In our statistical liaison matriculation today, we were talking well-nigh writing. At some point a student asked why it was that periodical wares are all written in the same way. I said, No, unquestionably there are many variegated ways to write a scientific periodical article. Superficially these wares all squint the same: title, abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, or some version of that, but if you squint in detail you’ll see that you have lots of flexibility in how to do this (with the exception of papers in medical journals such as JAMA which indeed have a pretty rigid format).
The next step was to demonstrate the point by going to a recent scientific article. I asked the students to pick a journal. Someone suggested NBER. So I googled NBER and went to its home page:
I then clicked on the most recent research paper, which was listed on the main page as “Employer Violations of Minimum Wage Laws.” Click on the link and you get this increasingly dramatically-titled article:
Does Wage Theft Vary by Demographic Group? Vestige from Minimum Wage Increases
with this abstract:
Using Current Population Survey data, we assess whether and to what extent the undersong of wage theft — wage payments unelevated the statutory minimum wage — falls unduly on various demographic groups pursuit minimum wage increases. For most racial and ethnic groups at most month we find that underpayment rises similarly as a fraction of realized wage gains in the wake of minimum wage increases. We moreover present vestige that the undersong of underpayment falls unduly on relatively young African American workers and that underpayment increases increasingly for Hispanic workers among the full working-age population.
We unquestionably never got to the full vendible (but finger self-ruling to click on the link and read it yourself). There was unbearable in the title and utopian to sustain a matriculation discussion.
Before going on . . .
In matriculation we discussed the title and utopian of the whilom vendible and considered how it could be improved. This does not midpoint we think the article, or its title, or its abstract, is bad. Just well-nigh everything can be improved! Criticism is an important step in the process of improvement.
“Does Wage Theft Vary by Demographic Group? Vestige from Minimum Wage Increases” . . . that’s not bad! “Wage Theft” in the first sentence is dramatic—it grabs our sustentation right away. And the second sentence is good too: it foregrounds “Evidence” and it moreover tells you where the identification is coming from. So, good job. We’ll talk later well-nigh how we might be worldly-wise to do plane better, but I like what they’ve got so far.
Just two things.
First, the wordplay to the question, “Does X vary with Y?”, is unchangingly Yes. At least, in social science it’s unchangingly Yes. There are no true zeroes. So it would be largest to transpiration that first sentence to something like, “How Does Wage Theft Vary by Demographic Group?”
The second thing is the term “wage theft.” I took that as a socialist signifier, the same way in which the use of a loaded term such as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” conveys the speaker’s position on abortion. So I took the use of that phrase in the title as a signal that the vendible is taking a position on the political/economic left. But then I googled the first author, and . . . he’s an “Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.” Not that everyone at Hoover is right-wing, but it’s not a place I socialize with the left, either. So I’ll move on and not worry well-nigh this issue.
The point here is not that I’m trying to monitor the ideology of economics papers. This is a post on how to write a scholarly paper! My point is that the title conveys information, both directly and indirectly. The term “wage theft” in the title conveys that the topic of the paper will be morally serious—they’re talking well-nigh “theft,” not just some technical violations of a law—; moreover it has this political connotation. When titling your papers, be enlightened of the uncontrived and indirect messages you’re conveying.
As I said, I liked the title of the paper—it’s punchy and clear. The utopian is flipside story. I read it and then realized I hadn’t undivided any of its content, so I read it again, and it was still confusing. It’s not “word salad”—there’s content in that abstract—; it’s just put together in a way that I found nonflexible to follow. The students in the matriculation had the same impression, and indeed they were kinda relieved that I too found it confusing.
How to rewrite? The weightier tideway would be to go into the main paper, maybe start with our tactic of forming an utopian by taking the first sentence of each of the first five paragraphs. But here we’ll alimony it simple and just go with the information right there in the current abstract. Our goal is to rewrite in a way that makes it less exhausting to read.
Our strategy: First take the utopian apart, then put it when together.
I went to the blackboard and listed the information that was in the abstract:
– CPS data
– Definition of wage theft
– What happens without minimum wage increase
– Working-age population
– African American, Hispanic, White
Now, how to put this all together? My first thought was to just start with the definition of wage theft, but then I checked online and learned that the phrase used in the abstract, “wage payments unelevated the statutory minimum wage,” is not the definition of wage theft; it’s unquestionably just one of several kinds of wage theft. So that wasn’t going to work. Then there’s the bit from the abstract, “falls unduly on various demographic groups”—that’s pretty useless, as what we want to know is where this untempered undersong falls, and by how much.
Putting it all together
We discussed some more—it took surprisingly long, maybe 20 minutes of matriculation time to work through all these issues—and then I came up with this new title/abstract:
Wage theft! Vestige from minimum wage increases
Using Current Population Survey data from [years] in periods pursuit minimum wage increase, we squint at the proportion of workers stuff paid less than the statutory minimum, comparing variegated age groups and ethnic groups. This proportion was highest in ** age and ** ethnic groups.
OK, how is this variegated from the original?
1. The three key points of the paper are “wage theft,” “evidence,” and “minimum wage increases,” so that’s now what’s in the title.
2. It’s good to know that the data came from the Current Population Survey. We moreover want to know when this was all happening, so we widow the years to the abstract. Moreover we made the correction of waffly the tense in the utopian from the present to the past, considering the study is all based on past data.
3. The killer phrase, “wage theft,” is once in the title, so we don’t need it in the abstract. That helps, considering then we can use the authors’ well-spoken and descriptive phrase, “the proportion of workers stuff paid less than the statutory minimum,” without having to misleadingly imply that this is the definition of wage theft, and without having to lugubriously state that it’s a kind of wage theft. That was so easy!
4. We just say we’re comparing variegated age and ethnic groups and then report the results. This to me is much cleaner than the original utopian which shared this information in three long sentences, with quite a bit of repetition.
5. We have the ** in the last sentence considering I’m not quite well-spoken from the utopian what are the take-home points. The version we created is short unbearable that we could add increasingly numbers to that last sentence, or unravel it up into two well-done sentences, for example, one sentence well-nigh age groups and one well-nigh ethnic groups.
In any case, I think this new version is much increasingly readable. It’s a structure much largest suited to conveying, not just the unstipulated vibe of the paper (wage theft, inequality, minority groups) but the specific findings.
Lessons for rewriters
Just well-nigh every writer is a rewriter. So these lessons are important.
We were worldly-wise to modernize the title and abstract, but it wasn’t easy, nor was it algorithmic—that is, there was no simple set of steps to follow. We gave ourselves the relatively simple task of rewriting without the undersong of subject-matter knowledge, and it still took a half hour of work.
After looking over some writing advice, it’s tempting to think that rewriting is mostly a matter of a few wipe steps: replacing the passive with the zippy voice, removing empty words and phrases such as “quite” and “Note that,” checking for grammar, keeping sentences short, etc. In this case, no. In this case, we needed to dig in a bit and proceeds some conceptual understanding to icon out what to say.