5 Practical tips for writing your first scientific paper [Download publication schedule planner]
You have been working hard on your research project for months and the data it has generated are promising. You feel now is the right time to start writing your first research paper, but you have been putting the task off. You don’t know where or how to begin writing your manuscript. Sounds familiar?
Doing anything for the first time is often difficult, and writing a research paper is no exception. I published my first research paper in 1977, but the thrill I felt on seeing the paper in print is fresh in my mind to this day.
Although the process of submitting a paper to a journal has evolved a great deal over time, that of writing – of weaving words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs – has not. You probably type the text rather than putting a pen to paper, but that makes little difference to the scientific writing process.
If you are embarking on the task of writing your very first paper, here are a few tips to start you off.
1. Prepare an outline or skeleton. The hardest part of writing is producing continuous text, because it requires attention to grammar and syntax—which is why it helps to create a framework, just as an architect prepares a blueprint before starting the construction of a building. Outlining and structuring your paper also forces you to organize your paper into logical sections.
If the target journal follows the IMRaD format, your job is easier, although you will need to include subheadings as required under the four main headings, namely Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. If the journal has no set format, you will need to think of appropriate main headings as well and to arrange them in the right sequence. This work does not require continuous stretches of time; you can prepare and revise the outline during brief stretches of time.
It helps to show the proposed outline to your colleagues and revise it if necessary, because what is obvious to you may not be so to them (your close involvement in the work you are reporting can blind you to abrupt changes in the flow of your narrative, for example).
2. Think sections and paragraphs, not a full paper. What you see in front of you as you begin is a blank screen whereas what you see in your mind’s eye is a finished product: a crisply written and neatly formatted paper free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. The difference between these two is wide and stark enough to freeze you into inaction. The solution? Do not think about the final product as a whole; break it down into bite-size chunks. Write paragraph by paragraph and section by section.
3. Pick your target journal and start writing early. The choice of a journal is a separate topic in itself, but choose your target journal (the journal to which you plan to submit your paper) early on. This will give you ample time to study its instructions to authors and also examine recent issues of that journal. Once you have made sure that your paper is within the scope of the journal, you can start writing. Do not wait until your research is complete: write as you continue your laboratory or field work. You can start writing the section on materials and methods, for example, while the details are still fresh in your mind. You can even create dummy tables complete with column headings and row headings—all you need to do is to plug in the values into the appropriate cells as your results come in.
De Araújo (2014) offers sound advice in his paper titled ‘Detailing the writing of scientific manuscripts: 25-30 Paragraphs’ on how to proceed by visualizing your task not as that of writing a research paper (besides being daunting, this is too abstract for your mind to grasp) but of writing 25–30 paragraphs, divided into the typical IMRaD format (introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion). Belcher (2009) describes such a systematic approach to academic writing, which is designed to complete the task, namely writing a research article, in 12 weeks.
4. Discuss your research before you start writing. Talking about your work before you write will ‘prime’ you for the task; you will find that words come easily to you if you have explained your work to others. As your thoughts organize themselves into words, you will find that you are able to organize and write your paper with more ease. Such discussions with your collaborators or trusted colleagues will also alert you to any gaps in your work.
5. Set writing targets in terms of number of words. Whenever you begin a writing session, set a target: say to yourself that you will not quit the session until you have written, say, 400 words. This works better than setting aside, say, the next three hours for writing. What also helps is assigning a regular slot for writing – Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings, for example – because you develop the habit of writing. By sitting down to write at a set time of the day, you are training your brain to adapt itself. Stick to the schedule until it becomes a habit.
But enough of theorizing: why not start writing now?
Note: Download below the journal publication schedule planner below that will help you plan your publication better.
- How to create an outline for your research paper
- How do I start planning my own research paper?
- A step-by-step guide to creating a journal publication schedule in 2018 (Download- Journal publication planning template)
Belcher W L. 2009. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 weeks. Thousand Oaks, Los Angeles: Sage Publishing. 376 pp.
De Araújo C G S. 2014. Detailing the writing of scientific manuscripts: 25-30 paragraphs. Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia 102: e21–e23. http://doi.org/10.5935/abc.20140019
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