The Study Dude – Study Tips from A Semi-Anonymous Friend

Writing Science: "And the Academy Award Goes To... Myrtle the Microbe"

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to publish in Scientific America–gain endorsements, appear on Oprah, and write for NASA.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s focus is on a book surely to transform you from a science nerd to a published science author: Writing Science by Joshua Schimel.

Select From a Myriad of Story Structures for Your Paper’s Purpose
Do you love movies? Well, I suffer through many. The violence, the sarcasm, the immorality of most flicks drains me, and the tension leaves me unsettled. I would rather read a non-fiction book?hands down?than watch a film any day. Anything from books on programming to books on writing fascinate me ten times more than any flick. In fact, the only things I love more than reading, in terms of activities, are Muay Thai, cycling, weightlifting?and writing for The Voice.

Funnily, even books, magazines?and academic articles¬?follow story structures when done well. Yet, how can a publishable article follow a story structure when hard-core science is the foundation? Joshua Schimel not only outlines a variety of story structures for science writing, but also explains when and where to use them:
– One story structure for your science writing pertains to the OCAR model, which stands for opening, challenge, action, followed by resolution. The OCAR model dominates the structures for science writing. In the opening (where “O” stands for “opening”), the characters and scene are introduced in relation to the large problem. These characters can be anything from a cell to a math theorem. The challenge (where “C” stands for “challenge”) involves the research question that needs to be answered. With respect to the movie, it is like the challenge to the central character’s goal. Then the action (where “A” stands for “action”) includes the steps taken to address the challenge. The resolution (where “R” stands for “resolution”, finally, provides a conclusion that demonstrates how the key character changed or how the question posed in the challenge was answered. Journals often use the OCAR structure.
– The ABDCE story structure commonly appears in scientific proposals and fiction. ABDCE begins with “A” (action)?the first big action that changes the course of the story. In the movies, this parallels the first event that throws the character out of his or her routine. The “B” stands for background, which develops some of the back-story behind the character and his or her (or its) dilemma. The “D” stands for development, which includes all of the events and obstacles that surmount toward the climax. The “C” stands for climax?the point when all the sub-stories combine into one big dramatic challenge. Finally, the “E” stands for ending, which is where the conclusion?or post climax scenario?is posed. The character here, like in the OCAR model, undergoes a significant change, and the introductory challenge or question is answered in the resolution.
– The LD structure is commonly used by newspaper reporters. The “L” is the lead which encapsulates the gist of the story in a single sentence. The story development (“D” for development) ensues thereafter. Usually, readers peruse only the lead. LD typically does not appear in academic writing of any sort.
– The last story structure is LDR?similar to LD, but with a resolution or a concluding sentence. LDR is used in magazines or generalist journal?and often proposals?where the readership is enticed to read more than just the lead so as to gain exposure to many of the paid advertisements.

What Funders and Reviewers Watch For in Your Opening Sentences
When I took a scriptwriting course, I learned that the three-act structure required an introduction that showed the character in his or her normal environment suddenly shaken up by some major obstacle or challenge to his or her goal. After the opening, the character rides a rollercoaster of obstacle followed by obstacle, each gaining in potency and momentum?swallowing the character until some climactic stage when everything the character hopes for threatens to crumble.

Does that sound like a science abstract to you? Can you fathom reading about the roller coaster that microbial organisms undergo when their itty bitty DNAs are restructured for more fruitful respiration? What about the crisis of identity that the tomato experiences when converted into a healthier, but purple, mass?

So, how exactly does character and character crisis structure tie into science writing? Is character development in hard-core science even realistic? Joshua Schimel shows how story elements, such as character and the challenge, are essential to opening sentences in science writing:
– The opening engrosses when it “foreshadow(s) the challenge and even the conclusion” (p. 35).
– The opening consists of anything from a sentence to entire paragraphs.
– The first sentence needs to introduce the main character, provide context and direction on what the story is about, and lead to the problem by framing it. .
– don’t start with some basic piece of common knowledge. Introduce your character and frame the problem that poses as a gap to common knowledge.
– Start your opening with a widely held issue that a great number of people can relate with, and then narrow it down to your specific issue. This wide opening should counterbalance with the wideness of the conclusion. So, if you start talking about climate change’s impact on microbes in the oil sands, and then narrow down to a certain type of microbe, be sure your conclusion encapsulates the wider issue of climate change’s impact on overall microbes. Be sure that the problem encapsulates all microbes if going to that level of generality. Credibility is essential, and the more people that identify with your topic, the more citations?and the more credibility?you gain.

Every Paper, Every Thesis?Like Every Violent Cartoon?Needs a Challenge
Everyone has a problem. Me included. The greater our problems, the more interesting we become. Just look at Yahoo! News for how people’s personal problems reap readership. The same goes for the movies: the main characters problems create tension, and everyone but me loves tension. Even the Bible is filled with tension. Once I read a neophyte author’s writings that focused on exclusively spiritual matters?a book that went against the grain?and I swooned over the material. In fact, as kid, I loathed cartoons for their violence, and only delighted in the purely positive, consistently smiling, always loving?albeit rare?characters that emerged from the upbeat cartoon abyss.

Yet, this world is the Earth, and it is riddled with issues from crime to starvation to injustice. While I’d like to shroud my eyes from the realities of the world and of what sells, science writing, too, needs challenges.

Joshua Shimel shows the essentials of forging your science writing with a challenge:
– After the opening, in the OCAR model, you typically follow with the challenge. The challenge can include either the question you wish to pose only or the question, the hypothesis, and the objectives altogether.
– Sometimes science needs not contain a hypothesis if the question is poignant enough?one with clearly defines the knowledge gap. Whether you should present a question or change it up into a hypothesis depends on your particular field of science.
– don’t present the objectives without defining the question. The challenge is what drives the story structure and is what makes the story compelling, so make sure it is present. You can always couch the challenge in a statement rather than a question through careful rewording.
– When listing your research objectives, ensure that the most important objective is listed first. This provides clarity and direction for the reader wanting to know the paper’s key goal.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

References
Schimel, Joshua. (2012). Writing Science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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