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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A little bit of background on my latest paper

In my latest paper, Extensive management promotes plant and microbial nitrogen retention in temperate grassland, published in PLoS ONE last month, we show that traditionally managed, species rich haymeadows lose less nitrogen with drainage water from their soils than more intensively managed grasslands. This is important, because nitrogen that leaches from the soil can pollute ground and surface water, reduce plant species diversity, and cause problems for human health if concentrations in drinking water are getting too high.

In this paper, we used both extensive field observations and a mechanistic glasshouse experiment to show that traditional haymeadows have lower nitrogen leaching because of more uptake of available nitrogen in plant roots and in microbes. Specifically, we found that a greater biomass of soil fungi increased microbial nitrogen uptake, and that this in turn increased the retention of nitrogen retention in soil.

These results confirm an ecological theory, namely that ecosystems with a more fungal-dominated microbial community are more efficient in their nitrogen cycling, and have thus lower nitrogen losses. This is not a novel theory at all – in fact, it is often assumed to be true, but it has never before been experimentally tested. To illustrate this, in this Science paper, it is said that ‘Because fungal-based soil food webs promote less leaky nutrient cycles that are more retentive of nutrients than do bacterial-based food webs…’ and subsequently, a paper by Coleman et al. from 1983  is cited. However, on further inspection, this appears to be a review paper, which by no means proves that this theory is correct. Moreover, it is not possible to adequately test this theory, since it is not possible to take the microbial community out of its environment, and thus it is impossible to test whether it is the composition of the microbial community that is responsible for lower nitrogen leaching, or its environment, for example the amount of organic matter in the soil.

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