Writing Week 2010: Robert Brown Workshop 2

Robert Brown facilitated a writing workshop to launch the University of Canberra Faculty of Health’s 2010 writing week. (Information about the first part of the workshop can be found here.) In his handout material for the workshop, Robert asserts his copyright of his materials. I make explicit mention and acknowledgement of his copyright here.

The second session of the day, after lunch, started with Robert’s discussion of Paper Title. He suggested that:

  • A title is the first opportunity to lose a reader.
  • Make a title a sentence and include in it the main benefit reader.
  • Avoid ‘dead boring titles’ (a table of contents)

Robert identified strategies for conveying benefits for the reader in the title of a paper:

  • A direct statement of outcome (a sentence)
  • Indirect statements of outcome
  • Direct questions (also sentences)
  • Indirect questions
  • Moderately intriguing (some are sentences)
  • Highly intriguing (some are sentences)

Robert discussed these issues with reference to Carmer and Walker’s (1981) paper Baby Bear’s Dilemma: A Statistical Tale 1:

An allegorical and satirical, but also, we hope an accurate and humorous expository look at the problem researchers face in choosing a pairwise multiple comparisons procedure for detecting differences among treatment means. The primary objective is to present, from several points of view, some of the arguments and resulting confusion surrounding the use of the least significant difference vis-a-vis Tukey’s w procedure or honest significant difference, Duncan’s Multiple Range Test, and the Waller-Duncan Bayesian k-ratio t test. Particular emphasis is placed on demonstrating that the concept of comparisonwise error rate is considerably more logical, sound, and useful in pairwise multiple comparisons than the concept of experimentwise error rate. As a consequence, despite what researchers may have read in the statistical Literature or what they may have heard from statistical experts, the least significant difference is appropriate whenever a pairwise multiple comparisons procedure is in order.

Robert discussed Abstracts in the next part of the workshop. An abstract:

  • Is the essence of the paper. (Some journals require a summary rather than ‘abstract’). It is a summarised assertion without proof.
  • Summarises the introduction, methods, results and discussion.
  • May not require additional information on methods if the methods may be sufficiently implicit in the main results.
  • Should focus on the overview not the details.
  • Should avoid following a table of contents approach.
  • Varies from 100 to 450 words.
  • Does not have any citations, the abstract is published separately from the main text.
  • Can be a traditional unstructured narrative or structured according to headings nominated by the journal.

Robert shared Nature’s advice about writing an abstract. He provided examples of abstracts that illustrated the key issues he identified.

Robert discussed Introductions next. He suggested an Introduction (between 300-900 words):

  • Shows that a story is worth telling. (Why you studied the problem; the state of knowledge; a defined gap in the literature; informing the reader what you set out to do and give the main finding.)
  • Establishes a compelling question.
  • Has only three or four essential moves.
  • Sets an agenda for the rest of the paper by setting up research question(s) and reminding a reader of your conclusion, answer.

Robert shared examples of Introductions to exemplify these points. He explored ‘moves’ in Introductions. One example used was David Pannell’s (2002) paper Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing
In the next part of the workshop Robert discussed Methods.
The Methods ‘ section:

  • Is often the best place to start
  • Answers the question ‘what did they do to study this problem?’
  • Provides information on what was investigated, what techniques were used, and what statistical analyses were used.
  • Includes enough details for readers to assess validity of results and to replicate the work.
  • Cites original sources of techniques (and not re-described if well-established)

Robert discussed the Results section next and explored the use of Figures and Tables (use text to highlight the most important parts; do not include a table or graph if they can be replaced by a statement; graphs are often better than tables).  Robert suggested that the Results section:

  • Is the second easiest section to write.
  • Can combine results and discussion.
  • Should be simple and “consistent with keeping readers adequately informed”.

Robert concluded the workshop with consideration of Discussion. The Discussion:

  • Is a place to show the contribution to knowledge.
  • Is a place of no surprises.
  • Steps the reader through each question and lead with your best shot.
  • Delivers the  essentials.
  • Avoids leading with authorities.
  • Makes the significance of results and in the context of the literature.
  • Avoids deep discussions of shortcomings and future research.
  • Concludes with a snappy final paragraph that reminds the reader of the main benefit. As you are leaving, please take these thoughts with you.
  • Conclusions are measured in sentences rather than paragraphs and pages.

Robert finished his look at Discussion with an example from Jones, Gardner and Sinclair (2008) ‘Losing Nemo’: bleaching and collection appear to reduce inshore populations of anemonefishes. He provided a second example of where writing about more work is necessary is acceptable (McCosker et al, 2010)
The day concluded with the group’s thanks to Robert for a fascinating day.

Photo Credit
Old Hermit Roy Ozmer Reading a Book
Views in Sydney and New South wales 1930-1940


  1. Great work Laurie! I’ve got Robert’s book but have not yet been able to engage in any of his workshops. His tips are brilliant as I expect his workshops to be also. Next time he comes to Canberra perhaps invite participation from other universities? Best wishes for 2011


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