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.
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.