Five Questions to Ask When Writing From Samples

Writing samples are only useful if you analyze them.

Whatever you’re writing — whether it’s a journal article, grant proposal, or research poster — chances are you’ve found some samples to use as a guide as you write. But even if you’re looking at a sample that got published or funded, not all samples are created equal. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you’re analyzing samples and figuring out how to apply their lessons to your own writing.

  • How is the sample structured?
    • What are the different sections and sub-sections used? Are they well-organized?
    • Is it easy, as a reader, for you to find the information you want?

Remember that, as a scientist, many of your readers are overworked and underfunded. The easier it is for readers to find the answers they’re searching for, the better. Look for ways that your sample’s author makes that easier and emulate those. Conversely, if you find yourself struggling to find information, ask yourself how to make that easier in your own work.

  • Is the author’s argument convincing?
    • How do they marshal and present their evidence? Do they anticipate and address potential concerns or limitations to their work?
    • After reading, are you convinced? Excited? Underwhelmed?

Although we rarely think of it in these terms, most scientific writing is persuasive. We’re trying to convince our colleagues of our theories, of the quality of our work, and of our ability to do the research we’re proposing. Simply laying out facts and hoping our readers come to the same conclusion we did is not enough. So look at your samples with a critical eye to their arguments. What do the authors do to convince you? Can you structure your own arguments similarly, or do you want to take a different tactic?

  • Do the figures add to the text?
    • Is there a clear purpose behind each visual?
    • Can the visuals stand alone or do you need to read the main text to understand them?

Every harried reader spends some time looking at the figures — often more time than they’ll spend on the text itself. Are the figures attractive and easy to understand at a glance? How do they add to the text? If you find yourself struggling to understand a figure or questioning why it was included, these are red flags. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but only if it’s been designed to enhance a reader’s understanding.

  • How do I feel when I finish reading this?

Take a moment and check in with your emotions when you finish reading. Do you feel like taking a nap or jumping straight into an experiment? The best scientific writing leaves readers excited and energized when they finish. If you feel that way after reading your sample, ask yourself why. Did it feel easy and breezy to read, thanks to simple language explaining the complex ideas? Was every paragraph a slog without caffeine to propel you? If so, why did it feel that way?

  • What can I learn from this example?

Whether your sample is a good, bad, or indifferent, there are things to learn from it. Look for what aspects of the sample speak positively to you. Dig down and ask yourself why they work, and emulate those pieces. If there are things that turn you off, take note of those, too; now you know what to avoid in your own writing. If you notice ways to improve the sample, write those ideas down, too. You can use them in your own work.

Bottom Line

No piece of sample writing will ever be exactly what you need. If it were, then there’d be no point in writing your version. So there’s no reason to get paralyzed by what you see in your colleagues’ work. Instead, take stock of your feelings and then look for what in the sample causes those feelings. Positive feelings show you aspects to emulate; negative ones show you what to avoid.

Without turning this critical eye to your samples, you can’t truly learn from them. So don’t accept any sample — successful or otherwise — at face-value. Dig into it. Take it apart and see how each piece works. Then take those lessons into your own writing.

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(Image credit: Unseen Studio)

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