8 Rules for Writing Killer Articles
scientific evidence on how to be an exceptional writer
Posted May 15, 2015
I tell myself that at this point in my career, writing an article will be easy. But it's not. Your mind plays tricks on you.
Everything that needs to be said, has already been said. Don't add to the online clutter.
The average article is cited less than 10 times. The rejections, and countless revisions, are tiresome. How could it be worth the time and effort?
Then the fraud police arrive. You don't know enough about this topic. Maybe in a few years you should dive in. Let someone smarter than you, someone with more years of experience, tackle this topic.
And then you remember what this is all for...the collection of wisdom. Without sharing it, the entire venture feels empty. The colleagues who bounced around ideas and helped sculpt the questions to test, the undergraduate and graduate research assistants who created the protocol and ran participants, the co-authors who helped lead the analyses, digest the results, and craft the storyline. Each of these characters helped create the gift. And the gift must be given away. The evolution of knowledge requires the gift to move from one mind to another.
Because the giving is of utmost importance, I was glad to uncover the 8 rules for writing a scientific article. 8 rules that have been tested. Follow them and there is evidence that you can make a bigger impact - in terms of influencing thought leaders and being cited. Because I am a psychologist, I am limiting the focus to psychology.
Rule 1: Write with Sufficient Length to Tell the Full Story
You can see in the Figure above, that in psychology, a shorter abstract with fewer sentences led to fewer citations. Reconsider the adage that briefer is better. What is more important? Adding enough content and context for a reader to understand why they should care.
Rule 2: Nuance Rocks
In psychology, easy, simple words led to fewer citations. Journalists might want simple stories. But when the world is complicated, there is nothing wrong with describing this complexity. Sometimes positive emotions are healthy, in some situations they lead to suboptimal outcomes; sometimes negative emotions are unhealthy, in some situations they lead to optimal outcomes. Thus, it is erroneous to claim that positive emotions are the panacea for better physical health, social relationships, productivity, and creativity. Same goes for grit. Sames goes for kindness. Same goes for curiosity. Same goes for nearly every attribute imaginable. Learn to love complexity because it is needed to tell the full story.
Rule 3: Use the Present Tense
My writing skills declined in graduate school. My professors forced me to write in the third, fourth, or fifth person, because supposedly this is what hardcore scientists do. The assumption is that an objective voice makes your scientific findings seem objective (on the surface, your intelligence appears vast and impenetrable). To be in good standing, I had to ditch the lessons learned from creative writing classes in college. Let's end this practice. Human first, scientist second. Write in the present tense. If you are writing about what you did, insert yourself into the storyline. Some journal reviewers will disagree. Remember that nobody becomes a reviewer because of their mastery of writing. Reviewers are chosen because of their content knowledge. Write well. Scientific research should have a narrative arc, like any good story.
Rule 4: Use Adjectives and Adverbs as Needed
Less is more. This is one of the most important rules in communication, whether arguing with a spouse, giving a workshop to a Fortune 100 company, or writing a book. In psychology, sometimes you need the appropriate language to retain the story narrative. We are talking about the science of human behavior and not all points are equal. Adjectives and adverbs can help guide the reader. But still, "omit needless words".
Rule 5: Trust the Intelligence of the Audience
In psychology, when readers are crushed with keywords, they are less apt to cite the article. If you want the rapt attention of readers, tell a coherent, interesting story. Be focused but keep it cool on using and re-using the same words (no need to scream).
Rule 6: Signal Novelty and Importance
Do not assume that readers know the novel significance of your findings above and beyond what has been written before on the same topic. Readers are not as invested as you are, and they might not have read the obscure Scandavian journal of psychology articles that you did. How is this research study different from all other research studies (the scientific Passover question)? Give a concrete answer with explicit references to prior work that you built upon.
Rule 7: Be Vulnerable and Therefore, Bold
Some scientists are terrified of marketing their work. They are terrified of selling their findings. They lash out at colleagues who write trade books to reach a larger audience. They mock social media as a medium to share scientific insights and engage in meaningful dialogue with those outside the field. But they speak at conferences. They write journal articles. They cite their earlier work. They promote themselves heavily in their departments, trumpeting why they deserve tenure, a pay raise, and a larger office than their peers. As Daniel Pink explained, to sell is human. Once again, the most impactful scientists do not forget that they are first and foremost, a human who cries, bleeds, experiences self-doubt, is dumbfounded, and needs to be loved just like everybody else does. Embrace this in your life, and your writing.
Rule 8: Evoke Emotion with Words
When did we decide that good science should be emotion-free? I remember writing an article on social anxiety and curiosity with the subtitle "From Kafka to Carnegie". I wove in a narrative on these two giants and how individual differences in personality play an important role in the emotions experienced during work, love, and play (Kafka coping with bouts of depression and intense social anxiety throughout his life and Dale Carnegie as the exemplar of confidence). It complemented the study itself. One reviewer said, "Please remove all references to Kafka and Carnegie...this is
a scientific study, not a story." A second reviewer said, "I don't understand why the
authors try to be entertaining." I know why? The numbers possess little significance until the audience is told otherwise. We can stop being caricatures and allow emotions to co-exist with reason.
When scientists write well, they will be the source of knowledge and wisdom in society. For the collectors of wisdom among us, I hope scientists are listening.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com