What, Why, How, and So What of Paper Writing

One of the most difficult and perplexing part of research and by extension graduate school is writing and publishing your work. It’s a key part of the research process and important for building your own career. But how to write a technical paper well is often unclear to new students. It took me a few papers before I got there hang of it, and sometimes it’s still hard to figure out where to start. The easier part for a student to write is usually the results since they have the data. But just data is not enough. You can tell you’re getting better when there are fewer revisions between you and your advisor and they make fewer red marks.

Your research paper or presentation is a bit like a sales pitch and debate rolled into one. You want to give a clear, concise, and logical argument for the validity and impact of your work. On one hand you want to convince the audience that your work and results are significant and add to the greater body of knowledge like a sale’s pitch. On the other hand you need to defend your techniques, results, and theories like a debate. For my students, I tell them the paper and/or presentation should answer the “What, Why, How, and So What” of the research. These are usually what the reader or audience is looking for, consciously or not.

What: What are you doing/what did you do? This is the simplest question to address. This could be a few sentences in the abstract or intro that talks about what the work you’re taking about is and the goal of the project.

For example: “This work conducted experimental measurements of the size distribution of the Whos in Whoville using electron microscopy. The goal is to determine if exposure to elephants alters their growth patterns.” (I recently watch the movie Horton Hears a Who.)

Why: Why are you doing this work? The immediate answer maybe “because my advisor/boss told me to.” That is not the answer you’re looking for. The why question address the big picture. Why is this work important? What kind of impact can it have if successful? This is your selling point if you will. Maybe your work can lead to a cure for cancer, or more efficient car engines, or a better way to do space travel, or a better technique to teach children. The why question gives the reader and audience the reason to care about your work.

To continue the example: “This work is important because Whos are an endangered species that is easily affected by outside forces. The recent exposure to Horton the elephant is a major change to their environment, so we need to know if that event changed their anatomy.”

How: How did you do your work? This question covers the methods and techniques you use. You may have done experiments that used a particular probe or calculation, or developed an equation using a set of theories. So the how question address the validity of your process. In answering the “how”, you need to put on the debate hat and provide logical and technical backing and justification for the steps you too.

Example: “The size measurements were done using electron microscopy. Volunteers from Whoville were recruited to participate in exchange for ipods. A survey of each Who’s daily routine and their activities during the Horton incident were done.”

So What: So what’s the significance of your results? The last question is the take away the audience should have from your work. Until now you have presented on what you did, why it’s important, and how you did the work, and presumably the actual results. Now you need to bring it back to the larger picture and answer the question of “so what’s the point?”

Example: “The results have shown that the Horton incident caused the Whos to growth 5 microns taller on average, based on the sample measured. This indicates that the Whos are greatly affected by external factors. However it is not yet clear if the elephant was the primary factor in the height increase. Another external factor may be the high altitude of Whoville’s current location that increases their exposure to UV radiation compared to their previous sea level location. Further research is need to clarify the triggers.”

Amusing example aside, this is my technique in a nutshell for writing papers, and it generally lays out the paper in a logical order. What and Why would be in the abstract or into. How would be in the experimental setup or theoretical background. Then there’s the results section which is usually the first thing students think about. Finally the So What covers the discussion and conclusion. As you gain experience in paper writing, you’ll develop your own methods and you’ll recognize how others write. The goal is always to present a clear, concise, and logical argument for your work.

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