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How to analyze abstracts and academic writing

Get the most out of published articles during your research and literature-review stage, prepare yourself for journal-club discussions, get structured feedback on your manuscript, and give truly helpful feedback on your peers' manuscripts.

Templates, template, everywhere

For better or worse, many researchers learn to write by reading (and imitating) published articles in their field. Better, because for resource-strapped early-career-stage researchers, these articles — such as those from senior and leading researchers in the field — are a valuable source to learn how to structure your own articles and write your sentences and paragraphs.

Worse, though, because plenty of poorly written articles that no researcher should use as templates get published. Dense, difficult-to-read, nominalization-packed writing only reinforces to early-career-stage researchers that their writing should also be difficult to read, dense, convoluted, long-winded, even indecipherable.

Worse, too, because many researchers just starting out believe that because it’s published, it’s good. Articles are published for many reasons, not always because they are clearly structured, contribute something new, express a single idea, or are well written. The research may be so important, for instance, that it’s published in spite of the writing. For researchers who want their articles to be read, re-read, cited, and have staying power, structure and readability go a long way.

A template for analyzing papers

So how do you get there: to well structured, well written, and ready to be downloaded, read, and re-read? Start by using the template below to analyze a well-written article in your field — ideally, one that immediately comes to mind: one that inspired your own work, that you read over and over again, that is well written and that has transformed your field — or at least your way of thinking. Then, compare by analyzing another article, one you thought was poorly written: difficult to finish, hard to understand, that you had to re-read — and not because it was so good, but because you couldn’t comprehend it the first time around.

Analyzing abstracts and academic writing
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Patterns, patterns, everywhere

Analyze a few papers and you’ll start to see patterns. In most well-written articles, you’ll be able to easily answer the questions on the next pages — the information will flow in the order of the questions. You won’t have to search for information to answer them; you may remember it from memory and not even have to look for it. By contrast, in poorly written articles, you’ll likely have to search for the information; the answers to the questions may not be explicit — you may need to paraphrase or piece together the answers; and the information may be scattered throughout the paper.

As a general rule, the easier it is to answer these questions, the better written the article. Use this form over and over:

  • in your research and note-taking phase to get into a pattern that will help you extract the essential information from articles

  • to get feedback on your article from peers to find out if your article is communicating what you want it to

  • as part of a journal club or to give structured feedback to your peers about their papers

See this companion blog to learn how to develop your own portable abstract:

Need a little more help? Follow the link below to book a getting-to-know-each-other session.

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