how to write articles
Last semester I was talking to some grad students about academic writing. I made some remark about how learning how to write an article well is really tough and that it is probably one of the biggest barriers to academic success. I really do think that’s true. Graduate programs are filled with smart students with great ideas, but very few of them become known for those ideas. I think that selling the idea is where some of those academics fall short. If you can’t write it, nobody will read it.
With that in mind, I noticed that Ezra Zuckerman has a nice set of tips posted on his website for people who want to learn how to write articles. Ezra, who is an excellent writer, gives very sound, practical advice.
One hypothesis (or a few tightly related hypotheses) is enough. If people remember a paper at all, they will remember it for one idea.
A paper will not be interesting unless there is a really compelling null hypothesis.
Never write literature reviews.
The only reason anyone cares about a literature is because it is helpful in clarifying puzzles in the world. So start with the puzzle.
This last tip reminds me of something I once heard an editor of a prominent sociology journal say. He said that he advises his grad students to conceive of an article as a solution to a paradox. He thought that the first couple of sentences of every article should describe what that paradox is. The rest of the paper attempts to resolve it.
UPDATE: Speaking of great writing, check out the American Book Review’s list of the best last lines from novels.