Image: Once Upon a Time, CC-0 via pixabay.com
We often tell ourselves that a good Methods section allows someone else to replicate our experiments. I’ve argued, among other places in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that we needn’t and shouldn’t expect this function of most Methods sections. Rather, a good Methods section gives readers what they need to ascribe authority to you as a scientist, and to understand the Results you’ll present.
I get frequent pushback against this idea, usually in connection with prominent hand-wringing over the so-called “replication crisis”. But a couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about writing at Saint Mary’s University (the one in Halifax, Nova Scotia) and I got a different and very convincing kind of pushback. An audience member whose name I didn’t catch (sorry!) argued that “narrative-for-replication” is an effective way to teach beginning writers to produce Methods sections. Undergraduates, for example, are told to describe everything they did, in the order they did it, so that their classmates could do the same experiment and get (at least hypothetically) the same result. Actually, I’m quite sure I was taught this way as an undergrad myself.
This brought me up a bit short, because I still maintain that a Methods section detailed enough to allow real replication is far too long and too detailed to serve the needs of real readers. And not only that: the narrative of “everything I did in the order I did it” is unlikely to be the easiest structure for the reader to understand. The logic is appealing, though, as one step in a way to teach writing. I have to admit that my “authority and understanding” criteria for what belongs in a Methods section is much more abstract than the narrative-for-replication criterion of “everything your classmate would need to repeat what you did”*.
The idea here is essentially that saying too much is a heuristic to make sure you say enough – and I can get behind that. It’s closely related to the idea of “early writing”: writing Methods when you either propose or execute the experiment, not later when you’re likely to leave things out.
Saying I’m OK with this heuristic doesn’t mean I’m rolling over on the issue of Methods written for replication. Instead, I’m OK with it because it matches up with another really important thing about writing: the value of getting to a first draft easily and quickly, even if that first draft bears little resemblance to the final product. That lack of resemblance is crucial. The first draft should be seen as process, not product. A first draft may suck (most of mine do), but it exists, and that’s a big part of the battle; I can fix “suck” much more easily than I can fix “not there at all”. So if writing a Methods draft as narrative-for-replication gets that draft written quickly, that’s terrific. It just isn’t the end. Instead, the narrative-for-replication draft Methods is a list of elements from which one can select and arrange bits to make the real Methods.
When we teach narrative-for-replication Methods, then, we need to couple that with something else: the importance of letting go of the 1st draft. Revision is tough: we’re emotionally invested in the words we worked so hard to produce. To make things worse, modern word-processing makes a draft look really professional to the eye, even if conceptually it’s really just scribbles. So we need to teach the importance of revision – and not just superficial tinkering, but wholesale reconsideration and reinvention. Revision is an inextricable part of writing, which is why The Scientist’s Guide to Writing has several chapters on it.
So: teach Methods as narrative-for-replication? No. But teach writing a Methods draft via narrative-for-replication? By all means, and thanks to my anonymous questioner for making me connect the dots that became this post.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 10, 2016
*^In fact, narrative-for-replication is how I pack to travel: I imagine myself going through the day, and pack the reagents and equipment I use. OK, I think, I take a shower: pack shampoo; I shave: pack the razor…. My suitcase is a Methods section. Or at least, it is until I realize I can’t zipper the darn thing closed.