Most of us struggle with our scientific writing. Especially when we have a complex story to tell about our research and we may have several different messages to present and often to different readerships. In addition, we’re often short on clear blocks of time to get our heads around how best to present our results and write them up efficiently. Yet a key part of being a successful scientist is communicating our findings in a way that is readable, clear and has an impact. To help us through this, RIEL held a writing workshop and thesis boot camp during 29 November to 1 December at the CDU Waterfront campus. Fifteen participants attended the RIEL writing workshop on 29 November facilitated by Professor Andrew Boulton, an aquatic ecologist from Fremantle, WA but as editor on five international journals and expert in running workshops on scientific writing for university staff and students and state and commonwealth research agencies.
Participants represented a diverse group of HDRs and ECRs from RIEL as well as participants from the Faculty of EHSE Psychology and Health Schools. Research studies include flora and fauna (trees, birds, fish) in the Top end, aquatic ecosystems and catchment management, Indigenous land and sea management, rural livelihoods, forests and marine conservation in Asia, women’s roles in artisanal mining, and some who are working in interdisciplinary areas in indigenous health and education.
The aim of the one- day workshop was to learn skills to plan and write scientific papers and thesis chapters efficiently. We covered two topics: 1) Getting started: Planning and writing – such as mind mapping (www.makeuseof.com/tag/8-free-mind-map-tools-best-use/) and summarising key elements of an article or chapter into a table to prepare for the actual ‘lightning writing’ of the paper, and 2) Doing it in style – covering four elements of scientific writing style and three parts of a scientific paper that are often poorly written: the title, abstract and discussion. We also looked at few simple examples to critique and discuss how we might improve them.
In the opening session, Andrew asked each participant to identify one challenge they faced in scientific writing. This set the scene for a long discussion and mind map on the challenges and revealed many people faced the same challenges. The central part around which most issues flowed was how to go from documenting the complexity of the research topic to writing the main message(s) succinctly, especially when there are so many angles to explore and so many different ways to tell a ‘story’. Participants also asked about where one should start in writing a scientific paper, and admitted they sometimes get lost in complex literature and multi-layered theory. Andrew recommended people should be selective and narrow down their literature to the core papers that contained the most relevant information for a paper or thesis chapter. We discussed writing from the readers’ perspective, focusing on ‘what your reader needs and expects’. A few participants raised the issue of conforming with the scientific writing structures vs journalistic type styles and avoiding reader boredom. Others asked when do I know if my writing is ‘scientific enough’? When will I know if I have done enough? When can I stop? Most participants clearly linked the value of their research to the real world and how they intended their research to fill knowledge gaps and contribute to improved management or action in the future, highlighting the applied nature of much of RIEL’s research.
THE 5 STEPS SUMMARY
- MIND MAP – MAIN MESSAGES, LINKS AND CAPTURE COAUTHOR INPUTS
- TABULATE TEXT FROM THE MIND MAP INTO SCIENTIFIC PAPER STRUCTURE, AND ARRANGE THE TEXT INTO A LOGICAL SEQUENCE OF PARAGRAPHS
- DRAFT ALL FIGURES AND TABLES INTO NEAR-FINAL FORM
- ‘LIGHTNING WRITE’ ENTIRE PAPER FROM 1 AND 2 IN A DAY IF POSSIBLE, WITHOUT STOPPING TO EDIT OR ADD IN ALL THE REFERENCES
- FINAL EDITING, INCLUSION OF REFERENCES AND POLISHING STYLE AND LOGIC
Write when you are at your best (‘alert time’). Edit later (clean up style, add references, refine links) at your less alert times.
Readers expect a given structure and look for signposts (e.g. subheadings, topic sentences) to lead them through a logical sequence of topics and paragraphs.
Most people decide from the title of a paper whether to keep reading or not. Identify key words and rank them in order of importance to use in the title. Make each word count
The abstract should follow a logical order: the global why; the specific why, the how, the what (main message) and what it (the research findings) means.
Writing discussion sections of papers: 1) Your opening paragraph should succinctly summarise the main results, and then lead into your strongest point (main message). Subsequent paragraphs or sections cover secondary messages. 2) For each of the main points, discuss the likely mechanisms (how it came about, what caused the finding/reasons) and the relevant context of your finding with the literature (there shouldn’t be much overlap with literature you cited in introduction as the introduction should focus on setting broad context for study whereas the literature in the discussion is discussing your findings). 3) The last paragraph is where the reader expects to find specific explanations of the implications of your findings (the ‘so what’).
The opportunity to put the learnings into practice was provided on the Thursday and Friday when we held a thesis boot camp/writing program. After identifying their goals for the day, participants worked independently in one room either making mind maps of their papers or chapters, or preparing tables on their paper content or just working on different sections of a paper or chapter. We followed the Pomodoro writing technique (25 minutes writing with 5 minute breaks) with larger breaks for morning/afternoon tea and lunch.
Natasha and Dr Brett Murphy from RIEL were available for students to discuss aspects of their writing or papers. Participants reached their goals and found the approach very useful by building on the momentum of the previous day, writing in a group setting rather than individually where there are less opportunity for distractions..
More information on writing can be found at:
A similar writing workshop and associated boot camp(s) will be run in 2018.
The workshop was supported with funding from the Faculty of EHSE to support staff and students in research enhancement activities and organised by A/Prof Natasha Stacey, HDR Coordinator in RIEL. Thanks to Tia White from PG Research EHSE for logistical support.