Cookie cutter communication?

An article from the Talk the Walk blog
Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Should we write to a recipe?

In my role as a writing advisor to young scientists, I'm a big supporter of using schemas (or templates) to help organise a research paper. A schema provides a layout into which the writer introduces the details relevant to their own report. The one scientists are most familiar with is the "IMRAD" system of partitioning the paper (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion), and its widespread use alone indicates it has been a useful aid to scientific communication. But teachers of academic writing like myself also suggest the use of schemas for the individual sections of a paper and even for paragraphs. The structure of the Introduction of a paper, for example, has been intensively studied for two decades now, and there is general agreement on the usefulness of the three-move "Create a Research Space" schema outlined by John Swales in his 1990 book "Genre Analysis". Based on his analysis of many research papers, and using terminology borrowed from ecology, Swales proposed that most writers first "establish a (research) territory", then narrow down to their particular "niche", and conclude by "occupying" that niche. At the level of the paragraph, one simple schema is starting the paragraph with a "topic" sentence. The prevalence of this pattern in academic writing means that this is what what readers have come to expect, always something to keep in mind when writing!

Scientists vary a lot in how they initially take to templates. For many, intimidated by the prospect of the smallest writing task, any sort of guidance is a welcome gift from the heavens. But for others there is suspicion, even anxiety, that the formulas proposed will box them in one way or another.

One common concern could be put like this: "If we all use these templates won't our papers all sound the same?" To a certain extent, if this were true, I would not see it as such a bad thing. We do not suffer from such worries when putting together the graphics for a paper, where we will happily conform to the well-established rules that facilitate visual comprehension. When we create a basic two-axis graph, if one of the variables is dependent, we always, consciously or no, assign it to the y-axis. If we are using a colour-based scale to portray a range of intensities, then the red end of the spectrum will typically be associated with high rather than low (and never intermediate) values. I personally look forward to a future where there are equally well-accepted "rules" for structuring paragraphs and sections.

But in any case the reality is that templates do not result in everything sounding the same, even when they are adhered to. The sentences I am writing here all conform, more or less, to the strictures of English grammar, but the palette of the sentence templates I can draw from, and the different content I include in each sentence, hopefully are variety enough to prevent any depressing sense of sameness as you read on.

A more heartfelt range of concerns could be characterized as the fear of "stifled creativity", and it takes two main forms. In the first, some young scientists are indeed depressed that editors (and supervisors) do not take too kindly to the inclusion of stylistic flourishes or any personal perspectives ("Seven months of gruelling benchwork later..."). If young scientists are surprised by this curtailment it is unsurprising: a few years before in their school essays the personal perspective was often the teacher's main focus, and, for the typical student, the only avenue by which any original content could be introduced. But that is not the case with reports of original research, and casting the intricacies of that research in the best possible light is more than enough to occupy oneself with. Some young scientists feel they should be afforded the artistic license of a Stephen Jay Gould in his role as bookwriter or essayist, but they overlook how much more more prosaic he could be when writing up original research (see this example).

A less common but more legitimate way for the fear of "stifled creativity" to take form is when writers worry that a formulaic approach might reduce the quantity or quality of their scientific insights. Unfortunately I think it is less common because too few scientists expect to have insights when writing! They perhaps take the idea of "reporting" too literally, viewing the writing phase merely as a time to record something that is now done and dusted. But since we must always contextualise our findings, writing a paper has great potential to reveal previously unthought-of connections, and we should always think seriously about how best to realise this potential. An example from my own career demonstrates the value of contextualisation. When I started writing what became this paper in the Journal of Cell Science, I had been planning to publish it in Mycological Research, but changed my mind as I realised the study's broader implications. The writing phase alone thus bumped up the eventual impact factor of the research by a factor of at least six!

It is true that some guides to "insightful" writing emphasise approaches that have little to do with formulas of any sort. For example, Henriette Anne Klausner in "Writing on Both Sides of the Brain" encourages writers to identify environments that make them feel comfortable. A walk in the forest or even just relaxing in a comfy chair, staring out the window, can be an effective contradiction to the distress and sense of inadequacy many people feel when they sit down at a desk to write. I have always incorporated such strategies into my own writing process. During my PhD whenever I was starting on a new paper I would spend the first day on my favourite hill in Canberra, Mt Ainslie: looking down over the homes of those whose taxes made my research possible, I felt that I had a duty to make the paper as accessible and "alive" as possible. Instead of my writing being "me" centred it thus became "audience" centred, and that is a much less anxious, and more creative, space to work in.

However, as useful as these non-formulaic approaches can be, I get just as many insights when I am deep in the process of writing, trying to shape my paper according to the same schemas I teach my students. Partly this is due to the nature of the schemas themselves. For example, I approach the Discussion section of a paper as an extended argument, and, long before I ever start to think of sentences or paragraphs, I use a visual "mapping" approach to explore the argument. This helps to identify weaknesses in my argument and to expose its hidden assumptions, often leading me to interesting new directions of thinking or reading.

But adhering to any schema, irrespective of its applicability to the task at hand, can also be an aid to creativity, perhaps of an even deeper form. I think artists know this. So many art forms - sonnets, sonatas, self-portraits, songs - are subject to  constraints (some stronger than others) that it can only be concluded that constraints, even arbitrary ones, often serve rather than stifle creativity. Bob Dylan's songs always rhyme! Patricia D. Stokes has written a very interesting book that explores the multifaceted nexus between constraints and creativity.  My own personal experience of this (particulary from drawing and writing poetry) is that the discipline of adhering to constraints brings me to a meditative state, in which I can reap the creative benefits these states are renowned for. This is why writing does not occur to me as a wearisome burden but as an opportunity for adventure and play. How much fun you can have in the backyard of your own mind!


i'm a fan of the gonzo form

i'm a fan of the gonzo form of science journalism, but alas people aren't too receptive to it

Funny you should mention that

Funny you should mention that - Im just about to do a piece on a slice of student life here - a weekly poker game at the Mandara hostel. And in the true gonzo spirit I will ask them if I can join them for a game. I hope I make it out alive! But its not gonzo *science* journalism, that's true. I like the idea. geoff

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