Our secret recipe (with 5 key ingredients) for a winning manuscript
Have I presented my study findings clearly? Am I missing out on crucial information? Are my figures explaining the data derived from my research well enough? If you’ve asked yourself these questions, you are not alone. These are just a few of the many concerns that weigh on authors at the manuscript preparation stage. In fact, the by Editage reveals that 76% of authors find it difficult to prepare a manuscript for submission.
And it doesn’t get any easier! Data shows that 21% of manuscripts are desk rejected by journals, with another 30% rejected after peer review.1 While this is a large number by itself, top international journals are known to have even higher manuscript rejection rates.
You may not be able to control the final decision of the journal, but what you can most certainly do is control the quality of your journal submission. By ensuring that you’ve accounted for and included all the elements of a good research paper, you can significantly increase the chances of your manuscript being accepted.
To make your job simpler, here’s a simple yet effective recipe with five ingredients, which are key to creating a well-written, submission-ready manuscript that delights the journal editor and whets the appetite of all those who get the first taste of your work. I hope these time-tested tips help you elevate the quality of your paper so that you feel completely prepared and confident for submission day!
1. Research Paper Title - The appetizer to begin the feast
Your manuscript title is the first thing that the editor reads, and it needs to be appealing, interesting and clearly summarize your research topic. Even if your manuscript is published and put behind a paywall, your paper’s title will still be freely available in search engine and indexing databases. So, in a dozen or fewer words, your research title must be able to grab the reader’s attention and successfully capture the essence of your study. This is a tall order, and not always easy, so here are 5 tips to help you craft the perfect title for your research, which will be appreciated by journals and readers alike.
- Keep it simple: Draft a title that is easy to understand and concise. Include only the most essential information about your research.
E.g., Diagnostic performance of commercially available COVID-19 serology tests in Brazil
- Make it discoverable: Use search engine friendly keywords that emphasize what your research is about and are popularly used by readers while browsing through article databases.
E.g., Randomized trial for improving motor function in 400 Alzheimer’s patients
- Use a declarative title: If your study results support your hypothesis, don’t be shy to use a declarative title.
E.g., Telemedicine is Cost Effective Compared with Standard Care in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus - A Randomized Trial
- Include a subtitle: Use a subtitle to give additional context and make your study more appealing to potential readers.
E.g., The clinical spectrum of COVID-19: A population-based cohort study in Iceland
- Say NO to full-stops: Never insert period at the end of your title.
WRONG: Safety and Immunogenicity of Two RNA-Based Covid-19 Vaccine Candidates.
RIGHT: Safety and Immunogenicity of Two RNA-Based Covid-19 Vaccine Candidates
Ensure that you’ve followed all necessary guidelines, and test your title thoroughly among your peers, friends, and family to reach a final title that increases your chances of acceptance. You should ideally also use a thorough checklist to refine your title text. Learn the dos and don’ts of drafting an effective title and get access to a comprehensive checklist in this handbook.
2. Adhere to journal guidelines – Always follow the chef’s instructions
You’ve worked hard on your research and identified your target journal, but that is not enough. Even if your research findings are ground-breaking and revolutionary, if it does not adhere to your target journal’s author instructions, the chances of your manuscript moving past the initial screening stage are bleak.
Author guidelines, to a great extent, are instructions on how your research manuscript should be presented to the journal. These include rules for:
- Artwork – size, labels, captions, and acceptable formats for tables and figures
- Language – abstract length, research paper word count, cover letter, or keywords
- Style – font, reference style, footnotes, line spacing, margins, or hyphenation
It is most prudent then to visit the journal’s website and go through the guidelines before you start writing your paper. Apart from instructions, a few journals also share templates that can help ensure your manuscript follows the requisite guidelines.
3. Structure the research paper – Getting all the elements together!
In the culinary world, a great dish is well-balanced, with every ingredient enjoying a place of its own on the plate and eventually on the palate of the taster. Like a beautifully complex dish, your paper too has different elements—abstract, introduction, results, discussion, references, acknowledgements, notes, and more—which when blended well, create a well-structured paper where readers know what to expect at every point.
When you start writing your manuscript, it can be frustrating to sort through the clutter and render structure and finesse to the myriad of thoughts and ideas in your head. This is especially true for early career researchers, which is why most scholars use the IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) structure to organize their research into something that can be read and understood easily.
- Introduction (Why are you doing this?)
This section highlights the significance of your study in your research domain by clearly describing your research question and explaining what issues your research aims to understand or resolve.
- Materials and Methods (How have you done this?)
Use this section to share information on how you conducted your research—which tools, techniques, and instruments were used, the data collection methods, and details about the lab environment.
- Results (What have you found?)
In this section, share complete details of what you’ve discovered through your research, starting with the most significant findings. Use tables and figures to simplify complex data and results for readers.
- Discussion (What does this mean?)
Based on findings from the previous section, the Discussion is for you to elaborate on what the study implies, whether the hypothesis was supported, data-based analyses, and study limitations.
You can learn more about the IMRaD structure and master the art of crafting a well-structured manuscript that impresses journal editors and readers in this in-depth course for researchers.
4. Edit aggressively – Keep tasting, adjusting, and enhancing the dish
According to Peter Thrower, Editor-in-Chief of Carbon, one of the top reasons for rejection is poor language comprehension.2 Incorrect usage of words, grammar and spelling errors, and flaws in sentence construction can spoil even the greatest research, which makes editing a crucial element in good scientific writing.
The most common advice from editors is to simplify the language and chop off the excess. Start by trimming unnecessary words and sentences that don’t add any real value. For instance, the sentence “Brain injury incidence shows two peaks: the rates are the highest in the very young and the elderly” can be edited to simply read as “Brain injury incidence peaks in the very young and the elderly”.
Apart from this, to be considered submission-ready, scientific writing must have the correct use of punctuation, fonts, abbreviations, and grammar among other language guidelines. A second look and in-depth review is required and recommended to help enhance the readability of the manuscript and impress the journal editor, reviewer, and reader. However, a competent editor must have a knowledge of the journal requirements, an understanding of what makes a cohesive, well-written manuscript, and some subject-area expertise to review the manuscript effectively. This is where professional editing services can help you improve sentence structure, grammar, word choice, style, logic and flow to create a polished manuscript that has a 24% greater chance of journal acceptance.3
5. Beware of plagiarism – Create a dish with authentic flavors!
A statement by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy on research misconduct defines plagiarism as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit”. Even if this was unintentional (accidental plagiarism), not correctly citing, paraphrasing or quoting another’s work can not only lead to rejection, but also stir up trouble for you.
Self-plagiarism or redundant publication (also known as duplicate publishing) is when you use your own words or quote your previous studies without attributing the original source. Any work that is presented as original, i.e., it is not properly cited is deemed unethical and considered a copyright infringement by the journal. Instead, to connect your current study with a previously published paper, a clear distinction between original research and data derived from previous studies must be made.4
Plagiarism is a serious ethical issue, and can cause irreversible damage to your reputation and career. To help you avoid this fate and eliminate the risk of desk rejection, R Pubsure, a powerful AI-based pre-submission check, helps researchers evaluate their manuscript across key submission parameters, including a plagiarism check used by editorial offices worldwide. Try it out here!
In order to stand out in a vast pool of submissions, it is important to draft a quality manuscript that is polished and well-written, that adheres to journal instructions, is referenced appropriately, and follows other guidelines discussed today. There are multiple ways to ensure that your research manuscript gets the best shot at publication – by upskilling and learning the ropes of crafting a great submission package yourself, using AI-assisted manuscript evaluation to make your paper submission-ready and submit with confidence, and improving your paper with the help of a team of publication experts.
Now that we’ve shared all the ingredients and methods to our favorite manuscript preparation recipe, we certainly hope you cook up a storm!
Hungry for more? Check out a few related resources:
- The importance of manuscript submission readiness checks (with a downloadable checklist to get you started)
- VIDEO: What makes a great submission package?
- 5 Simple steps to write a good research paper title
- VIDEO: Structure of a research paper
- 6 Actionable tips to improve academic writing
1. E. George, The importance of manuscript submission readiness checks (with a downloadable checklist to get you started). Editage Insights, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.editage.com/insights/the-importance-of-manuscript-submission-readiness-checks-downloadable-checklist-to-get-you-started
2. P. Thrower, 'Eight reasons I rejected your article'. Elsevier, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.elsevier.com/connect/8-reasons-i-rejected-your-article
3. New Editage Report Shows That Pre-Submission Language Editing Can Improve Acceptance Rates of Manuscripts Written by Non-Native English-Speaking Researchers. PR Newswire, 2019. Retrieved from
4. What's the big deal about self-plagiarism? Editage Insights, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.editage.com/insights/whats-the-big-deal-about-self-plagiarism
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