How researchers should work to write the first draft of their manuscript
If writing a research paper is your aim, you will achieve it more easily if you define that aim in more concrete terms: say to yourself, “I am going to write an account of my research work in about 3500 words, structured in the IMRaD format (introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion).”
You can make the task even more concrete if you set aside a specific number of words for each of these four sections.1 A rough allocation, in number of words, can be as follows: Introduction, 400; Methods, 700; Results, 1000; and Discussion, 1400. These limits are suggestions: do not take them as inflexible. Think of each section as an answer to a question: Why (Introduction), How (Materials and methods), What (Results), and So what (Discussion). Once you have this outline, start filling in details. Here are a few tips.
1. Start writing early. Do not wait until you have completed the entire piece of research work you had planned. Write the methods section as you go along, when all the details are fresh in your mind or can be looked up readily, such as the make and model of any instrument that you used, the duration of a specific chemical reaction, the composition of chemical solutions, and so on. For the results section, because you know what observations you are going to record, you can even prepare dummy tables beforehand and fill in the cells of each table as the results come in.
2. Talk to others about the study. If you explain your work to others verbally before you begin to write, you will find writing easier: the sequence of ideas will be clearer to you, words will flow faster, and what you write will be clearer to your readers.
3. Make an outline and expand it. Whereas the IMRaD structure is a broad one, you need to make it more detailed by adding the required subheadings. For the methods section, for example, the subheadings can be (1) Description of the site, (2) Sampling and design of the experiment, (3) Methods of analysing the samples, and (4) Statistical analysis. In general, the same headings in the same sequence can be used where applicable for the results section. Paul Silvia, PhD in psychology, and author of the book How to Write a Lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing advises: “Get your thoughts in order before you try to communicate them to the world of science.”2
4. Structure the introduction in the form of a funnel. The materials and methods section is easier to write because you are writing about what you did and how, whereas the introduction is more challenging because it has to answer the question ‘Why’ (Why did you choose that topic? Why did you use that particular method?). Begin by setting the stage and the context; introduce the research question or objective and emphasize its importance (preferably, give the relevant statistics); briefly review earlier efforts to answer that question or solve that problem and state how your approach is different; and end the introduction with a statement of specific objectives of the study. In other words, pinpoint a gap in knowledge and indicate how you intend to fill it.
5. Manage time by setting a target. Although you can make an outline and revise it during any odd moments of free time, set aside large blocks of uninterrupted time once you start fleshing the outline. Set targets for those blocks of time in terms of the number of words, not in terms of time: tell yourself that you will not get up unless you have written at least 500 words, never mind how long it may take. At this stage, it is important to keep writing: don't fret about the choice of the exact word or even the right spelling—the revising and polishing come later.
Writing may seem an unwelcome chore, but think of the rewards – recognition, satisfaction, and greater confidence – and get down to the job: Belcher shows you how to do so in 12 weeks.3 Happy writing!
1 Araújo C G. 2014. Detailing the writing of scientific manuscripts: 25-30 paragraphs. Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia 102 (2): e21–e23 doi 10.5935/abc.20140019
2 Silvia P J. 2019. How to Write a Lot: a practical guide to productive academic writing, 2nd edn. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 145 pp.
3 Belcher W L. 2019. Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, 2nd edn. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 427 pp.
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