Signpost your argument not your writing

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Trail of Evidence by Caribb, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

In a post she made on writing strategically, Katherine Firth from Research Degree Voodoo mentioned the idea of signposting your argument rather than your writing. She gives examples of what she is talking about in another post that I have previously referred to here. In this post I extend her illustration by focussing on that section at the end of the introduction to a report or thesis, where you need to explain the structure of the work.

It is normal practice for the last part of an introduction to explain the structure of the rest of the document. Beginner writers often make the mistake Katherine refers to: they explain the kind of information that will be found in the sections but not the content.

Here is an example of a writer explaining the kind of content to be found in the sections of their report:

“The pathogenesis, clinical manifestation, and diagnosis of disease x are discussed first. Then, the efficacy, safety, and use of newer treatments are reviewed. Finally, a conclusion will be made on whether these newer treatments are superior to conventional treatments.”

The problem with this sort of writing is its predictability. It is no more than a table of contents really without the page numbers. Good writing instead signals the argument that will be made and indicates what the sections will say. Here is an example from a paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience by Button et al (2013).

“…We discuss the problems that arise when low-powered research designs are pervasive. In general, these problems can be divided into two categories. The first concerns problems that are mathematically expected to arise even if the research conducted is otherwise perfect: in other words, when there are no biases that tend to create statistically significant (that is, ‘positive’) results that are spurious. The second category concerns problems that reflect biases that tend to co-occur with studies of low power or that become worse in small, underpowered studies. We next empirically show that statistical power is typically low in the field of neuroscience by using evidence from a range of subfields within the neuroscience literature. We illustrate that low statistical power is an endemic problem in neuroscience and discuss the implications of this for interpreting the results of individual studies.”

As you see in the second example, the writers state their argument up front. This type of writing is more interesting and also helps orient readers. They can follow the complex aspects of the argument to come more easily, because they have an overview of it already. Paying attention to the way writers alert readers to the structure of their argument when you are reading papers can give you lots of ideas for how to do it yourself.

 

Reference

Button, K. S., Ioannidis, J. P. A., Mokrysz, C., Nosek, B. A., Flint, J., Robinson, E. S. J., & Munafo, M. R. (2013). Power failure: Why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience. Nat Rev Neurosci, 14(5), 365-376. doi:10.1038/nrn3475 Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v14/n5/full/nrn3475.html

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