Writing the Methods as a plausibility check

Image: Rube Goldberg design by Stivi10 CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org.

There are many reasons for “writing early” – for starting to write up a project before data collection and analysis are complete, or even before they’re started.  (I discuss this in some detail in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  This is particularly true for the Methods section, which is far easier to write when you’re doing, or even proposing, the work than it is when you’re looking back on the work months or years later.  But one use for early writing often surprises my students: early writing as a “plausibility check” for methods I’m trying to decide about using.

Here’s what happens.  I’ll be sitting with a student (or sometimes, just with myself) and we’ll be trying to decide on an experimental method, or perhaps on a point of statistical analysis.  We’ll wonder, “should we do X?”  And I’ll say: “OK, let’s imagine writing a Methods paragraph describing X.  How would it feel?”

Here’s what I’m after.  If we can very comfortably imagine writing that paragraph, if X seems routine and uncomplicated to explain and straightforward to justify, then great: X is a keeper.  But if imagining writing that paragraph feels tangled, as if we’d be working on a bit of rhetorical gymnastics while picturing dubious looks from our readers, then we might want to rethink X and come up with an alternative Y.  The early writing we’re doing helps us assess the plausibility of a method, by going right to the context in which that plausibility will be judged: by the readers of the paper we’re eventually going to write.  It helps us see our proposed method as readers will see it.

I do this all the time, and it works really well for me – and I think many of my students have become converts.  But it is really “early writing”?  Yes and no, I guess. It’s certainly “early”.  Actually, it’s very early: not only have we not done X yet, we haven’t even decided whether to do X.  It’s a more interesting question whether it’s “writing”.  We don’t write the whole Methods section; only the few sentences dealing with X.  And usually, we don’t actually write it down – it seems to be enough to say it out loud, albeit with the formal kind of construction we’d use if we actually were writing it down.  The closer we get to writing – or, the more we think of what we’re doing as writing – the better.

I’ve found it far too easy to accept a method uncritically when I’m about to execute some work, only to discover much later that reviewers are perplexed and I can’t blame them.  Writing the Methods, or at least pretending to do so, seems to take me out of my own brain and put me into the reader’s.  That’s the brain I need to spend more time in – even, sometimes especially, at the experimental design stage.

© Stephen Heard  February 1, 2018

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5 thoughts on “Writing the Methods as a plausibility check

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      In part because it’s a way I, or a student, can try defending a method to myself… Without getting stuck in familiarity. Sure, you can write it all out and proceed to an exam, or to peer review. Better to have mental tricks for judgment much earlier!

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  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    In part because it’s a way I, or a student, can try defending a method to myself… Without getting stuck in familiarity. Sure, you can write it all out and proceed to an exam, or to peer review. Better to have mental tricks for judgment much earlier!

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  2. Manu Saunders

    I agree with the overall idea of writing Methods drafts upfront, mostly because you can easily forget details later on. But should ‘routine and uncomplicated’ methods always be the goal? Perhaps it depends on what part of the methods? I think a creative/innovative element in the methods is much more exciting, provided the logic behind it can be justified (not necessarily done exactly as before, but maybe applied from other disciplines). And often explaining these creative elements can be ‘tangled’ at first attempts…but maybe some more time spent on crafting more effective writing is better than just finding a more easily-explained/justified method.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting point, Manu, and perhaps you’re right that I’ve phrased it too simply in the post? I agree, there is no problem with an innovative method! And I also agree, it might take a couple of rewritings to get that description of the innovative method right. But I would stick to my guns on when I’m having trouble selling my innovative method to my (imagined) audience, then I’m best to consider whether that method is not just innovative but also complicated, implausible, etc. etc. (And yes, of course, sometimes a complicated method is the only one. But I’m I’m going to struggle to justify it, I want to know that before I adopt the method; and if I can use an alternative that justifies easier, I want to do that.)

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