Gelman’s Good Advice

Andrew Gelman offers some good advice on writing up your results for a research paper: 

1. Start with the conclusions. Write a couple pages on what you've found and what you recommend. In writing these conclusions, you should also be writing some of the introduction, in that you'll need to give enough background so that general readers can understand what you're talking about and why they should care. But you want to start with the conclusions, because that will determine what sort of background information you'll need to give. 

2. Now step back. What is the principal evidence for your conclusions? Make some graphs and pull out some key numbers that represent your research findings which back up your claims. 

3. Back one more step, now. What are the methods and data you used to obtain your research findings.

4. Now go back and write the literature review and the introduction.

5. Moving forward one last time: go to your results and conclusions and give alternative explanations. Why might you be wrong? What are the limits of applicability of your findings? What future research would be appropriate to follow up on these loose ends?

6. Write the abstract. An easy way to start is to take the first sentence from each of the first five paragraphs of the article. This probably won't be quite right, but I bet it will be close to what you need.

7. Give the article to a friend, ask him or her to spend 15 minutes looking at it, then ask what they think your message was, and what evidence you have for it. Your friend should read the article as a potential consumer, not as a critic. You can find typos on your own time, but you need somebody else's eyes to get a sense of the message you're sending.

Bottom line?  Readers are "potential consumers," make it easy for them to buy.  And don't think that marketing is below you.  It isn't.  Marketing can expand the market for what is profound and deep as well as for what is fun.  


A less charitable way of describing that method of writing is to rationalize your prejudices. A writing that does not attend to the gap between words and things and where those gaps may lead reason seems rather empty.

A less charitable way of describing that method of writing is to rationalize your prejudices...

I think the intended context is when you have already done the research, and are just trying to figure out how best to present it. Of course you don't do the research by deciding on the conclusions first, and then looking only at evidence that favours those conclusions.

In practice research and writing may not be separate, of course. Even though you think you've finished the research, trying to write it up may reveal weaknesses that you hadn't previously recognized.

Doing either research or writing with no "prejudices", better called tentative conclusions, won't get you anywhere. You can't do any useful data collection if you have no focus for what to collect data on.

odd how he recommends working backwards, reminds me of how checkers and other games were solved.

Also, don't make the grad student mistake.

The classic grad student mistake in a talk or a paper is to talk about what was hard, rather than what was interesting.

Very interesting, thanks for the pointer. Clicking through and reading the whole thing, and the comments, is worth it.

Thanks for this post. You know, I'd really appreciate a post where you suggested news sources that you consider good ones.

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