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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To share or not to share?

Big data is great. I don’t think anyone can argue against the benefits of making datasets, whether they are from independent, controlled experiments, or from large-scale projects such as the Earth microbiome, publicly available. Depositing your data in one of the databases available, such as figshare or MG-RAST, can only ever help science. It progresses science by preventing fraud, making the process more transparent, and allowing for crosschecking of results. Sharing facilitates discussion. I have never heard of unethical use of shared data.

Nothing new there. In fact, sharing data might prevent masses and masses of unpublished data from getting lost forever, and thus has the potential to save millions of pounds of public money being spent on experiments that have already been done, but that no one knows about. Think about all those PhD thesis chapters, all analysed and written up, that never get published, and are therefore potentially lost for science forever. Similar to their open access strategy, research councils and funding agencies should perhaps set up a system that obliges PhD students to deposit their data before they can get their doctorate. Continue reading