Writing, we perceive as natural as breathing. Despite it pretends to be innate to us, the receptivity produced in readers is fragile. Their perception moves drastically when there is a subtle change. The change drifts deeply, unconsciously, to a point which we are unable to spear what exactly is uncomfortable thus term it as “does not feel right”.
For this reason, I eager to learn about writing. Even though I consider myself an apprentice of writing, it is one of the subjects that I am most passionate about.
Bear in mind, that there is never an ever-correct way to write. What you can see here are thoughts that can help your way of writing.
Professor Larry McEnerney’s open lecture video on YouTube.
Paid readers and paid writers
Forget about writing by writers, think about writing for readers.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, writing in the academic world is very different from the exam essays that you write back in college or in school. For now and on, you want to realise that scientific writing explores technical knowledge on a specific topic. You are no longer writing regular pieces; you are about to contribute with high-quality writings. Most of the times, if not all, this piece is targeted at an audience looking anxiously for an intellectual conversation. This means that the piece you write is no longer an answer to a class-book question from your teacher; it is a scientific article which shapes the knowledge of your community.
You might think, “oh, and is there any difference though?”. Well, the answer is a huge difference. Let me explain to you quickly why. Back in school, you think, you write, and you express your understanding of the world. Then your teacher reads your writing and corrects your mistakes to help you to learn. Put it straight, they are paid to read your texts. They don’t learn from your texts. They are here to assess your learnings.
But in an academic journal, you don’t write for yourself; you are writing to shape other people’s minds. They pay you to learn from your writing. And of course, you still write to help yourself to think, to learn from what you wrote. Nonetheless, you cannot assimilate the writing which helped you with the writing which helps others learn.
The reader is all.
Yes, the reader is all. No one cares about how big is your idea, how innovative is your insight, and how great is your research if there is nothing for them. The readers only care about what is there for them, and how you can help them to shape their thinking. Your writing needs to be valuable.
Of course, we are all taught to write clear, organized, and perhaps most importantly persuasive writings. However, we should always bear in mind: that before all, it needs to be valuable. If it is clear and valueless, it is useless; it is organized and valueless, it is useless; it is persuasive and valueless, it is useless. The reader is all. Thus, if the reader is the most important factor, then always think in terms of the readers. You need to give readers valuable knowledge, and we will go deeper into this soon. So, think about when a reader reads your writing. Will they have the mental image in mind same as you when you wrote this paragraph? Is this the most comfortable way in which readers can understand it? Make it easy for the user.
Now, even though the readers have imperative roles in our writing, it is hard to deny that we cannot make all readers happy. The same piece of writing can be tremendously insightful to some people while is a waste of time for others. Therefore, we should always have a concrete reader profile in mind when writing. Please don’t write for a general user, write for a specific type of reader.
It is CRUCIAL to let readers think your writing is important for them. Let me emphasize this again: if your reader doesn’t think your writing is important, it is a FAIL. Don’t even try to discuss it, don’t explain it. With “this is not valuable for me” in mind, they won’t pay a lot of attention in the first place. This may sound cruel, but to put you in context, I am referring to the scientific journal’s peer reviews of your research article. Every day, there are so many, so many papers, all written with countless effort, rejected from publishing. In these, there may be one person’s lifelong dream, or another person’s all-in bet. And I guess this is the reason why Professor Larry wants to share this with us.
Value and knowledge
No one cares if something is new, they only care valuable new knowledge.
Think carefully about what is meant by the above statement. Why valuable new knowledge? Valuable is something we have already discussed a bit before, what about knowledge? Have you ever thought about what is knowledge?
You might think that new facts are knowledge, that is quite interesting (smile). I can tell you what is the height of the chair I am sitting on right now. It is a fact, and no one else in the world would know it, so it is new. Then is it new knowledge? Nah, it is not. How do we tell if something new is knowledge in your community? Sadly, only the people in the “conversation” get to say whether something is knowledge or not. Let me explain.
Our intuitive idea of knowledge is an additive model. In this model, each idea is a new-knowledge brick that builds up the whole skyscraper. This model is linear and takes for granted that each knowledge brick can persist forever. In reality, the knowledge model is quite different. It is rather a conversation between intellectuals, the group of highest authority in each community. And this conversation travels on a path; it changes over time. Along the path, some information enters as new knowledge, whereas other knowledge are left on the way and are no longer knowledge. This happens in most of the fields, no one can guarantee that what is knowledge today is not anecdote tomorrow.
Once we understand what knowledge is really about, we may start having a new perspective on how to convey our “knowledge” to your community. So, don’t add to add knowledge; instead, you should try to converse with these authoritarian figures in your community. The following can sound bad morally, professor Larry, joking, even addressed himself as fascist because of this. An efficient way to incorporate into this conversation is by finding these figures, calling their attention, let them recognise what you bring is knowledge. Give them what they want. So the next section is all about how to make them believe your paper is valuable.
Talk their code, threaten their soul.
“Take a journal now”.
(Opens Science journal on a browser)
“Go to one of the articles”.
(Navigates to research articles and clicks on the first one)
“Circle the words that are valuable to the readers”.
(I copied and pasted the introduction of an article)
The widespread adoption of genome-wide association studies (GWASs) has revolutionized the detection of genetic loci associated with complex traits. However, identification of the causal variants and mechanisms underlying genotype–phenotype associations poses an enormous challenge because most common susceptibility loci reside in noncoding genomic regions and are composed of many correlated polymorphisms owing to linkage disequilibrium (LD). Massively parallel reporter assays (MPRAs) permit the high-throughput functional characterization of noncoding genetic variation, yet they have not been systematically applied to neurodegenerative disease. In this study, we used MPRA coupled with CRISPR-based validation to identify likely causal genetic variants underlying two neurodegenerative conditions that are neuropathologically linked by intracellular tau protein aggregation—Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).
Abstract introduction, Cooper, Yonatan A., et al. “Functional regulatory variants implicate distinct transcriptional networks in dementia.” Science 377.6608 (2022): eabi8654.
Which words make us think that this work is valuable? I circled the following: “however”, “an enormous challenge”, “have not been systematically applied”. Even though some technical words impress me at the first glance, I believe that there is value in this article because of the words that I circled. So do you?
Let’s go for another one, the second article.
An estimated 6 million people worldwide are affected by Parkinson’s disease (PD), for which there are no disease-modifying therapies. Since 2005, genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have aimed to find common variant risk loci for PD. These PD GWASs have now uncovered 90 genome-wide significant risk signals. However, target genes and mechanisms remain largely unknown, hampering the field’s ability to develop downstream therapeutic approaches from these genomic studies.
Abstract introduction, Diaz-Ortiz, Maria E., et al. “GPNMB confers risk for Parkinson’s disease through interaction with α-synuclein.” Science 377.6608 (2022): eabk0637.
Which words make us think that this work is valuable? I circled the following: “no disease-modifying therapies”, “However”, “remain largely unknown”, “hampering”.
This is an activity that professor Larry proposed in his lecture. This activity aims to find all the words that interest readers. With such an activity, we achieved two goals.
- We learn the wording these experts use to describe their research; we can use them if needed in our writings.
- This is about something at higher levels, more abstract than specific words. We are talking about finding patterns.
It goes without saying that where there is a community, there is a code. People in that community talk under a code, for example, jargon is part of the “code”. If you want to be recognised inside the community, you got to learn its code. Here is the activity that you can practise: take 15 minutes each week, circle in a scientific article words that are valuable for the readers. Copy these words into a list.
An advantage of this is, that whenever you are in the actual writing where there are fewer than 5 valuable words in one paragraph, you know where to look for the words. This is only one of the patterns you can look at. The idea here is to find as many patterns as you can because all these articles are “correct” examples that bring value to the readers. Once you know the pattern, you will know how to talk under their code. Only when you are talking in the same code, you are on the same page with other experts.
Another example of code is how you should address your writing to these authority figures when finding incorrectness associated with their work. The wrong way of doing this is: “Hi, I read your works. They are important and impressive. And I have something to add”. Please don’t do that, despite this is what you are really trying to do. Instead try: “Hi, I read your works. They are important and impressive, but there is only a small thing here…” See the difference? The first sentence gives the feeling that you only want to enter into the conversation or try to share part of the merit that they have obtained. In contrast, the second one is smoother, you don’t want to point out that you are DESPERATE to have a word; you want to recognise their work, and suggest that a small fix here make their work even more solid. This brings out the last point of this topic.
You may have noticed, that almost all valuable words we circled, and sentences we have made for example have something abstract in common. Yes, they are common in giving a sense of instability. These words/sentences normally suggest problems or challenges yet to be solved. In this way, it creates a feeling of importance in the readers. That is the key. Academics want to see a problem and a solution to this problem. For this reason, you need to attract attention, state challenges, and reveal contradictions.
What’s more, you can go even a step further, cause cost and benefit effects in them. When regarding the problem that you found, emphasize how much harm can it be to the current system, and stress the stability of the theory if this problem is fixed. It is like playing with minds, and perfectly understandable that some people refuse to elaborate in this way. What I can say here is, that these are only suggestions you can look at. Feel free to consider them if you find them useful, see them as anecdotes if you don’t feel right.
In this user-centralized philosophy, we have seen the reasons and practices that can help us in academic writing. Bear always the readers in mind and give the valuable knowledge that they want. Lastly, huge thanks again for professor Larry’s lecture on this.