why this is important. They’re researching the same thing, of course they agree your work is important. Not so much the more generalist audiences. Here, you need to explain really well what the context is and why readers should care.

The most impatient audience is grant proposal readers. And here you really need to go right into the topic and make it very clear why this is relevant to a panel of generalists. In grant proposals, the reviewers often already know after the introduction if they like it or not. He personally then reads the rest of the proposal only to be able to give detailed feedback on why this isn’t working. In very rare cases, he was surprised because the proposal became much more concrete in the mid-section. However, you should definitely aim for convincing a very impatient audience quickly in the grant proposal writing.

But don’t forget to reiterate all that ‘why’ and impact in the concluding sentences. They may have already forgotten.

So what?

Translating Schimmel’s insights from science to the humanities, it makes sense to think of the main body of an article—focusing on engagement with historical sources, evidence, and analysis— as the ‘data’. This section demonstrates the validity of your claims and how you came to your conclusions. The introduction and conclusion, however, are pivotal in situating the article within the existing discourse, including the literature review, and framing it within broader narratives familiar to those in the field.

The introduction, in particular, plays a crucial role in situating the article within these broader narratives, serving as a bridge between the specialized analysis in the main section (i.e. the ‘meat’ of the article) and the conceptual or mental models recognized by the field at large. Without effectively translating specialized research into these broader mental models from the outset—using strategies such as the abstract triad method and a compelling lead—the research risks being overlooked and not cited because people don’t realize how it is relevant for them. You need to make your complex, specialized findings accessible and relevant to a wider academic audience through strategic framing.

Introduce your characters and plot early on

Even though it seems foreign to academic writing, storytelling is what gets your papers cited. For example, the Hirsch index used in science is not about how many papers you wrote, but how your papers are cited. Becoming a successful academic and having a legacy depends on learning to write in a way that people like to read and, thus, cite.

Adapting the principles of fiction writing to academic contexts, it’s essential to introduce the key elements—such as the central conflict, main characters (or core concepts), and the research gap—within the first few sentences of the introduction, ideally within the first paragraph. The opening sentence should highlight a conflict of broad relevance, establishing the importance of topic X in the wider world or specific field, then swiftly move to identify the research gap and propose a solution. Don’t underestimate the significance of the first sentence in setting the stage for the article, while also helping to prevent over-explanating.

You need to think of your writing as a narrative and storytelling, even though that seems opposed to scholarly work somehow. We feel opposed to the idea that we tell a story with data, but there’s no way that we could present our data without a story. The data alone is not the article. There is no scholarly work if you don’t interpret the data. Interpreting this data is a narrative, which means you need to learn how to write this narrative well. Obviously, that doesn’t mean just making it sound nice. It also means that it’s scientifically sound.

This interpretation essentially creates a narrative where the data serves as the protagonists, part of a conflict that the research aims to elucidate or resolve. Learning to craft this narrative effectively will not only make your claims more convincing, it will also make it more engaging and thus, more readable and citable.

This is it for the first part. Stay tuned for more!

Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2024, May 19). What I learned about Writing Science [Book Review]. Epigrammetry. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/11oq7

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