How to write your science: a dissertation is a story

This is the season in the academic year when I spend much of my time reading and commenting on MSc dissertations and draft PhDs.  Each year I remind my students that a thesis is like a novel, you need to draw the reader in, take them on a journey and persuade them by the end that it’s the best thing they have read in ages.  Even the rather dry and stilted style of scientific writing allows a story to be told and a reader engaged. But how?

The web is full of good an detailed advice on writing dissertations.  The Promega Connections blog has an excellent short post by Michelle Arduengo on basic scientific writing including the assertion that “the goal of the science writer is to explain scientific concepts and ideas clearly and engage the reader”.  This may seem blindingly obvious but there seem to be many authors who think otherwise.  A pragmatic approach is promoted by Science Blogs where ‘Ethan’ suggests that the primary aim of a dissertation is to persuade the committee that you should pass the test.  While this must be true, I would argue that a key skill in this test is good written style.  It is not simply a matter of showing you have worked hard for the required period.  Computer Science advice at Purdue University go even further with the pragmatic approach to PhD writing suggesting “All you really have to do is outlast your doctoral committee.” but goes on to say:

Writing a dissertation requires a student to think deeply, to organize technical discussion, to muster arguments that will convince other scientists, and to follow rules for rigorous, formal presentation of the arguments and discussion.How to Write a Dissertation

One of the key skills is to learn to write in a succinct manner without losing content and precision.  This is not an easy task, especially for students under time pressure. The well known quote by Pascal sums this up:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

[If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.] Blaise Pascal 1657

Dissertations are not judged by physical weight, they are judged by mental weight, and this can be delivered using a small number of well chosen words.  There are limits, I’ve yet to see a dissertation of Distinction quality in under 2000 words (but I’m a biologist, not a mathematician).  I’ve read few dissertations of 12000 words that felt as if they needed them all.

The initial job of the scientific writer is to digest large volumes of published literature, sometimes full or jargon, into a clear story of where that discipline has reached and what are the major questions remaining to be answered.  This shows the student can set their work in context and has a good understanding of their discipline.

A well written introduction will have brought the reader to a clear understanding of what hypothesis testing/knowledge gain is needed, and these issues populate the aims.  If the reader is surprised by the aims set out in the thesis then the author has failed to write the correct introduction.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the story to write, and to keep reader engagement, is the Methods section.  Many journals put the methods in small print at the end of published papers, and this is a clear sign that they can disrupt the flow of the story.  However the methods section is a chance to persuade your reader that you have conducted the right research in the right way.  It is not just a place to copy text from lab manuals.  Lead the reader through the techniques, referencing those published and then explaining any modifications.  Long and potentially tedious lists of materials can always be placed in an appendix.  If you have used established methods then cite the source and don’t repeat the information.

Now we reach the middle of the story, the Results, an often exciting section where the author can show how hard they have worked and what exciting things they have found.  Huge tables of raw data are not needed here (a digital appendix is often the best place for these).  The results section should offer a carefully prepared summary of the findings, statistical evaluation, where appropriate, and graphs or images that sum up what has been found.

The Discussion is the chance for the author to show their mental metal.  This is where the issues raised in the introductory literature review come together with the results of the new research to plug gaps in knowledge and to form new testable hypotheses.  Sometimes the discussion supports the status quo, and other times refutes previous hypotheses.  Either way knowledge has moved forward.  Make sure that the evidence supports the argument.  Don’t try to bend results to fit a previous idea, it will not work.

The conclusion closes the story, brings out the major findings and guides the reader to the next step.

Then its a matter of formatting the reference list to meet the specified style, checking the spelling and grammar, ensuring labels and captions are with the right tables and figures.

Michele Arduengo‘s blog post Don’t Be Tricked by the Nixie: Science Writing Lessons Gleaned from Fairy Tales develops the idea of storytelling in science writing further.

Despite the advice above perhaps the two most crucial issues to address are 1) to complete and submit the dissertation by the deadline set, and 2) remember that you are assessed on the work you submit and not on the hours you spent in the lab.

Good writing!

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
This entry was posted in MSc Plant Diversity, PhD research. Bookmark the permalink.

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