Writing Backwards, Forwards, Sideways, and Around

Katja Thieme
6 min readDec 28, 2022
Meme image of *The Office* character Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) screaming: I don't know what I'm writing about.
Meme picture from "The Office": I don't know what I'm writing about.

The publishing of research articles is a central activity in contemporary academia: publications are the way to build one’s livelihood, to stake one's claims in a research field, to create wider and more permanent impact for one's work. Many more manuscripts are submitted than get accepted by respected journals in most research fields. The process of getting rejected can take months and the path to getting your manuscript published can stretch on. Young researchers feel the immense pressure on their time, resources, and well-being. Given these conditions it is no surprise that in English-speaking media there is an abundance of advice lists, posts, articles, and books not only about how to get published but also how to do it more effectively, more productively, more efficiently, how to go faster, higher, stronger.

Among the writers of those advice pieces, journal editors are in a favourable spot: they've seen the whole range of submissions; they know what made it past their desk rejection threshold and why; they've guided numerous pieces toward publication; they know the viewing, reading, and citing rates of articles in their journal. It can be helpful and fun to listen to their insights.

To a noticeable degree, these journal editors are attached to the practices of their research field even if they phrase their advice in general terms. And those practices differ. Processes of publication look different yet if examined by researchers in social sciences and humanities fields that specialize in the study of how knowledge is made and communicated. That's a long preamble to say that when editorials in research journals give advice about how to get published, some of that advice might easily be challenged with perspectives from other fields as well as with research that looks closely at practices of research writing across fields. Let's get to an example.

Here is an editorial that has ignited some Twitter discussion. The editorial was published in Marine Life Science & Technology and, presumably, it is directed mostly at researchers in that area of study. The authors, Montagnes, Montagnes, and Yang (who are not the editors of the journal), position their article as advice on writing a manuscript with "a good scientific story" and offer practical instruction on how to “write backwards” so as to create a narrative within the typical IMRD structure (introduction, method, results, discussion). It is not a piece on study design, data collection, or methods of analysis. Like these advice pieces often do, this editorial uses the very wide language of "science," "scientists," and "scientific" while only very occasionally gesturing a little less generally toward "applied science" or "biological experiments." As a result, the authors make it all too easy to read their piece as much broader advice than it could possibly manage to be. And thus they make it not difficult at all to aggressively disagree with them.

It is no surprise that this editorial has been read by researchers in other fields as intended to apply to their field as well. For some of them, the advice of the editorial crosses the bounds of what is expected, established, and ethical in their area of study. Some of these critics express real shock, warning that this editorial is "expressly encouraging scientific malpractice." That it gives advice that will lead to "scientific misconduct." That, "Arrgh. No.", it is not honest, it is "questionable," and "obviously problematic." What this editorial suggests is "not acceptable" as it seemingly proposes "to p-hack and HARK your way" through the publication process. Harsh words.

Many of these critics do not discuss in detail what the rules and customs of their own research areas are and tend to presume that some approaches are universally shared; which is fine as far as immediate reactions go, Twitter discourse is brief and snappy. Stuart Ritchie takes a bit more time to elaborate on his dislike of the editorial. He, too, remains stuck in overly general declarations about "science," "scientists," and the "scientific paper." Interestingly, the one other paper which he cites very approvingly as good advice on writing "a scientific study" is more particularly concerned with psychological research and its processes of publication as it discusses lessons from two temporally specified crises in that field.

The thread that brought the editorial to the shocked attention of its critics was written by someone in conservation biology, a field more closely aligned with the work of the editorial authors and the journal. Perhaps that explains part of the thread’s appreciation for it. Rubén Dario Palacio, the thread author, also put in some effort to respond to the objections of those who questioned his support of the editorial's advice. In many of these responses he found himself repeating versions of this clarifying tweet: "The guidance here is for writing a paper, not on conducting research." In its focus on how to "write backwards" the editorial promotes an approach to writing that I myself often encourage in my multi-disciplinary research writing courses.

As a researcher in writing studies I also see the value of revising one's argumentative structure from its conclusion, of aligning the elements of one's paper with knowledge of the end in mind, of writing a manuscript backwards (in addition to writing forwards, sideways, and around). Unlike the editorial, I would not present the end claims of such a draft as a "take-home message" as that is a simplifying marketing term and of little use for how I want to think about academic writing. I would not call it a "punchline" either, though comparisons to the craft of comedy writing should not be so easily dismissed. And I would probably avoid populating my visualizations with phrases that can be mistaken as suggestions to revise one's methods and results after the fact.

In fact, I often speak to my students about the practice and benefit of writing backwards, or more accurately revising and restructuring one's manuscript with the end in mind. The paper needs to land somewhere, I say. By the time they are deep into writing their drafts, students need to figure out what and where their landing spot is: is it a particularly interesting range of findings, a set of new questions, a deepened moral concern, an ongoing point of confusion? This seems to be the story-telling that Ritchie dislikes so much; or perhaps he mixes up his concerns for misplaced aesthetics in data collection and analysis with the legitimate need to consider the story line of paragraphs and the rhythm of sentences.

Once students have an idea where their writing is going, what its story is, I tell them — much like the editorial does — that they should revise their draft working their way from the back to its front. What is the most effective sequence for aligning the pieces of this paper, how best to present its necessary parts, what is an elegant way to unfold the argument? These are questions that help guide readers through a project and its thinking. And some of those readers will be editors and peer reviewers.

My course is a multi-disciplinary one with students enrolling from a range of programs across my university. There are limits to how specific I can get in terms of differences in disciplinary practices. I try to work around that by letting students choose how they position their projects in terms of disciplinary alignments. With those choices some argumentative structures become more appropriate than others. For instance, some of my students' projects are well served by separating the results from the discussion while for other types of projects this distinction hinders students' thinking and writing. Or, some papers benefit from foregrounding a detailed conceptual context ahead of their analysis while others can move right into the analysis and may hold off on such contextualization until there are some findings to work with. There really are no universal rules for writing research papers even as we develop a sometimes strongly shared understanding within the research areas in which we are trained and active.