Writing a manuscript, especially if it’s your first one, is a difficult task. Troy Hibbard, biotechnologist at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, has some tips to help you get started. And finish successfully.
Whether you have years of experience with scientific publications, or you are simply trying to work through your first article, there will always be challenges in need of conquering. In this article, I have examined a few of the complications stated by post-doctoral scientists who are well-versed in writing peer-reviewed publications. In bringing these problems to light, it is hoped that others may benefit from their experiences.
It has been anywhere from six months to a year and you have managed to collect a substantial amount of data. However, given that you have uncovered such a large amount of information and your lab notebook is now swollen with several months’ worth of printed images, graphs and the occasional agar stains, it is not easy to know which results should be conveyed, in which order. Hence, before jumping straight into your manuscript, it is best to sort your thoughts.
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A very famous quote by Abraham Lincoln stated, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This basically implies that the most vital component of success is being well-prepared. With the goal being a well-revered publication, it is wise to establish what you want to accomplish by beginning your manuscript with the end in mind. The problem that most scientists have at this point, though, is that the end can be reached by following several different paths. So, what is the best way to see the optimal path?
I recommend developing an outline. Outlines act as the skeleton of that future-written masterpiece and can turn chaos into clarity. Not only will the outline help you sort through the introductory theories, materials and methods, but it will also shed light on potential obstacles that would have otherwise hindered progress. What type of obstacles? Well, imagine if you had spent two or three weeks writing your manuscript, only to realise that you were missing a vital experiment necessary for the validation of all subsequent data. Furthermore, the results of this experiment could potentially modify the interpretation of every result that you have been discussing over the past three weeks. Had an outline been initially worked through with your supervisor, those weeks may have been utilised more effectively.
Your supervisor and colleagues all agree that your results are wonderful, and the world must see them. You have also managed to turn the chaos of numbers, bar graphs, spreadsheets and figures into a clear and concise story using an outline. It is now time to give life to your work.
However, it is not as straight forward as simply following the structure of the scientific method. While all peer-reviewed scientific articles are meant to have a traditional introduction, materials, methods, results, discussion, conclusion and reference pattern, each journal will require a writing format that is unique to their reader base. For example, some journals may request a finite amount of text, some may want the discussion to focus more on one particular area than another, and some may even request that you use their given template for generation of figures and images.
To save some time, it is best to select at least three potential journals, to which you believe your data would be best represented and investigate their formatting requirements well in advance of beginning your manuscript. Having a quick read through each format will provide a subconscious guide that will keep your focus within the boundaries necessary for fleshing out your outline into a complete document.
One of the best pieces of advice at this point is to not focus too heavily on grammar and terminology. It may sound counter-intuitive but the truth is that no matter how much effort you put into getting the phrasing perfect, there is always the possibility that your supervisor may deem the section to be insignificant and replaceable. Hence, get the information on paper now and worry about cleaning up the flow at the end. You will be surprised at how much time this saves, while simultaneously reducing the amount of stress felt from the pressures of finding that perfect word.
A major concern among scientists is that they must publish quickly, or perish at the hands of faster scientists. While it is a great feeling to see your work published, quantity will always fall short to quality. This is why it would be a rather large mistake to not work through several drafts before submitting your work to a journal.
Once you have on paper what you would like to convey to the science community, a wise decision would be to take your eyes off of the draft for a day or two. This is not a waste of time but rather a tactical methodology for improving quality. Since you have been researching and writing the article non-stop for longer than you can remember, there is the risk that you may not be able to see the forest for the trees. The brain has a nasty habit of filling in the errors that exist in your written work, the longer you focus on it. This gives the illusion that everything is in writing even though the corrections are only in your head. So, take a break, reboot over some coffee and computer games, and perhaps hand the draft off to a friend to read over while you relax for a day or two.