Susan Rvachew

Professor, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Q: What process do you go through when writing an academic paper?

A: My writing process begins by thinking a lot about my readers – who is the paper addressed to? What message do I want them to come away with at the end? The reader and the message are closely linked of course – even with the same set of data, there will be different messages for different readers.  I like to think about the reader in as concrete terms as I can. I envision the reader as a wise friend – a walking companion specifically. It pains me to find – when I am reading twitter, something I spend way too much time doing – that many young writers seem to view their readers and the reviewer-reader in particular, as an adversary. But to my mind the paper goes better if you envision the writing process as a conversation with a wise friend that you haven’t seen for a long time. I come from Western Canada where it is customary to take visitors out to the mountains for a walk along a favourite trail. There is a process for this – rules for ensuring that you are being a good host – and the process works well in both contexts, as follows:

  1. Make sure your guest is properly prepared. You do not want your guest to walk up hill on shale rock in flip-flops. Neither do you want your reader to get to the method section having no inkling what your dependent variable is or why you might measure it that way!
  2. Be sure that you know where you are going and how to get there. Provide your visitor with a route map.
  3. Don’t get lost. If you are supposed to be taking a short walk to a pond in the valley, your guest will get anxious and angry if you have been climbing up-hill for an hour with no sight of the destination. Similarly with writing, sentences should lead clearly to their destination with plenty of foreshadowing along the way.
  4. Don’t take detours unless the detour provides an especially illuminating view of the destination. Make sure that the route back to the main path is clear.
  5. Walking with an old friend is not a test; neither is it an opportunity to show off your superior fitness. Everyone should have fun and find the walk just enough of a challenge to justify a treat at the end. If the paper is hard slogging, you will annoy rather than impress your reader.
  6. Do not bore the guest with lectures about the flora and fauna – old friends usually know more about that stuff than younger people anyway. Definitely point out the significance of landmarks as they relate to your shared experiences or to the destination. Marshalling the scientific literature to communicate a message, as opposed to simply summarizing it, is always a hard task. However, it is really important because a bored reader or guest will wander off and get lost; and remember, getting to the final destination along the most efficient and pleasant route is the goal.
  7.  Finally with respect to the destination it should be more or less exactly as promised except a little surprise is always nice. Oh look! The lovely pond with a nice picnic area, just as I was expecting. But a waterfall! With a hidden cave! Wonderful, and I am hardly out of breath at all. Similarly with a scientific paper you want to exceed expectations and bring something new to the literature but not be so far off the beaten track that the reader is simply bewildered.

My point is that when I keep my reader (walking companion) and main point (destination) simultaneously in mind at all times, writing a scientific paper really is just a walk in the park.

Reading recommendation

Cormode, G. (2009). How NOT to review a paper: The tools and techniques of the adversarial reviewer. ACM SIGMOD Record, 37(4), 100-104.

Susan encourages writers not to view readers as adversaries but rather as companions on a journey.