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Redesigning Scientific Literature

Scientific literature has a traditional style and format, which evolved over many years and likely has its merits, but this no longer reflects how people read these papers:

“I start by reading the abstract. Then, I skim the introduction and flip through the article to look at the figures. I try to identify the most prominent one or two figures, and I really make sure I understand what’s going on in them. Then, I read the conclusion/summary. Only when I have done that will I go back into the technical details to clarify any questions I might have.”

– Jesse Shanahan, master’s candidate in astronomy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut

Shanahan’s habit reflects nicely the theme from most of the people quoted in the story linked above. As it turns out, few people—especially the target audience of professional researchers—read a study the way it’s presented, which means the presentation is wrong. Scientists, researchers, academics and intellectuals now have to deal with a flood of papers as human knowledge expands. The outline of these papers should reflect this reality.

Here is how a standard paper is organized:

Abstract
Introduction
Materials and Methods
Results
Discussion
References
Acknowledgments

It should be an easy task to rearrange the sections of a scientific paper in such a way as to match the needs of the primary readership. The first change that’s required is very easy: Don’t bury the lede, the conclusions of the paper should not be buried somewhere in the middle of the latter third of a paper. Abstracts normally state the conclusions of the study, and I believe the abstract as it exists is pretty much perfect. A well-written abstract is one of the most wonderful experiences in a world of technical literature that is generally dreadful as the phrase “technical literature” implies. Therefore, the abstract remains at the top.

Next would be a “select” graphic, preferably just one graphic but two or three would be fine. A graphic is perhaps the most important element of a study, as it turns data into something visual, which is easier to grasp. If warranted, a select graphic should appear just below the abstract. Properly captioned, this should assist the readers in understanding the magnitude and importance of the results of a paper. Some papers won’t have graphics, and in its place we could perhaps find a table or equation.

The results of the paper, written in clear language, is perhaps the most important part of the paper. It is very important to not overstate the conclusions, and to make any issues of context clear and explicit. It should be the first thing people read, after the abstract. In all likelihood, the conclusions section will end up being the only section of the main body of the text to be read.

Following this should be the discussion section, including clear references to previous research in the topic (I would even bold those references to make them easier to find). These references are important—several researchers mentioned it—because it allows them to immediately see the study in relation to previous literature and they can even see any bias (such as avoiding an important previous study). The introduction section is eliminated, any concepts that have to be introduced to understand the problem or study can be mentioned in the discussion.

The actual methodology of the study is only useful to those trying to replicate the study or specialists in the field and we therefore put it at the end. It will contain all the nitty gritty details of how everything in the study was done, with all the excruciating minutiae and jargon and acronyms a subfield specialist would demand. Personally, I would still attempt to make everything in the paper accessible to non-specialists. Ideally, even the methodology section should be written in clear enough language that someone outside the field can understand how the research was done. However, as long as the conclusions and discussions are clear, the methodology section can be as incomprehensible as the authors feel is necessary to communicate their own expertise.

Finally, all the tables and graphics should come at the end, including a reproduction of anything used at the top of the paper.  A standard reference section should follow, with any acknowledgments coming at the very end. Here is the final outline:

Abstract
Select Graphics or Tables
Results or Conclusions
Discussion (with any introductory material and a select summary of previous research)
Methodology
All graphics and tables
References
Acknowledgements

A physicist friend of mine from college (we shared an addiction to handball) told me “If it’s not in the first or last sentence of the abstract, it didn’t happen.” So maybe this was all for naught.

Freewrite Review

Almost two years ago, I “invested” in what was then called the “Hemingwrite”, a “smart typewriter” that offered a distraction-free writing experience. I just got mine about two weeks ago, and have used it extensively since then. It’s a beautiful machine, a pleasure to type with, and is exactly what I wanted.

I’m a bit of a Luddite, so the idea of a “smart typewriter” was alluring.My writing production has gone down quite a bit over the years, so I was interested in something that would help me get some large projects done. Finally, writing on a laptop is a thoroughly unpleasant experience and I was desperate to try something else. So the Hemingwrite made sense to me.

However, after the Kickstarter campaign, I decided to look into other devices that ostensibly did the same thing. There were apps that turned off the internet on your laptop, and I found other word processors very similar to the Hemingwrite, like the Alphasmart Neo.

I ended up buying a Neo a few months before the Freewrite arrived. The retail price of the Freewrite is about $500, whereas you can get a used Neo for about $50. While the two devices are quite different in form and there are some functional differences, they do the same thing which is allow the writer to simply write.

Well… Buyers’ regret. While I love the Freewrite, it is heavy. Much heavier than the Neo. The Freewrite is also so much more expensive. I like writing “in the field”, often outdoors, and having a $500 device exposed to the elements is anathema to my natural risk aversion. And the functional differences ended up being more significant than I first thought.

The Neo has arrow keys, which allows the writer to go back and do some editing on a completed piece. The Freewrite is a “draft machine” where the only way to go back and do editing is through the delete key. Which is frustrating, since one of the features of the Hemingwrite is the ability to send a pdf file of your writing to your email address. Well, if you can’t do any real editing, what’s the point of making a pdf file of a draft?

The Neo isn’t perfect, the arrow keys are easy to hit accidentally. It takes time for the Neo to transfer files onto a computer, and it has no internet connectivity. However, the difference in price and the greater functionality means that I’m writing this review on my Neo, and not my Freewrite.

The Freewrite is a beautiful machine, and I use it often. In fact, I hope to use it for many many years to come. It is such a pleasure to use. But I’d rather have that money back.

Quick and Dirty Self-Publishing Advice

I got asked recently for a little self-publishing how-to advice from a friend of a friend of a friend. After some email exchanges, I wrote the following which pretty much encapsulates all I know about self-publishing a book. Since there’s no point in writing the same thing more than once, I’m going to publish it here.

This is going to be a little rough and very much to-the-point…

Self-publishing books is the future. It is my opinion that technology and consumer habits has changed the landscape of publishing permanently, and in a way that doesn’t favor traditional publishers. Selling books is no longer about getting the good shelf space at the local bookstore, and that was basically the one thing publishers could really do.

When I first started out, self-publishing was looked down upon. Now no one cares. At least, most people don’t care.

So, here are my suggestions, or tips, to someone new to self-publishing.

Tip #1: Editing

This is the biggest problem I see in most self-published books. In theory, with all the twitterings and facebooks you’d think people have stopped caring about grammar and punctuation and correct spelling. And you’d be 100% wrong. Even among the most barely-literate book readers I know, the first thing they mention to me after reading or while reading one of my books is the one affect/effect mistake I made in chapter two or the dreaded there/their/they’re mistake I made when describing Wisconsin.

So, when the fun part of writing a book is over, it’s time to work. It’s time to edit. And you’re going to be doing a lot of it. I recommend at least three full read-throughs looking for errors. Both reading through it on the computer, and reading through it after printing it on paper. And yes, you have to print up the entire book on paper and read through it, slashing at it with a colored pen like you’re a three-year-old with access to a blank wall and a gallon of paint.

In the real publishing world, many people would be looking over your book, including several editors, including people who specialize in editing for style and grammar. You won’t have this advantage, and thus you have to do it yourself. I do recommend having between 4 and 7 people read the book to give you feedback and look for mistakes. More than seven and it becomes a nightmare of conflicting visions; less than four and you just don’t have enough eyes to catch all the mistakes, especially continuity errors… Those seem to sneak past almost everyone.

Just remember, you’re doing this for the reader. And the reader is why you wrote the damn thing to begin with, so invest the time. And it takes a lot of time. Regular publishing houses will take a year or more between accepting the book for publishing to the initial print run. You can probably do it faster, but accept that it takes time.

If you don’t want to be an embarrassment to self-publishers everywhere, and I sure don’t want you to be that, make sure you have a good product to sell. Edit your book.

Tip #2: Typesetting the interior

Okay, so you’re self-publishing and you’re avoiding all the crap that goes with begging someone with a Master’s in a language they grew up speaking to publish your book. That’s great. So, Times New Roman size 12 and leave the right side unjustified, right?

No.

Quite possibly the hardest thing I had to learn was how to make an alluring interior. I bought books on typesetting, I learned about white space and I learned to live with the fact that each and every line in the book needs to be individually formatted. For the reader, the bastard.

I found a good font, one that I always return to, and my latest book has what I like to think is a very nice interior. Uncluttered yet serious-looking. It’s something almost every self-published author has either overlooked or paid someone else to do. Think of self-publishing a book as a craft. Writing is just part of the craft, but you aren’t truly a craftsman until you’ve done the editing, typesetting, interior, cover and marketing.

Tip #3: Google “self-published books suck” or “why self-published books suck”

And read twenty or thirty articles about all the common mistakes self-publishers make. And make sure you don’t make those mistakes.

Tip #4: The Cover

Books are judged by their cover and title. A title creates an immediate impression, and generates curiosity while the cover is visually attractive enough to activate the lizard brain of your mark and get them to read the title (think of potential readers as crows picking up shiny objects for their nests). And hopefully all of that will convince them to read the back cover. And finally, if the back cover intrigues, you might make a sale.

Book covers are an art, not a science. If you’re going to do your own book cover using the generic options offered by your publishing service, I suggest using multiple attempts with different color schemes and wording. CreateSpace has some terrible covers, but the right pictures and color scheme can hide this fact. I prefer lulu.com and their cover options.

If you’re going to outsource the book cover to someone else, put out a craigslist ad and hire a young graphic design major who is still in college. This is cheap, and the quality, while lower, will still work for the self-publisher.

Just be wary, I have spent hundreds of dollars on covers from professional graphic design guys, and the result was a beautiful cover. Too bad almost no one was interested in the book.

***

Marketing

There are plenty of books on marketing, and reading a few of them (or skimming their google-books preview) isn’t a terrible idea. Marketing is its own field of study, and some familiarity above looking up the definition of marketing in a dictionary is necessary.

For self-publishers, marketing is a long-haul ordeal. This is both good and bad. If you had looked into traditional publishing, you would have been given approximately 90 days of active marketing before the publisher would have pulled the plug, taken their losses, and gone looking for the next gamble.

For you and I, marketing ends when we wish it to end. And I never stop marketing my books. If I have done, as I suggested earlier, a lot of work to make a great product that everyone should read because it’s so good and enjoyable and right and fun, why would I stop marketing it?

Make your product worth marketing; edit your book and get all the stuff I said above right before continuing on.

Marketing Suggestions:

– Have a platform. The easiest way to sell a book is to have a set audience already in place. Have a website, incorporate a blog, be on reddit, be on Twitter, facebook, think about doing video podcasts on youtube. It’s a pain to manage, it’s a pain to build, and it’s time you’d rather spend writing books (I know). But among the self-published authors I know, the guys who sell the most books have an established platform. If you’re not interested in that kind of work, there is a simple workaround: find someone who has a successful platform (a well-read blog or youtube channel) and offer to produce content for them.

– Emails. This might sound like spam, but welcome to marketing. Over the course of our lives, we email a lot of people. Family, friends, coworkers. So, use that existing relationship. Send everyone (at least everyone you’re still on speaking terms with) a personal email saying you’ve written a book and you think they’d enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a surprise when someone from high school decides to link to your book on her facebook page and all 5000 of her friends. That’s the magic of word of mouth marketing. It’s also another reason to always produce a quality product that you’re not embarrassed to market to anyone.

– Earned Media. There’s always the local newspaper. Contact one of the reporters or one of the editors, write out a press release, and you should be able to get an article or two about your book into the local newspaper. It’s free coverage. And free is always good.

– Paid advertising. Generally, I recommend staying away from this form of marketing. There’s a lot of promise, and very little delivery. However, there is a small segment of paid advertising that I do like: Podcasters and youtubers. There are lots of semi-large podcasts out there who get tens of thousands of downloads every day from dedicated listeners, and their advertising fees are very affordable. A friend of mine regularly advertises on Tom Leykis’ podcast, and does very well. Don’t shoot for the moon here, find the middle guys. Do test runs, and if the advertising results in positive returns, keep doing it.

– Cold contacts. Create epub and pdf versions of your book, or at least an abridged edition, and start contacting active bloggers to see if they’d be willing to give your book a once-over. Start emailing them. Be nice. I get asked two or three times a year to read a book and give it a review. I never say no, but I do tell them I might not get to it. I always share their books on my platform, but I don’t always read them.

– Writing contests. So these things are mostly scams, but I’ve done a few Writer’s Digest contests, and I think they’ve helped me as a writer. And I know people who have won a WD contest, and it does a lot of good in the marketing/getting-noticed department. It’s worth the entry fees because of this.

– Ebay. Sometimes, the way I find books to read is to go on ebay, go to the category of books I like (normally political or sci-fi) and look at the cheapest books available as BuyItNow. So, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go on ebay, list your book at the lowest price possible, and see what happens. I can buy my books for about $3.50 apiece, and I’m more than happy to break even on it on ebay because I consider it a form of marketing.

– Retail space. So book stores are dying, but you can still find private bookstores and used bookstores and antique stores and, in my case, even a barber shop to sell copies of your books. All you have to do is ask. The worst they can do to you is shoot you in the face with a gun. And that’s better than not marketing your book.

This is going to be a slow process. And in a lot of ways your fortunes will be the product of chance rather than simply being the best author out there. It’s a long haul, there’s no way around it. success is hard to come by and you’ll want to quit. And you’ll be a fool to keep trying.

I recommend getting a subscription to Writers Digest, including their online newsletter. Read as much as you can about the business of writing, and read how other authors got their big break. If nothing else, it provides some hope to keep going.