Category Archives: Writing and organizing research

Papers into PowerPoint: Help Your Students Turn Their Papers into PowerPoint Slides

Academic papers are not good candidates for PowerPoint slides. Instructors, conference organizers, and seminar conveners expect submitted assignments and papers to have all the trappings of academic legitimacy, which means a literature review, justification for hypotheses, extensive description of methods used, and evidence used to support empirical conclusions. I have seen students build PowerPoint presentations by beginning at the title page and systematically working their way through every section, faithfully following their papers’ layouts.

Consequently, they create presentations with massive walls of text, few visual aids, too many embedded references, and so many slides that they can’t finish in the time allotted. Because they are afraid of leaving out essential points, slides are crowded with text from top to bottom. Some even copy whole paragraphs from their papers onto the slides. Inevitably, two things happen. First, to assuage their fears of overlooking something, students use slides as their scripts, mindlessly reading the slides to us, word for word. Second, audience members who try to read what’s on the slides while at the same time listening to what the student says – – after all, it is possible that presenters will slip up and say something unplanned – – find the task impossible. Our brains are not wired to listen and read at the same time, regardless of what some people believe about “multitasking.”

With so many slides to cover, students soon find that they are running out of time. What to do? Should they omit some of their precious slides, pushing past minor slides to get to the major points? Or, should they just talk faster? Nine times out of 10, “faster” wins because they hadn’t prepared for the possibility that they would need to edit on the fly. Consequently, they can’t do it. Their only option is to talk faster.

Raven Discovers Humans

Raven Discovers Humans, by Bill Reid, UBC Anthropology Museum, Vancouver

I suggest a better design process. First, tell the students to organize the presentation as if there were no paper. Ask them to put the paper away and not consult it again until they have a first draft. If they have read the literature, created a paper outline, written the paper, and then copyedited it, they should know the story by heart. No need to continuously consult the paper while preparing the slides. Second, they should find out exactly how much time they will have for the presentation. In a typical 15-minute presentation, presenters can probably cover six or seven slides, or maybe a few more if they are just graphs and pictures. If it is a seminar presentation and they have 20 or 30 minutes, they can add a few more slides, although I prefer to add more words to my oral presentation than slides to the slide deck. Regardless of much time is allotted, presenters should practice the entire talk at least twice.

Third, using as few slides as possible gives presenters flexibility in how they use their time. With more slides, each of which must be displayed/described, presenters’ hands are tied when they realize they are running out of time. (Or in exceptional cases, they discover a time surplus!) Having a small number of slides, from the very beginning, means that presenters prepare to talk more and consciously work harder to maintain their connection with the audience.

Fourth, presenters should reflect on the story they want to tell. How will it begin, how will it end, and what needs to go in the middle to justify the ending? I emphasize again: do this without going back to the paper!

Try this experiment: Imagine yourself in a conversation with a friend. Explain to them the problem you set out to address in your paper, what motivated you to take it up, what previous work was critical in shaping your own thoughts, how was your research designed, where did you get the data, how did you do the analysis, what did you find, and what does it all mean?

Fifth, plan the flow of the presentation. For a 15-minute presentation, presenters should lay out six or seven blank sheets of paper on the table and moving from left to right, write down the main point they will make with that slide. These slides will be the script, but not a script is read. Instead, the slides, and especially the graphics on them, will be their cues as to where they are in the story. Think of the slides as analogous to the story-board that movie directors use to plan their shots. Some of the slides might just have a title and a picture or two, whereas others might have a few bullet points. Full sentences are deadly for PowerPoint – – they encourage people to read, rather than listen.

The Internet allows access to thousands of images, and under the Creative Commons licensing system, if you give credit to the originator of the image, you’re free to use it however you choose. Find relevant images that convey the point of the slide. Ideally, they should advance the story and comment on it.

Finally, when presenters have finished the first draft of the story, with each slide having a title and possibly an image, consider turning on the built-in design assistant from PowerPoint. I found it makes great suggestions and you can create eye catching graphics by following its advice.

No amount of fancy design work will make up for a poor story, but many a good story has been ruined by poor design. Help your students get a leg up on the process by telling them to put the paper away and craft a story from their own understanding and imagination.

Strategies for Managing Team-Based Research (co-authored with Akram Al-turk)

The scientific community celebrates individual achievements by conferring prestige and honors on scientists who win out in the competitive game of being the first to publish innovative research. Paradoxically, however, modern scientific expertise rests heavily upon work carried out by teams, rather than scholars working on their own. Tensions between the forces of competition and cooperation thus infuse every aspect of scholarly activities: grant writing, publishing, leadership in scientific organizations, and so forth. Thus, it is understandable that graduate students and junior scholars would be perplexed by how to manage such tensions.

We believe the key to successful collaborative relationships lies in preparing for them ahead of time, rather than attempting to deal with problems as they arise. In fact, some research suggests that the effectiveness of collaborative work is determined before any of the work is carried out. We have identified four structural elements that increase the likelihood of creating and sustaining collaborative relationships.

Define the Scope and Logic of the Project

At the start, the parties to a collaborative relationship should agree on a project’s scope and logic of inquiry. The researchers should ask themselves a few questions that will ensure that they are all on the same page. For example, will the project be open-ended, continuing until all possible avenues of interpretation have been explored and as many papers as possible published? Or, is the project more self-contained, with target journals or conferences identified and the project ended when a paper is accepted? Is the relevant data for the project already in hand or clearly identified, or will building a new dataset be a major thrust of the effort? Sharing “mental models” of the work to be done and how it should be carried out leads to effective teamwork.

In addition to being able to answer these questions, the types of goals a team comes up with will likely affect how well the collaboration goes. Although “write a paper together and get it published” is a common goal for academic collaborations, the success of the research project may depend on having a compelling goal. Is the research question challenging and (by academic standards) somewhat consequential? And, is the goal focused enough so that researchers are working toward a final product but open-ended enough that researchers have some level of autonomy and can be creative when the need arises? Interdisciplinary teams need to communicate with one another the reward systems of their disciplines, as some may place higher values on books than journal articles, or may value certain kinds of journals over others.

Agree about Responsibilities

Teams should also be deliberative and explicit about each researcher’s responsibilities.  External factors often dictate how well an organization (or group) does, but individual interventions, especially by team leaders, can lead to more effective team performance . Teams should decide whether one person will be identified as the “leader” of the project, ultimately responsible for taking major decisions (after consulting with the team) or whether leadership responsibilities will be rotated. In either case, a leader can increase effectiveness by ensuring that the research team comprises individuals whose skills and competencies complement each other and all contribute to the overall goal of the project, designing tasks that give everyone enough autonomy to make their contributions personally fulfilling and meaningful to the project and establishing norms of how the group will work and interact . Teams should identify each team member’s competencies, clarify what that member will do to move the project forward, and make sure everyone on the team knows the others’ roles.

Enforce Deadlines and Give/Receive Timely Feedback

Failure to meet deadlines often sinks collaborative relationships. However, failure to even set deadlines is probably a bigger headache. Without deadlines, members have no way of holding one another accountable for holding up their end of the relationship, as a member can always say that they’re not quite finished yet or they will have their part done “soon.” To receive the benefits of collaborating with people who have complementary skills, team members must be ready to comment in a timely fashion on intermediate products produced by others. First, team leaders can make sure that all researchers on the team are kept in the loop about how the project is going. Second, leaders can try to encourage everyone on the research team (and model ways) to provide good, timely feedback, e.g. by scheduling regular feedback sessions.

Use Coordination Mechanisms That Facilitate the Collaboration Process

Coordination and communication challenges can hinder the success of collaborative research. Although email and video conferencing services such as Skype have become ubiquitous, these technologies do not necessarily ensure that collaboration is successful. For example, although email and video conferencing allow researchers to communicate more easily, these kinds of tools may not be the best for task coordination, information sharing, and intra-project learning. One of the main challenges for teamwork is juggling multiple and simultaneous work tasks. Researchers, therefore, should use tools that help them manage these multiple tasks, allowing them to know what’s expected of them and see changes to the project almost instantaneously. A plethora of programs and software now allow for this. We recommend that researchers start with one that has low start-up costs—both in terms of time and money—and not be lured by fancy features, as they can be a time sink. Sometimes, investing in innovative technologies is worth the time, but teams should be deliberate about whether the investment is worth it for their project.

Summary

We have identified strategies for mitigating or eliminating collaboration problems in team-based research. At the beginning of a project, face-to-face meetings can establish the ground rules and expectations were all members of the team. Free riding, shirking, and social loafing are much harder when team members agree on responsibilities and create monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Candid and timely feedback limits the damage that emergent problems can create, but requires strong leadership and commitment by all members to be effective. Finally, as in other collaborative efforts, state-of-the-art coordination and communication technologies facilitates effective team governance.

Save

Save

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

One of my favorite expressions is “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I believe that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was the first to use this expression. How does this apply to academic writing? After a little thought, I came up with these five examples of putting things off that would have been better accomplished had they been completed at the appropriate time:

John Wooden

John Wooden quote from http://www.brainyquote.com/

First, not doing a full outline before beginning to write a draft. Even in my senior honor’s seminar, open only to the best students in our program, many students give me a funny look when I ask them whether they do an outline before they began working on their papers. Okay, you say, those are undergraduates, what do you expect? However, when I ask the same question of graduate students and even faculty, many say they can’t be bothered, offering various excuses including “it takes too much time,” “I like to discover my central theme as I write,” and my favorite, “it hampers my creativity.” I liken this practice to hikers walking into one of our large national forests on a week long track without a map. What do we call such people? Lost. Somebody will eventually need to rescue them. In academic settings, the rescuers are often editors and reviewers.

Second, skipping a difficult section while writing a draft. Assuming that you prepared an outline, you have an end goal in mind and so the problem is just to execute. However, the only way to test whether the outline actually represents a coherent narrative for your story is to go through it from beginning to end, in order. The difficult bits that you skip over, assuming that they can be written later, might actually be the points where you eventually discover that you can’t get there from here. When writing an outline, it is fairly easy to convince yourself that, as seen from the mountaintop, there is a walkable trail from the park entrance to the creek. On the ground, however, the unbridgeable chasm that was concealed by the tall trees becomes readily apparent. It is much easier to do it right the first time than to walk back to the entrance and start over again.

Third, not recording the full reference for a book, article, or blog post when you first take notes on it. It is easy to convince yourself that you can always come back later and get the rest of the reference you need for the bibliography. Moreover, there’s a chance that you won’t actually use the material in your paper, and so why spend extra time writing down all that information when you’ll never need it. Indeed, why bother? The answer becomes painfully apparent when you discover the incomplete references on the morning you plan to submit the conference paper, to meet the announced deadline, and you find that the library server is down.

Fourth, not doing the descriptive statistics before beginning the multivariate analysis in a statistically based paper. I try to teach my students the relevance of this potential misstep when they bring me the first draft of their paper and I point out the implausibility of a coefficient or two. Could it really be true that people with college degrees earn less than those who dropped out of school? Quite likely, somewhere along the way, a coding error or data transformation mangled the true values. Carefully scanning means, standard deviations, skewness, and other basic properties of the data goes a long way toward reassuring me that you actually understand your data.

Fifth, sending out a paper for comments from your friends and colleagues before you have proofread and copyedited it. Nothing says “I don’t care about your time” more than sending a colleague a paper full of typos, misspellings, botched grammar, and other mistakes that could have easily been caught with an hour or so of careful reading. I suggest first running the paper through a standard spelling and grammar checker on your word processor, then printing the paper out and reading it line by line. To ensure perfection, you might try having a very patient and loyal friend read it aloud to you. Here’s your chance to discover the true meaning of a “strong tie.”

John Wooden was surely right: although each of these shortcuts will seem to save you time in the short run, the gains are purely illusory. You have merely embedded problems in your work that will come back to haunt you later, especially when they are discovered by others. Do yourself, your friends, and your reviewers a favor: take the time to do it right the first time.

Save

What To Do After the Reviews Arrive

Over the past decades, I have responded to more than 100 revise and resubmit requests from editors, served about 10 years as Associate Editor of the Administrative Science Quarterly, and reviewed hundreds of papers for dozens of journals. Closer to home, I’ve had the experience in the past year of responding to several tough R&R requests, and thus I decided to see whether I had learned enough to share some general tips with other authors. So, here are a few, with no claim to originality on any of them.

Ryōan-ji Temple

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Only 14 of the 15 rocks are visible from all vantage points

First, just wait. After you finish reading the editor’s letter and the reviews, you might feel the need to “do something.” My advice? Don’t! Read the letters a couple of times to make sure you’ve noticed everything and haven’t spent more time on the negative then the positive reviews. Then, put them aside and just think about them for a day or two. Or longer.

Second, moderate your emotions. It is natural to feel annoyed, irritated, and even angry about a letter that points out the flaws in your work. However, letting your anger get the best of you will lead to unprofessional behavior which you will later regret. Given that the letter is a revise and resubmit request, there will be sentences in the reviews that say positive things about your work. Relish them and then move on. Similarly, there will be sentences in the reviews that lead you to question the intelligence and motives of the reviewers. Such thoughts are not helpful. They block rational thinking about the strategic course of action you need to take.

Third, thank the editor. The letter probably asks you to indicate to the Journal whether you plan to resubmit and if so, by what date. I never turn down such invitations. Even if the letter says something like “meeting the reviewers’ comments will require major changes in the manuscript,” the fact that the editor thinks you have a chance is reason for celebration. So, don’t complain in the message you send back to the Journal; just tell them that you’re grateful for the opportunity to revise the manuscript and you will be returning it within 30, 60, or 90 days, or whatever time frame it is that you’ve been given. Editing is mostly a thankless job — give the editor a break.

Fourth, do not send the manuscript unchanged to another journal! Occasionally I hear friends and colleagues tell me that the effort to meet the revision requests is not worth it and they’re just giving up and sending the paper to another journal. That’s a big mistake. Why? First, for most journals, far less than half of the authors submitting papers are given opportunities for revision. Somebody likes your work. Second, the odds of an acceptance skyrocket for most journals, once the paper has been given an R&R. For some journals, the odds approach 50% that a revision will be accepted. Whatever the number, if you cared enough about the Journal’s reputation to submit to it in the first place, you’ve now got a much better opportunity to publish in it and so you shouldn’t turn it down. Third, and perhaps most important, it is quite likely that at least one of the reviewers who told the editor that the paper needed work will be a reviewer for a subsequent journal to which you send the paper. Nothing angers a reviewer more than to learn that all the work put into a review has been ignored by an author who has chosen to send the unchanged paper elsewhere. Sending the paper elsewhere without revising it is likely to elicit a strong rejection or at least one really strong negative review!

Fifth, consider the possibility that the reviewers were right. Lots of research in cognitive neuroscience tells us that people consistently overestimate the value of something they have produced, as well as being wildly overconfident that their work is above average. Don’t be one of those people. Take the reviews to a colleague and, without biasing their response with a negative cue, ask them to tell you what they think of the reviews. You will be surprised at the response. Although your colleagues can put themselves in your shoes as a spurned author, they probably have had much more experience as a reviewer than as an author (judging by the average colleague’s CV), and so their sympathies are quite likely to lie with the reviewers. Listen to what they have to tell you.

Sixth, make a plan. Every revise and resubmit editor’s letter asks an author to not only revise the manuscript but to include a document that indicates how each of the comments made by the reviewers was dealt with. You can get a head start on that document by using the reviews to create a plan for revision. First, fit the plan to the comments. If the points in the reviews aren’t already numbered, number them. Keep track of which reviewer said what by giving each reviewer a letter, e.g. A, B, and C. Second, indicate whether you accept the criticism and can do something about it (adding literature, clarifying language, conducting new analyses, and so forth) or you can’t. If you can’t do something about it, indicate why. Third, clearly indicate which of the comments will require moving words around (theories, concepts, models, etc.) versus which will require new analyses. Externalizing your thoughts in this way will show you whether you truly understand what the editor is asking you to do. (You can write back and asked for clarification of murky points.) It also gives you a sense of the magnitude of the effort required to meet the comments. This document will be both a plan for revising the manuscript and the template for the letter you will write to the editor.

Seventh, don’t lengthen the text. Almost all papers that are submitted are close to or over the ideal word limit set by a journal. Although you may claim that you can’t deal with the reviewers’ comments without adding more words to the text, that is surely not true. Unless you had hired a professional editor before submitting the paper, there are many places in the text where you will find redundancies, unnecessary digressions, and so forth. Use the revision opportunity to shorten the text, or at least to ensure that it is no longer than the original submitted.

Eighth, be generous. Avoid gratuitous insults to the editor or reviewers in the letter you of explanation write. Although it is tempting to claim to an editor that the reviewers misunderstood your manuscript because they’re out of touch with the literature or have inferior reading skills, you’ll gain no profit by doing so. Avoid effusive praise, but do thank the reviewers when they genuinely pointed out something that you had missed. In simple declarative prose, explain to the editor and the reviewers how you understood each of their points, how you responded to it, or why you were not able to.

If you follow these tips, I cannot guarantee you that your resubmitted manuscript will be accepted. However, I can guarantee that your professional reputation will emerge intact and you’ll live to fight another day. You will also feel better about the process.

Save

Organize literature reviews by ideas, not authors

A few days ago I received a draft manuscript from some friends who asked for comments. The manuscript was prepared for a handbook meant to summarize the state-of-the-art in an emerging field and thus was intentionally focused on reviewing the literature and identifying trends. I first checked the references and saw that they had included what I expected. Therefore, the review was certainly up to date. I settled in for a good read.

Wilhelm Hofer

Wilhelm Hofer “Medir a Coherencia da Vitalidade.” Santiago de Campastella

The first paragraph announced the paper’s purpose and then laid out the plan of the paper. It was organized into thematic sections, with short headlines identifying the themes. No surprises so far.

However, as I read through the paragraphs, I noticed a pattern that has become all too familiar to me over the years, in my roles as reviewer, editor, and commentator on other people’s work. The first sentence of nearly every paragraph began by mentioning a particular author’s work, often with the author’s name the first words in the first sentence. For example, “Smith (2014) studied 94 entrepreneurs in the process of beginning their first ventures, focusing on how they picked the industries they wanted to enter.” Subsequent sentences provided more detail on what Smith had done. Occasionally the paragraph included mentions of other authors, but often the entire paragraph was devoted to a single author.

In the paragraphs that followed, the pattern recurred. Each told us about a particular author or authors and their work. Sometimes the authors were strung out in a narrative that presented the work chronologically, but often the organizing principle wasn’t clear, beyond the fact that all the authors in this section could be grouped under a common theme.

By the third page, I was ready to throw in the towel. The authors were asking me to do the work that they should have done, before beginning to write the paper: group the papers reviewed by concepts and principles and then use topic and concluding sentences to tell us why the work reviewed is important. Rather than organizing the review by authors’ names, they should’ve organized it by ideas and concepts.

Thus, the paragraph that now began with “Smith (2014),” should have instead begun with “Most studies of how entrepreneurs choose the industries they want to enter have found that entrepreneurs enter industries in which they have worked, rather than taking a chance on coping with unfamiliar environments.” Smith’s contribution could then have been placed into the context set by a strong topic sentence. For example, Smith might have conducted a particularly valuable study because it included a large nationally representative sample and well – documented indicators of the concepts under investigation. By contrast, Jones could’ve been mentioned in the same paragraph as conducting a study that seemed not to support the topic sentence’s empirical generalization but, in fact, the study should be discounted because of fatal flaws in methodology.

Literature reviews that follow a simple narrative structure of serially presenting author after author are easy to write but do little to advance our understanding of how to interpret previous research and how much confidence we should place in it. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, a better strategy is to read all the relevant works and write interpretive notes on them. Then, the interpretive notes should be sorted into conceptual categories and further ordered along the dimensions that emerge from a close reading of the notes. For example, one dimension might be “research designs used,” and another might be “theoretical perspectives framing the research.”

The resulting emergent conceptual categories and principles should then be used to organize the literature review, with authors’ names subordinate to the higher-order principle of capturing central tendencies and the extent of diversity in the literature.

So, the next time you read a literature review and notice that nearly every paragraph starts with an author’s name, ask yourself, did the authors really do the tough analytic work required to add value to the literature? If not, perhaps here is an opportunity for you to step in and do more! Organize your own review by ideas, not authors.

Use the norm of reciprocity to get constructive feedback on your work

In popular fiction, authors are often portrayed as isolated and tortured souls, locked away in a garret apartment or in a cabin in the forest, producing their great works without benefit of human companionship. In reality, writing is an extremely social activity, highly dependent upon an individual’s network of family and friends. Peer networks play in a particularly important role in moving writing from solipsistic doodling to prose that others want to read. Let me suggest one way in which social relationships are critical: finding people willing to offer critically constructive feedback on the work.

Boston MFA

MFA Boston

When your draft is completed, how will you know what reception it will receive from the intended readers? When I talk to academic writers about this question, I point out that the most risky action an author can take is to submit to a journal a paper that no one else has yet read. Although it seems incredibly shortsighted, I often talk to people who’ve done exactly that – – they claim that they really couldn’t find anybody they thought would be a good reviewer. Thus, to get feedback on their work, they plunged ahead and sent it out for review.

Why is this risky? For most academic journals, the best outcome of initial review is an invitation to revise and resubmit the paper. Thus, the initial submission is not an attempt to get the paper published as is, but rather to convince the reviewers, and hence the editor, that the paper has enough merit to warrant the journal spending an additional round of reviewing on it. If you submit a paper that has not been evaluated by anyone yet, it is quite likely that it contains so many serious problems as to preclude the likelihood that reviewers and editors will see it as worthy of a revision. So, at the very least, it makes sense to seek feedback from others that will enable you to fix major problems with the paper before submitting it, thus increasing the odds that you will get a chance from the journal to revise the paper.

But who should you turn to for such feedback? I recommend thinking first of strong ties and then expanding beyond them in selecting people whom you will ask for feedback. First, you can turn to your local circle of colleagues and mentors. You might join a writing group with others who seek feedback on their work. With others writing about similar topics, you could organize a workshop at which you present your papers. Second, you can locate potential reviewers by attending conference sessions at which people in your field are presenting their own work. Third, if there are several authors whom you relied heavily upon in your literature review, they are likely candidates for providing feedback.

When I make such suggestions, especially to graduate students and junior faculty, they almost immediately object. Why would these people be interested in helping you out? Providing feedback is a lot of work and it seems unlikely that people you hardly know would voluntarily give up their precious time to spend it on your draft. Even close colleagues and mentors are mentioned as people evidently disinterested in providing timely feedback. (That could be a topic for another blog post!)

Anthropologists and sociologists have given us the answer to why we might expect these people to help: the norm of reciprocity. How does it work? In just about every culture where the phenomenon has been studied, we observe that when somebody does a favor for someone else, the person receiving the favor incurs an obligation to return it. You can use this norm to your advantage, but you must be strategic about it.

Locally, ask a fellow graduate student or junior faculty member if they are working on any projects on which they would like feedback. Do they have any working drafts they can share with you? At a conference session, stick around after the presentations and speak with the scholars from whom you’d like feedback. Again, don’t tell them that you are seeking feedback on your own work, but rather ask them if the paper they presented has been published, and if not, if they would like feedback on it? For scholars you know only through their journal publications, write and tell them that you find their work very interesting and that you are interested in keeping up with cutting edge findings in your field. Ask them if they can send you their working papers and if they’d be interested in receiving feedback.

If the targets of your solicitation respond positively, take the next step. Ask them to send you a digital copy of their work and ask what specific issues they are concerned about; for example, adequate recognition of prior work, arguments supporting proffered hypotheses, and clarity in interpretations of findings. Find out if they are working to any deadlines and in particular, if the paper has already been submitted for review. It’s important to ask about the status of a paper, as there is little point in sending people comments on a paper that is currently in the review process. Whatever you have to say will be overridden by the editor’s requests of the author.

Now we come to a critical component of my recommendation: in your comments, you need to show the person what kind of feedback you would like for your own work. In doing so, you prepare the groundwork for a working relationship with a constructive critic who can give you the help you need.

How do you teach someone else what kind of feedback you would like? Remembering the norm of reciprocity, you need to show them what a competent and constructive review looks like by doing one yourself. Provide higher order rather than lower order feedback. Critique their ideas and concepts, not their spelling and grammar. For example, point out problems with the flow of the argument or with lack of a connection between the literature cited and the inferences drawn.

Technology is our friend in this case. Microsoft Word makes available two excellent writing tools — Insert Comments and Track Changes — one of which you can use in providing feedback and one that you should avoid.

Do use insert comments by marking blocks of text and then writing explanations to the author for why you have marked them, as I noted above. Do not use track changes by inserting your own words into the author’s text. “Track changes” is for co-authors, not commentators. It is not your job to point out spelling mistakes or errors in grammar, unless someone specifically asks you to do so, and even then, you should resist. In short, leave the copy editing to the author or somebody who is paid to do such work. Your job, as a reviewer of their work, is to provide feedback on the substance of their argument. So, aim high.

The norm of reciprocity is so powerful that it will probably not be necessary for you to enter into an agreement, a priori, with the person whose work you are citing. Instead, by following the above steps, you will have prepared the other person for a subsequent request from you, asking them if they’d be so kind as to provide similar feedback for a draft paper of yours. Of course, there is always a risk that you will be turned down, which is why I recommend only commenting on the work of others whose work you genuinely find interesting and is in fields which you know enough to provide useful feedback.

Start small, with your local circle, and then work your way out to others you don’t know personally. You will be astonished at how grateful even well-known authors are to receive constructive feedback on their work. I have met a lot of good friends this way.

In my own work, I am delighted if I can find five or six people to provide the kind of feedback I’ve mentioned above – – feedback on the substance of my arguments. More than that and I’m ecstatic! This past month, I sent a paper to three friends overseas with whom I previously talked about the topic, and I sent it to three other scholars whose work I admired but whom I never met face-to-face. In their cases, I made clear to them why I was seeking their help and advice on whether I had used their work properly. I sent it to several people with a request that they only look at one particular facet of the paper, and ignore the rest, unless they had the time to do more. As a consequence of these solicitations, I believe the paper improved enormously from the early drafts to the latest drafts, and now I am ready to send it on to the formal reviewing process.

Journal reviewers will be anonymous and brutally honest! Better to learn all you can before the paper reaches their desks

Can you live up to the titles you choose for your papers?

Which of these two papers, on the same theme, would you read first: “Patterns of Vandalism during Civil Disorders as an Indicator of Target Selection” or “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots”? The former is wordy and boring, not reflecting the passion and chaos that typically characterize riots, whereas the latter is cheeky and informative, conveying a sense of an author who’s keen to connect with readers. Sadly, the boring title was chosen by my co-author and I in 1972 for our otherwise well-executed study of civil disorders in US cities in the late 1960s, thus consigning it to the dustbin of academic history. It reported on the only large-scale longitudinal study of small businesses that were at risk of being targeted and convincingly showed that there was an implicit logic to the choice of targets by people involved. Despite being published in the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, it has been cited only 64 times in the past 43 years. By contrast, the “Mad Mobs” book, published only a few years ago (2011), has already been cited 52 times.

Venice vaporetto

On a vaporetto in Venice

I believe some, but not all, of the difference in the perceived usefulness of these two papers reflects their authors’ choices of titles.

So, what makes for a “good” title? Let me offer four suggestions, based on my experience with writing dozens of titles, good and bad.

First, I strongly suggest choosing a title that you must live up to – one with bold and even outrageous claims to importance. It should make promises about the payoff that readers will expect you to keep. Of course, the risk is that they will be deeply disappointed if their expectations are not fulfilled. Do not disappoint them! Set the bar high and motivate yourself to get over it.

Second, simple titles with an emotional resonance that surprise readers and foreshadow the paper’s “hook” are my goal. Finding them is arguably as important as crafting a strong narrative for your paper. Indeed, I have discovered that choosing a memorable title often completes the final piece of the puzzle that shows me the way forward for the narrative.

How simple? Entrepreneurship through Social Networks” is a 4-word title – with no colon and thus no follow-on description of its contents – that succinctly captured the essence of what Catherine Zimmer and I had to say. Published in 1986, it has been cited over 2600 times, garnering several hundred citations each year for the past decade. The paper’s narrative offers a few simple ways in which social contexts and connections can increase the likelihood of people becoming entrepreneurs, none of which were new to the literature in the 1980s. Evidently the title is a magnet for people who already believe that networks are important for entrepreneurship and just want a confirmation, in print, that they can cite to substantiate their beliefs.

Similarly, “Who’s the Boss? Explaining Gender Inequality in Entrepreneurial Teams” asks a simple question but doesn’t necessarily imply what the answer will be. From the words after the colon, it is clear that Tiantian Yang and I will be looking at men and women as bosses, within entrepreneurial teams, requiring people to actually read the paper if they want to know the outcome of our inquiry. We could have written a longer title, such as “Will Men or Women Be in Charge of an Entrepreneurial Startup?” Instead, the simple “Who’s the Boss?” suffices to provoke a reader’s interest, especially coupled with the material after the colon.

Third, I suggest choosing a surprising title. How surprising? Studies of babies show that even at a very young age, they have a strong sense of the causal interconnectedness of their world and thus take for granted a lot of what they see. By contrast, they are startled when their expectations about the world are thwarted and focus intently on where things have gone wrong. Authors can use this trick of confounded expectations to heighten interest in their papers.

In our paper on generational units, collective memory, and imprinting, Steve Lippmann and I took an old proverb and slightly twisted it, generating the title “A Rolling Stone Gathers Momentum.” Note that we only changed the last word in the proverb, but that change completely overturned the original meaning. Instead of gathering no moss, the stone now picks up speed as it moves along. The new meaning fit well with the paper’s theme, which was that a combination of imprinting and collective memory create generational units that play leadership roles in a region’s economic development over time.

Surprise can also be generated by conjuring up bizarre images, as Ellen Auster did in our paper “Even Dwarfs Started Small: Liabilities of Age and Size and Their Strategic Implications.” Strange as it may seem, the first part of the title actually anticipates quite well the papers theme, which is that small organizations are ubiquitous in the world and that few of them grow significantly. Auster and I discussed the ways in which small firms coped with their disadvantaged starting point.

Fourth, you earn a bonus if your simple and surprising title also subtly implies the paper’s hook, especially if you can do it in the words before the colon, rather than after. I published “Paradigm Wars: Donaldson Versus the Critics of Organization Theory2″ in the late 1980s, when Lex Donaldson had taken on not only what he called anti-managerial theory but also the threats to organization theory from social constructionists. My initial title was “Paradigm Warriors,” but I decided that I wanted to put the focus on the theories themselves, rather than the protagonists.

Fools Rush In? The Institutional Context of Industry Creation,” published in 1994 with Marlena Fiol, was deliberately posed as a question because we wanted to capitalize on the skepticism of the academic community at the time toward entrepreneurship. The “fools” in question are the entrepreneurs who create businesses which are the first of their kind and thus are pioneers in creating a new industry, if they succeed. We focused on the strategies that nascent entrepreneurs could use in the face of uncertain and possibly hostile institutional environments. Note that we were not calling such pioneers “fools,” but rather were using the term in the same sympathetic way that Johnny Mercer’s 1940 lyrics characterized the behavior of people who’d fallen in love. Or the people that Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers referred to when they asked “why do fools fall in love?”

Where can you find templates for possible article titles? When searching for titles, I turn to songs, movies, books, aphorisms, and proverbs. Some of my favorite titles have come from popular songs, as often the title can be used directly without changing any words, such as “Fools Rush in?” In other cases, just a few word changes are needed, such as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light which became “Blinded by the Cites” when used as a title for a paper using bibliometrics to assess trends in entrepreneurship research methods. Soelvi Lillejord and I used the title of David Bryne’s concert film “Stop Making Sense!” as a title for our paper on contradictory logics in the American university system.

You should avoid overusing the work of popular musicians and other artists. For example, in a study of papers in the biomedical literature that used song lyrics from Bob Dylan in their titles, researchers found that 135 articles used just one title (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) and 36 others over-used another (“Blowing in the Wind”). I recommend doing a search on the perspective title you are thinking of using, to make sure that it hasn’t become banal or a cliché.

Books are often good sources, and my colleagues and I found that Terry Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence became an excellent jumping off point for our paper on sampling procedures in organizations research, which we called “In Pursuit of Evidence.

I am fond of classic movies and so have often turned to them, borrowing “Lost in Translation” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small” directly from the films. “Lost in Translation was a paper about the cultural mismatch in modern societies between a media over-emphasis on becoming an entrepreneur versus an under-emphasis on the difficult steps required to become successful at it.

Choosing a title that is simple, surprising, and foreshadows a paper’s theme takes a little extra work, but it pays off in two ways. First, in this era of scholarly information overload, anything you can do to motivate readers to give your paper a second look is worthwhile. Second, by not settling for a plain-vanilla, boring, and forgettable title, you push yourself as an author to make sure your story is strong enough to justify your provocative title. I believe the title is so important that I often delay writing a draft until I have found a title that not only grabs readers’ attention but also challenges me to work as hard as I can to fulfill the implicit promise it makes.

Using the literature in your writing: interpretive notes, not summaries

At the beginning of my doctoral workshops on academic writing, I start with a simple question: “when you sit down to compose your draft paper, what does the space look like around you? Is it covered with books and journals? Photocopies of papers and articles?” Most students confirm this description, but others say no, it’s just them and their computer. However, when I push them, it turns out that they have multiple files open on their computer, with digital copies of papers and articles ready to be consulted. My response is always the same. I tell them they’ve begun to write too soon. They have skipped the stage where they impose their own interpretations on what they’ve read. They have failed to make the material useful for the narrative structure of their own story.

Venice staircase Palazzo Cini

Staircase of the Palazzo Cini in Venice

My claim is confirmed when I ask them why they still have all these raw materials lying around. Students say “I might forget something,” or “I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right” or “the author said it better than I could.” Their responses indicate that they have read the material but not really made it their own. They understood it sufficiently to know that it was relevant but they hadn’t yet put those ideas into their own words – – they still needed the words of the authors.

I probe further, asking what kinds of notes they have taken. Some have copied the abstract, others have made a list of concepts in the form of bullet points, and still others have compiled long lists of verbatim quotes. In all these cases, they are still working with the authors’ words, not theirs. At best, they will be able to offer a condensed version of what was in the original, but now shorn of its primary context. I suggest to them that if I really wanted to know what Mary Douglas had to say, I would just read her in the original. Why trust a pale reflection?

Moreover, by sticking so close to the original text, they’ve deprived themselves of the chance to write in their own voice. And editors and reviewers want original voices. Is there a better way to work with the literature when reviewing it for papers? Let me offer some suggestions.

First, your goal should be to write interpretive notes of what you read and not just simple summaries. Copying words from the text into your notes requires very little cognitive engagement. The words and phrases are held in short-term memory long enough to be transferred from one medium to another, with very little processing taking place. By contrast, writing to capture the meaning of what you’ve just read and explaining its relevance to your project requires higher order cognitive processing that reorganizes and stabilizes memories.

Second, think of the notes you are writing as a message to your future self, who will be reading them in a few weeks or perhaps even months. If your future self sees only bullet points or the reproduced words of a famous author, you may have to go back to the original to figure out why you felt the text was valuable enough to include in your notes. Hence, you’ll find again yourself sitting in your chair, surrounded by piles of raw material. So, make it easier for your future self – – explain in your notes why you feel this material is worthy/unworthy of discussion.

Moreover, because these notes are for your eyes only – – as opposed to the text that you put into the first draft of a paper – – you are free to be as casual, emotional, and judgmental as you wish. If you feel that an author has offered an outrageously ridiculous argument to explain something you’re studying, put that into your notes. Don’t pull your punches, writing something ambiguous that will require your future self to go back to consult the original text. Similarly, heap praise on arguments that you find compelling.

Third, as you begin to think about the notes you are taking as interpretive, rather than mere summaries, push yourself to make connections between this book or article and other things that you’ve read. For the moment, it can be quite simple, perhaps nothing other than simply saying “Merton seems to be having an implicit argument with Lazersfeld in this paper, but I think he missed Lazerfeld’s point.” Later, as you start to sort through your interpretive notes, you can check out this tentative interpretation by looking at your notes on the other authors.

Forcing yourself to think about making connections to other knowledge you’ve acquired in the course of your literature search involves retrieving information from long-term memory, thereby reinforcing it. Using it in a new context and applying it in an evaluative way helps you update your understanding of all the material you’ve read.

Fourth, rephrasing an author’s thoughts in your own words is a great way to deeply learn the material. Elaborating upon what they’ve written and generating your own text gives you the opportunity to express your own voice, rather than merely mimicking that of the authors you’ve read. Indeed, by steadfastly sticking to the principle of writing interpretive summaries rather than faithfully reproducing the original text, you’ll have prepared material that will readily fit into your paper’s narrative. This material is already in your own words, written in your style, and you own it.

Of course, if you do find that some of an author’s text is so perfect that it simply must be preserved, then by all means copy it into your interpretive note, but be sure to adequately document where it comes from. I suspect that as you become comfortable with trusting your own voice, you’ll have fewer occasions on which you feel you need to preserve original text.

When you have accumulated a sufficient stack of interpretive notes, it is time to sift through them, looking for connections, new directions, and arguments that need to be further researched. I like to write my notes on paper, rather than in digital form, as I find I can more easily sort through them, mark them in multiple colors to indicate different themes, and add pictures/diagrams. I use them to suggest an overall narrative structure for my outline, but the notes themselves are not the outline. I number the notes and when I have the first draft of my outline, I work my way through it, indicating by number where I might fit the ideas from a particular note. At this stage, some notes drop by the wayside. By contrast, gaps in my outline indicate where more notes are needed, which requires I go back to the literature.

So, if you find yourself sitting down to “write” your paper but are still burdened with piles of undigested raw material from your literature search, you have begun too soon. Instead, take the time to learn the skill of writing interpretive notes, rather than summaries. Use those interpretive notes to flesh out your outline, and discover the joy of finding that in the process of writing the interpretive notes, you have found your own authorial voice.

Journal submissions: Playing up (or down) to the competition

Every fall I look forward to the opening of the college sports season: football, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, and so forth. In particular, I enjoy the discussions in the sports press about the choices athletic directors and coaches have made in setting up their schedule of games. Unlike the professional sports leagues, where scheduling is taken care of by the league office and considerations of equity and robust competition are explicitly taken into account, college schedules are under no such strictures.

Carolina soccer player

photo credit: IMG_9551 via photopin (license)

In scheduling games, college athletic directors face two stark choices. They can make their teams look good by padding their records with early games against lesser opponents, thus ensuring at least a winning record for the early part of the season. Or, they can put their teams through a trial-by-fire by scheduling tough opponents. Why wouldn’t athletic directors choose the easier path, giving teams an early-season break and setting them up with a winning record?

As sports commentators are quick to point out, the danger of taking the easy road early on is that playing against lesser competition lulls teams into a false sense of confidence. Running up the score against weaker teams covers up mistakes and gaps in preparation, such as athletes’ lack of endurance. Players who look like All-Americans against East Overshoe Tech become sloppy, take plays off, and are overwhelmed when they come up against teams in their own league. No matter how much the coaches tell them that the early-season games against weaker opponents are no gauge of their true strength, players may start believing their own press clippings.

The other danger of scheduling easy games early in the season comes back to haunt teams at the end of the season, in those sports where teams are invited to championship competition based on the strength of their schedule. Committees deciding on which teams to include in the playoffs, such as in women’s soccer or men’s basketball, can easily spot the flaws in a winning record based on playing weak competition. Florida State’s overwhelming early season win against the Texas State Bobcats will be heavily discounted!

Athletic directors with their eyes on the future are advised to schedule at least a few tough opponents early in the hope that difficult competition will pay off and prepare the team for its league schedule against stronger opponents. Such planning may also ease a team’s path into the postseason.

I’m reminded of this scheduling dilemma every time graduate students and junior faculty come to me, seeking advice on where to send their papers. As I see it, academics just beginning their careers face the same conundrum: do they aim for the top journals in the field or do they try for the easier route, in journals with weaker review boards and softer selection criteria? Why not try to pad your resume by aiming for the Journal of Lost Causes, which you know accepts almost half the papers it receives?

My answer to the authors seeking advice is the same that savvy athletic directors offer to desperate coaches: if you began by playing down to the weakest level of competition you can find, you set in motion a process that becomes hard to reverse, after a few iterations. Getting into a top journal is hard work, requiring sophisticated literature reviews, excellent research designs, and state-of-the-art analysis, regardless of the kind of data collected. If the paper is a theoretical/conceptual contribution, rigorous analytical thinking will be required, as well as lots of revisions before the paper is submitted.

I tell students that even if a paper is ultimately rejected at a top journal, the experience gained in the process is priceless. Most top academic journals use what they call a “developmental” review process, a much kinder and gentler process than authors faced three or four decades ago. (I hasten to add that I discourage “frivolous” submissions which just clog up the review process – – a senior colleague can quickly tell a junior scholar whether a paper is worth submitting to a top journal.) As a colleague reminded me, you must be prepared to invest anywhere from 2 to 6 months, on average, with every submission. That’s another reason to “start early.

Recruitment and promotion committees are seldom fooled by resumes padded with acceptances at weaker journals. So, I would turn to the weaker journals only after I had tried the top journals.

Although the odds of acceptance are low, gaining experience with the practices necessary to compete at the highest levels pays off in the long run.

Imagination, interrupted: creative writing requires a lot of control

How often has this happened to you? You sit down to work on a piece of writing for which the deadline is fast approaching. You feel energized and optimistic. Shortly after you begin, the notification alert on your smart phone goes off. Or, a colleague pokes her head in your open door and asks if you have a moment. Or, you look back at the previous sentence you’ve written and decide that it could be worded better. And so on. Taken in isolation, such small interruptions seem harmless. However, each of them disturbs your thought process. After you’ve dealt with the interruption, your brain can take 3 to 5 minutes, or more, to get back on track. There is a better way: follow the suggestions below and take control of your environment and of the writing process. You will free your mind to focus deeply on putting into words the ideas buzzing around in your imagination since your last writing episode.

Happy Hippo

Happy Hippo at Rose Bowl Parade 2014

Control the Writing Environment

Blocking out interruptions begins with asserting control over the context within which you’re writing. Three long-term considerations are particularly important. First, make sure you get enough sleep and begin the writing process well rested. Studies show that a high proportion of the population is not getting enough restful sleep, resulting in inefficient and error-prone work behaviors.

Second, establish a regular time and place for your writing activities. Make sure that you set aside this time for writing only, perhaps by blocking it off as a “busy” period on your calendar and smart phone. Pick a time when it is unlikely that you will have any scheduled meetings and be fiercely protective of that slot. Some writers tell me that they like to work in coffee shops and that the constant buzz of activities doesn’t bother them. I know that some think the “white noise” of such spaces is soothing, but the problem is that somebody you know will see you and want to engage you in conversation. Turning down an invitation to talk with them can be awkward, and the very act of telling them that “I am working” constitutes one of the interruptions that you’re trying to avoid. (I suppose you could always wear some kind of disguise, if you can’t break yourself of the habit of working in a coffee shop!)

Third, turn off all notifications on your PC, laptop, and smart phone. Don’t let your smart machines ping you when somebody posts on Facebook or sends you an email. Although you may have the willpower to resist the fatal attraction of social media’s siren song, marshaling such willpower constitutes another interruption to the train of thought that you may have been working on. Prevent such struggles by simply turning off all alerts.

Three short-term considerations are also important. First, whether you are working in the office or at home, keep the door to the room closed. Take a “do not disturb” card from your last hotel stay and put it on the door. Train people to recognize that when your door is closed, you are working. Drive that point home that by being very approachable only when the door is open. Call to people when they are walking by to indicate that you have switched to another mode. Eventually, you’ll train most of your colleagues and friends to recognize the difference.

Second, rather than just turning off alerts and notifications from your phone, be courageous and turn the phone off. The odds of your receiving a call so important that is worth interrupting your train of thought are vanishingly small for most of us. Reward yourself for an hour or so of productive work by turning on your phone for three minutes and checking for messages. Then, turn it off again!

Third, take planned breaks to designated places. Some authorities recommend working in two-hour sessions, whereas others recommend getting up and walking around at least once every hour. Whatever rhythm you choose, stick to it. Binge writing without taking breaks is ultimately counterproductive, as working until you actually feel tired enough to need a break means that you’ve probably been working inefficiently for quite some time. Set a timer and obey it. (I like old-school hourglass timers, but electronic ones will do.)

Control the Writing Process

If you’ve taken control of the writing environment, you’ve gone about half way toward your goal of blocking interruptions. I use three strategies to control the writing process itself. First, differentiate clearly between “free writing” and “production writing.” Use free writing when you are trying to generate ideas, search for connections between ideas, and explore thoughts wherever your imagination may take you. The major discipline required in free writing is the will to keep writing, even when you’re not sure about the quality of what you’re capturing. Interruptions are deadly to this process because you may never get back to that creative thought you were about to set down on paper when the phone rang. Use production writing, my contrast, when you’ve done enough free writing and research to have discovered the narrative that’s going to unify your paper.

Second, when you’re in production mode, but not free writing mode, work from an outline. My outlines tend to be very structured, sometimes with four or five hierarchical levels, and with headings that signal to me the substance of what is needed in the coming section. The joy of an outline is that even when interruptions occur, you really can’t lose your place. Although I don’t achieve it in every project, my goal is to outline the paper right down to the level of having a few key topic sentences in every subsection. If you have your story or central narrative in mind when you begin the outline, you will find that a few topic sentences in each section serve as reminders of what you’re trying to achieve.

Third, don’t copyedit while you write. Every book or article about production writing makes the same point: draft, then copyedit, but don’t try to do both at the same time. Copy editing is a pernicious form of interruption, as you may feel that you are still “working” because words are appearing on your screen. However, interrupting your train of thought to copyedit risks disrupting the coherence of your narrative and is one more intrusive act from which your brain will need to recover to get back on track. I treat copy editing time as a reward to myself, and generally schedule it as a less stressful part of the writing process whenever I finish a major section.

Summary

Interruptions aren’t accidents! They can only happen if you allow them by not controlling your writing environment and writing process. By preventing interruptions from disrupting your writing, you increase the chances that the words in your document will reflect the flight of your freed imagination, rather than the struggle to complete a coherent thought.

Write As If You Don’t Have the Data

At a conference, when you ask somebody to tell you about their current project, what do they typically say? I often get a puzzling response: instead of beginning by telling me about an idea, the person starts by describing their data. They tell me they are using survey data they have collected, or data from an archive, or data they’ve scraped from the web. As they go on at length about the nature of the data, I have to interrupt them and ask for what purpose the data will be used. Then, I’m likely to get a description of an analytic method or computer software. It’s almost as if they have devoted most of their working hours to thinking about what they can do with the data they have collected – – or will collect – – and very little time to the question of where their project fits into some larger scheme.

Control loss

Loss of control can be dangerous but exciting!

I’ve realized that this response partially explains why many graduate students have such a difficult time in writing a thesis proposal. Two kinds of problems result from a “data first” strategy.

First and most obviously, beginning with data considerations may lead to the unintended outcome of writing a theoretical framework and conceptual model, complete with hypotheses, that are totally framed around what the data permits. In the worst-case scenario, this can resemble the kinds of narratives corporate historians write when they begin with what they know about their firms in the present and then build a story to suit. Researchers may anticipate journal reviewers’ biases toward “significant” results and may simply wait to begin writing their story until they’ve conducted preliminary analyses.

In the writing workshops that I offer at conferences, I often have students tell me that they wait to write the introduction to their paper or thesis until after they’ve done the “analysis and results” section. This is certainly a safe strategy to follow if one wants to economize on doing multiple drafts of a paper, but it goes against the spirit of disciplined inquiry that we try to engender in our theory and methods classes.

Second and far more damaging from my point of view, following a data first strategy severely constrains creativity and imagination. Writing a theoretical introduction and conceptual model that is implicitly tailored to a specific research design or data set preemptively grounds any flights of fancy that might have tempted an unconstrained author. By contrast, beginning with a completely open mind in the free writing phase of preparing a proposal or paper allows an author to pursue promising ideas, regardless of whether they are “testable” with what is currently known about available data.

When I say “write as if you don’t have the data,” I’m referring to the literature review and planning phase of a project, preferably before it has been locked into a specific research design. Writing about ideas without worrying about whether they can be operationalized – – whether in field work, surveys, or simulations – – frees authors of the burden they will eventually face in writing their “methods” section. Eventually, a researcher will have to explain what compromises have been made, given the gap between the ideas they set out to explore and the reality of data limitations, but that bridge will be crossed later. Rushing over that bridge during the idea generation stage almost guarantees that the journey will be a lifeless one.

Even if someone is locked into a mentor’s or principal investigator’s research design and data set, I would recommend they still begin their literature review and conceptual modeling as if they had the luxury of a blank slate. In their initial musings and doodles, as they write interpretive summaries of what they read, they might picture a stone wall that temporarily buffers them from the data obligations that come with their positions as data supplicants. Writing without data constraints will, I believe, free their imaginations to range widely over the realm of possibilities, before they are brought to earth by practical necessities.

So, the next time someone asks you about what you are working on, don’t begin by talking about the data. Instead, tell them about the ideas that emerged as you wrote about the theories and models that you would like to explore, rather than about the compromises you will eventually be forced to make. The conversation will be a lot more interesting for both of you!

Why start early on your projects?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my car at a stoplight, waiting for the light to change, when a thought suddenly popped into my head. In a flash, I recognized the relevance of a paper I’d read several decades ago for a current project on which I was working. I had been thinking about ways to justify the narrative I was trying to set up, and I’d been frustrated by my inability to find recent literature that could be cited to justify its importance.

Purple

Purple installation @ Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, August, 2015

Why did that idea suddenly occur to me? The paper wasn’t due for several months and I felt no obvious pressure to make rapid progress on it. Nevertheless, some weeks ago I had decided to begin working on the paper. Following my normal routine, I’d begun jotting down interpretive notes on the papers and articles that I read, sticking them in a purple manila folder which I carried in my briefcase. As the folder grew thicker, I found myself thinking about the project occasionally, when I took breaks from other projects or was just relaxing.

I believe I know where the idea came from. Material I’ve been reading over the past several years on how the brain works tells us that most of our thinking takes place below the level of conscious awareness. We are thinking all the time, intentionally or otherwise, including when we are sleeping. In fact, I would say, especially while we are sleeping. It is difficult to shut this activity off, as is shown by yoga exercises during which we are advised to “clear our mind of all conscious thought.” Initially, most of us can’t do it. Apparently random thoughts buzz about like bees in our brain, and no amount of mental swatting can drive them away.

Luckily for us, what could be a very distracting feature of our seemingly uncontrollable brain can be put to good use by authors. I’m referring to the practice of putting all this mental firepower to work on a problem facing us by beginning to think about our projects well before they are due. In a sense, starting to think about how a project will be framed, how it will be solved, how it will be explained, and so forth, gives the brain its marching orders. By intentionally telling our brain that this is a problem that needs to be worked on, we take advantage of a resource that otherwise would be wasted: the brain’s search for meaning and patterns in the information it’s storing.

The brain never shuts completely down, even while we are sleeping. Some sleep research suggests that while we are slumbering, our brain is trying to sort out what’s happened to us recently, tidying up a bit and perhaps trying out tentative solutions. I like the idea of being able to claim to my friends that I can work even while I’m sleeping!

By starting on a project early, I increase the chances that subsequent experiences, including not only reading but also conversations, will inform my thinking. Although it’s good to take notes, I trust my brain to recognize potentially relevant material and throw it into the mix.

In addition to the cognitive benefits of engaging my brain early, two other benefits follow from getting an early start. First, the earlier I start, the more likely it is that I’ll be able to seek help from friends and colleagues, such as with reading a first draft. Discussions with them may direct me to a literature that I wasn’t aware of and scholars elsewhere whose work is germane. Second, the earlier I start, the more chances I have to revise my work. With a 3 to 6 month head start, for example, I have a chance to do several revisions on the first draft so that when I submit the final version, it will be a much more polished version of the ideas that sparked the initial project.

My message is simple: when you take on a writing assignment, such as a conference paper, a book proposal, or potential Journal article, don’t procrastinate. Deliberately set aside time early on to think about the project and perhaps free-write about it, and give your brain a chance to do its work.

 

Pitching Papers as if You Worked in Nashville

For the past decade or so, I have made presentations to groups of graduate students and junior faculty on how to write more effectively. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas that I can inject into my presentation. Thus, I was delighted to come across an essay by C. Neil Stewart Jr, on “Songwriting and Science,” in the July 24, 2015 issue of Science magazine. Frustrated by his low hit rate from grant submissions, Stewart turned to songwriting as a way of soothing his frustrations. He discovered that getting his songs accepted by professionals in Nashville was even more difficult than winning grants from the NIH. Whereas reviewers of his scientific proposals almost always gave him feedback on what he could do to improve, that almost never happened with his songwriting. In his Science essay, therefore, he took it upon himself to offer young scientists some lessons he had learned from his experiences. His recommendations echoed many that I have made and so in this post I offer his five suggestions, interpreted through my own experiences.

Why is this relevant?

Relevance

First, “you have to sell your story in three minutes.” Social psychologists tell us that people make up their minds about others after the first few minutes of meeting them, and studies of venture capitalists have shown that the first minute or two of an oral pitch often determines whether a nascent entrepreneur sinks or swims. Every scientific field is awash in many more publications than can be taken in by individuals who face intensive competing demands on for their attention. Authors need to attract the attention of readers immediately and provide a compelling argument for why we should turn to their second page. For me, this means creating a first paragraph that highlights a pressing problem that arises from previous research and for which I can offer a promising solution. The first paragraph is so important that I recommend not going any further in the paper until you are satisfied that your entire story is anticipated by that paragraph.

Second, “you need a memorable hook.” In the music business, the “hook” is that part of the tune that, once heard, you can’t get out of your head. When I was growing up, in the late 1950s, hooks were easy to remember because tunes with rock ‘n roll chord structures were simple enough to be sung by others, even amateurs. In scientific papers, the hook is the simplified message that you want readers to take away from the paper, and thus it has to be framed and memorable ways. One way to do that is to clearly indicate what scientific theory or principle is at risk, as a result of your work, or to point out a contradiction or tension between two or more lines of work that previously have not been brought together. Drawing attention to a contradiction for which you will offer a resolution is a good way of setting up a hook.

Third, “keep it fresh.” I read lots of papers that have straightforward linear narratives, with the underlying skeletal outline often apparent in the simple declarative sentences used by the author. In contrast, Stewart suggests surprising readers with unexpected twists and turns, challenging their expectations by showing them novel results. When I make oral presentations, I like to begin by giving quizzes to which everyone thinks they know the answer and then showing them that their preconceptions were wrong and not evidence-based. Better still, if the paper’s introduction contains a puzzle or problem for which the existing literature has no obvious solution, readers will be on the edge of their chair, waiting for you to provide one. One classical way of introducing tension is to systematically go through all the obvious solutions and show how each is inadequate, leading up to the favorite that you propose.

Fourth, “don’t go solo.” Stewart notes that most songs are written by teams, rather than solo. For some time, most papers in the natural sciences have been co-authored, and now that’s increasingly true in the social sciences. Moreover, co-authored papers get disproportionate numbers of citations, compared to solo authored papers. Very few individuals have the full range of expertise and competencies required to conduct high-quality research, analyze the data, and write it up for publication. Teamwork is essential, especially for junior authors who are working on creating a portfolio of papers, rather than the cottage industry batch mode of production.

Fifth, “inspiration isn’t everything.” Stewart notes that hit songs are usually the product of extensive rewriting, rather than overnight wonders. The same is true of academic papers – – my co-authors and I typically go through dozens of drafts of a paper before we feel ready to show it to the world, and then it goes through many more revisions as we receive feedback from friendly critics.

Following these five suggestions won’t guarantee either hit song or a published article, but they certainly increase the odds.

For more great advice on writing an introduction to your paper that will entice readers, see Pat Thomson’s blogpost at the LSE Social Impact blog.