Writing paragraphs and stringing them together

This post is about structuring a paragraph, and about stringing paragraphs together. I’ve written about the overall structure of a scientific paper in my previous post, but I’ve noticed that many people put very little thought into structuring the text within their paragraphs. Because we’re never really taught this! And as a result, paragraphs can feel disjointed, unfinished, and sometimes even chaotic! So, how do you structure a paragraph and make it easy – enjoyable even! – to read, how do you make sure the reader gets your point, and how do you make sure the flow of your paragraphs is logical and coherent?

I like to start a paragraph with the most important sentence. See, I just did that. That first sentence? That should make the point you want the reader to remember. Once you’ve made that point, you can explain it in a bit more detail in the rest of the paragraph. Why is it so important to make the most important statement in the first sentence? Because the attention of the reader will fade as they read on, but they do want to read on to learn about the point that you’ve just made. So, explain it, give a few examples, or maybe even insert a contradiction – something that does not support what you just said. And once you’ve done that, you need a transition to the next paragraph. Really, like a teaser to make the reader curious about what you’re going to write about next. That contradiction that I just suggested? That’s the ideal transition to the next paragraph.

Why did I suggest inserting a contradiction? Well, because sometimes it works differently! Sometimes, you can make your point in the second sentence (and I just did that!). It can become very repetitive – boring – if every paragraph looks the same and follows the same format. And scientific writing is not just about getting the message across, I think it should also be about writing something that’s a joy to read. You can try different formats, and sentences and paragraphs of different length. You can insert commas, brackets, semicolons, m-dashes – anything to make the text a bit more playful and break up long sentences! Really, within that rather rigid format for scientific papers, you can be creative. 

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The key ingredients of an academic paper

It’s writing season!! Or at least, it seems to be in my group.

Writing is not easy. I LOVE writing, but this is after many years of trying, doing, getting feedback, rewriting, and getting more feedback. Bizarrely, I was never taught how to write, and I have the impression that it’s still not generally taught very well, because a lot of students hate writing, and because of the common – but easy to avoid – mistakes that they make.

There are a lot of fantastic resources on how to write well. I have Josh Schimel’s as well as Stephen Heard’s books on my bookshelf, and I recommend my students to read this useful post on Dynamic Ecology, and the British Ecological Society’s guide to scientific writing.

But I still feel that while these resources are very good, they might be too lengthy or too detailed for some of my students, and I end up explaining the most important ingredients of a good article or thesis again and again.

(OK, so this post turned out to be quite lengthy, but you can just skip it and jump to the pictures.)

When reading through a few student papers, it suddenly dawned on me that what I really need is not a lengthy or detailed explanation of how to write an article, but a brief and intuitive overview that shows the key ingredients, and the links between them, at a glance (similar to this graphic that I made about the ingredients for a proposal). Because yes, writing gets easier the more often you do it, but it is also crucial to know the ‘recipe’ of what makes a good introduction and discussion. And yes, also what makes a good methods and results section.

So, I made the following overview of what are, in my opinion, the key paragraphs in the introduction and discussion of a scientific paper or thesis, and the links between them. I also made one for the methods and results sections – this one is less prescriptive, but it does include some important do’s and don’ts, and there are some links between these two sections – for example, I like to structure my results roughly similar to my methods section. 

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My recipe for a proposal

I’ve written a post on how to write a fellowship proposal, and how to prepare for the interview, before. And while that advice on how to formulate and structure your proposal is still valid, I don’t feel that it is quite helpful enough. Sure, it outlines the main parts of the proposal, and how they link to each other. But still, I see people struggling, and I have been contacted by numerous people for help. And telling people how to write a proposal is not nearly as helpful as showing them how to do it. 

But who am I to show you how to write a proposal? Well, in my previous post – that was in 2014 – I wrote that my proposals had a success rate of 30%. Since then though, whenever I led a proposal, it has been funded. (Right, so I know the current funding system is full of bias and resembles a lottery more than anything. But unless we change the system – which we have to, but that’s not what this post is about – the best we can do is write a proposal that’s as good as we can.)

Of course, the overall idea and approach need to be great and address an important problem or knowledge gap using a novel or creative approach. The proposal needs to be written in an engaging way and the science needs to be robust. But, all these ingredients need to piece together like a perfect puzzle, like a work of art. All the individual components need to link to each other beautifully in such a way that not a single word is redundant, that every sentence serves a purpose, and that no concept or method remains unexplained. You need to engage the reader from the start, keep them interested, impress them with clear pictures and diagrams, and gently hammer home the message that THIS work needs to be done RIGHT NOW by YOU using YOUR NOVEL approach.

So here’s how I do it. Here’s my recipe. (A recipe is something that you can follow to the letter, of course, but it’s also something that you can tweak. As you get more experienced, you might swap things around. Depending on the call, you might include a little bit more synthesis, or you might throw in some more methods. And clearly, there are often more sections that need to be included, such as risk or novelty. But here’s the basic recipe.)

I’m very curious what you think, and please – if you disagree, or if I missed something, let me know!

My lockdown plan

After almost a year of working from home, periodically while keeping two small children entertained and home schooled, I was at the end of my tether in December. Starting a big project and recruiting a group of new people, managing my group in Manchester, continuing to teach, Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting – keeping all the balls in the air, bending over backwards to get everything done, firefighting since March. The constant, constant pressure of everything, and not having time for anything. It had all been too much. And then, just before the Christmas holiday that I needed more than ever, we went into a full lockdown again. I was so run down, I could not go on like this. I needed a plan.

I started drawing my lockdown-life during the first lockdown

I needed a plan to make sure I would not burn myself out, to reduce the constant feeling of anxiety (triggered by constantly checking email and Twitter), and to restore the confidence that I had lost over the past months. Yes, I had lost confidence. Stuck at my computer in sweat pants, wiping bums while on Zoom calls, I felt like I did when I was on maternity leave: reduced to a mum, and nothing but a mum. And of course, the people on the other side of my screen were all still professional, and able to think coherently, and in control of their work, and their lives. Or so I thought. Continue reading

Are women with kids struggling more under lockdown?

Let’s be clear about this: a lot of people are struggling during these trying times, and for a variety of reasons. Many people worry about the health and wellbeing of themselves or their loved ones, about keeping their jobs, and about paying their bills.

I have a permanent position in academia, which means that I am in the very fortunate position of not having to worry about losing my job. Universities might be hit in the long term, but there are little immediate consequences of the corona crisis for their economic viability.

But academia is infamous for its high workload. A recent survey under Dutch academics indicated that they work on average 36% more than their contractual hours a week. It’s also known for its persistent bias against women. Only 23% of Dutch full professors are female (not to speak of women of colour!). In addition, there is a motherhood penalty: women who have children are disadvantaged in their career even more than those that don’t have children, while men that have children are not disadvantaged at all. Continue reading

Maar in Nederland hebben vrouwen toch al láng gelijke kansen?

Ik heb veel nagedacht over de reacties deze week op het bericht dat de TU Eindhoven alle vacatures een half jaar lang alleen maar voor vrouwen openstelt. Die reacties zijn grofweg onder te verdelen in drie types:

  1. De witte mannen die dit discriminatie vinden. “Je moet gewoon de beste kandidaat aannemen, wat er tussen je benen zit doet er niet toe”, en “Dus we moeten discriminatie oplossen met discriminatie?”, tot “Dit is ook gewoon discriminatie voor vrouwen”
  2. De vrouwen die geen ‘excuustruus’ willen zijn. “Ja maar, je wilt toch niet aangenomen worden als tweede keus?!” Dit argument hoor ik ook vaak bij mannen, die bezorgd zijn over deze vrouwen die als tweede keus aangenomen worden, en zelf nóóóit zo aangenomen zouden willen worden.

Linda Duits heeft over deze reacties al een zeer sterk artikel geschreven in Folia. Kort samengevat: in de wetenschap moeten vrouwen bijna tweemaal zo hard werken als mannen voor dezelfde baan of hetzelfde salaris, vanwege allerlei structurele (maar grotendeels impliciete) obstakels. Ik zal hier nog een aantal concrete, recente voorbeelden geven:

Dit is slechts een greep uit de lange lijst van voorbeelden waaruit blijkt dat de wetenschap, nog steeds, een zelf-instandhoudend mannenbolwerk is. Continue reading

Do we need quota for men in science?

Last week, I spoke at the L’Oreal Foundation’s breakfast debate curated by the New York Times. This was an Oxford Style debate, with two teams of three – one of the teams argued against, and one of the teams argued for the motion “This house believes that there should be quota for men in science”. I was on Team For, together with Stephen Frost and Marina Kvaskoff; Kaisa Snellman, Emma Liu and Rose Mutiso were Team Against.

It was a fantastic and empowering event (and I got to go to Paris, wear nice clothes, and eat nice food). The purpose of the debate was not so much the debate itself, but rather keeping this conversation going and coming up with creative solutions of how to increase the representation of women in science – something we all agreed on is necessary. Continue reading

The reality of maternity leave.

It has been very quiet here again, because I’ve been on maternity leave for the past six months. And I have struggled to get any work done, let alone write a blog post.

Which is why is wasn’t particularly amused when I read this article in The Guardian, which compares maternity leave with a sabbatical, and gives the impression that you can catch up with the literature and do some deep thinking, while your perfect baby either sleeps or quietly plays on the floor.

So, let me tell you something about how I experienced my maternity leave, and how I feel about maternity leave in general. Continue reading

Soil science. A man’s world?

I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil science, I thought that maybe, just maybe, and hopefully (in a way), this might just be a true representation of the gender balance of the applications, and of the wider UK soil science community.

So I inquired. And these are the numbers.

Out of 34 applications, 11 were led by female principal investigators – which means that grants led by women made up a reasonably healthy 32% of all grants submitted. And this number is actually representative of the gender balance of the members of the British Society of Soil Science (which assume to be a representation of the UK soil science community as a whole): women make up 30% of its members.

But none of these applications led by women were successful in getting funded. While the female submission rate was 32%, the success rate of female applications was 0%. And while it is well known that grants submitted by women often have lower success rates, this is a pretty low number. I made a graph to visualise it for you, just in case it wasn’t clear yet.


The number of applications and the number of grants awarded in the latest round of Soil Security small grants (between £150k and £250k), split for male and female principal investigators.

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On gender bias in research funding

I have never, in any way, in any shape or form, experienced sexism in my career. I have never though that I could not do something because I am a woman. In primary school and high school, never once made anyone a distinction between boys and girls and their abilities, or future career aspirations. At university, I never gave the fact that I am a woman any thought. And during my PhD and postdoc, OK, maybe I started thinking about having children at some point, and maybe that seemed complicated (I now know that it is certainly not straightforward). But never, never, have I experienced any form of harassment, or bias, or being disadvantaged, or not being taken seriously, because of my gender. Despite my gender, I am generally doing quite well in my career.

But it might be that I am, unknowingly, disadvantaged in receiving the research grants that I am applying for.

But last year, the BBSRC, who fund my research, published a report ‘Towards a better understanding of issues affecting grant applications and success rates by female academics’. This report clearly shows not only that fewer women apply for BBSRC research funding, but also that their success rate is lower than that of male applicants. This is particularly the case with the applications for strategic LOLA (longer larger) grants, which are considered to be more senior grants. A notable exception are the fellowships, which are aimed early career scientists (and of which I am a recipient), in which female applicants are more successful.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article that essentially shows the same trend for NIH grants. While there was no difference in funding rates for start-up grant applications, when women applied for grant renewals, they received lower scores than men. This was despite the fact that these grant applications were more likely to receive praise in their written feedback from the panel.

Triggered by these two reports, I decided to have closer look at the gender balance of research grants of some other funders – particularly the ones that I might apply for.  Continue reading