How to write a first-class paper
Keep your message clear
Think about the message you want to give to readers. If that is not clear, misinterpretations may arise later. And a clear message is even more important when there is a multidisciplinary group of authors, which is increasingly common.The most important information should be in the main text. To avoid distraction, writers should put additional data in the supplementary material.
Countless manuscripts are rejected because the discussion section is so weak that it’s obvious the writer does not clearly understand the existing literature. Writers should put their results into a global context to demonstrate what makes those results significant or original.
There is a narrow line between speculation and evidence-based conclusions. A writer can speculate in the discussion — but not too much. When the discussion is all speculation, it’s no good because it is not rooted in the author’s experience. In the conclusion, include a one- or two-sentence statement on the research you plan to do in the future and on what else needs to be explored.
Create a logical framework
In each paragraph, the first sentence defines the context, the body contains the new idea and the final sentence offers a conclusion. For the whole paper, the introduction sets the context, the results present the content and the discussion brings home the conclusion.
It’s crucial to focus your paper on a single key message, which you communicate in the title. Everything in the paper should logically and structurally support that idea. It can be a delight to creatively bend the rules, but you need to know them first.
You have to guide the naive reader to the point at which they are ready to absorb what you did.
Beware the curse of ‘zombie nouns’
Always think of your busy, tired reader when you write your paper — and try to deliver a paper that you would enjoy reading yourself.One of the principal problems with writing a manuscript is that your individual voice is stamped out. Writers can be stigmatized by mentors, manuscript reviewers or journal editors if they use their own voice. We need to take a fresh look at the ‘official style’ — the dry, technical language that hasn’t evolved in decades.
Prune that purple prose
Writers must be careful about ‘creativity’. It sounds good, but the purpose of a scientific paper is to convey information. That’s it. Flourishes can be distracting. Figurative language can also bamboozle a non-native English speaker.
There are any number of ways of writing a paper that are far from effective. One of the most important is omitting crucial information from the methods section. It’s easy to do, especially in a complicated study, but missing information can make it difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the study. That can mean the research is a dead end.
It’s also important that the paper’s claims are consistent with collected evidence. At the same time, authors should avoid being over-confident in their conclusions.
Editors and peer reviewers are looking for interesting results that are useful to the field. Without those, a paper might be rejected. Unfortunately, authors tend to struggle with the discussion section. They need to explain why the findings are interesting and how they affect a wider understanding of the topic. Authors should also reassess the existing literature and consider whether their findings open the door for future work. And, in making clear how robust their findings are, they must convince readers that they’ve considered alternative explanations.
Aim for a wide audience
Authors spend a lot of time setting up long-winded arguments to knock down possible objections before they actually state their case. Make your point clearly and concisely — if possible in non-specialist language, so that readers from other fields can quickly make sense of it.
If you write in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, you are not only opening yourself up to citations by experts in other fields, but you are also making your writing available to laypeople, which is especially important in the biomedical fields.