How to write scientific papers

A Nature article syntheses suggestions from authors and journal editors on how to get manuscripts noticed, approved and put in print in an article  Publish like a pro

These days, the dreaded blank page is a white screen with a blinking cursor, and distractions such as e-mail and online Scrabble are just a click away. But there are tricks to getting past the terror-inducing start.

Aspiring writers should have a template to hand — a previous paper published by the lab or a ‘near-neighbour’ article from the same journal. Nazaroff advises paralysed would-be writers to take the template concept one step further by counting the number of paragraphs in each section, the number of figures and the number of references. “Then you will get a sense of the length you are shooting for,” he says. Counting paragraphs can also break down a daunting section, such as the introduction, into more manageable portions.

When a writing task seems insurmountable, Nazaroff gets over writer’s block by making a list of all the parts that need doing and tackling the easy items first, such as calling a collaborator or checking a reference. He lets that momentum carry him past the block. Nazaroff likes to start every day of writing by editing the previous day’s material — a useful tactic that helps to ease him into a writing mindset. “Recognizing that writing is a long process is valuable. Find a mentor in that process, somebody to guide and coach you,” he says.

… The usual writing advice applies to manuscript writing as well — be clear and concise and use simple language whenever possible … “Don’t say ‘rodents’ when you mean ‘rats’ — that kind of creativity is horrible. Science is complicated enough,” says Blumberg, who has also authored several popular science books. Important but poorly written papers could end up being sent back unreviewed by busy editors.

Editors stress the importance of clarity above all else, to help convey arguments and logic to them and to readers. They say that most writers make the mistake of assuming too much knowledge on the part of their audience. In reality, even at the most specialized journals, only a handful of readers will be such close colleagues that they don’t need any contextual set-up.

… Often, less is more for junior scientists crafting manuscripts. The introduction need not cite every background article gathered, the results section should not archive every piece of data ever collected, and the discussion is not a treatise on the paper’s subject. The writer must be selective, choosing only the references, data points and arguments that bolster the particular question at hand.

Once a first draft is complete, says Hauber, the work has only just begun. “Revise and revise and revise,” he advises. Hauber says that new authors tend to think that “once a sentence is written, it’s gold or carved in diamonds”. In reality, however, editing is crucial. Even polished authors go through an average of 10–12 drafts, and sometimes as many as 30.

Writers should ask not only the principal investigator to view drafts, but also every co-author, as well as fellow students or postdocs, and colleagues outside the immediate field of research. Lead authors should give co-authors set deadlines of 10 days to two weeks to suggest changes. Experienced authors counsel letting the draft sit for a few days before reading it with fresh eyes to catch mistakes or problems in flow. Blumberg prefers to read drafts aloud with his students to spot errors.

Writing Tips:

  • You are only as good as your last paper — previous success does not guarantee future acceptance.
  • You’ve got to hook the editor with the abstract.
  • Don’t delete those files. Keep every version. You never know what aspect you can use for some other piece of writing.
  • Writing is an amazingly long learning curve. Many authors say that they’re still getting better as a writer after several decades.
  • The most significant work is improved by subtraction. Keeping the clutter away allows a central message to be communicated with a broader impact.
  • Write every day if possible.
  • Once you’ve written what you wanted to convey, end it there.

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