Thoughts on Writing your First Research Article
Writing your first research article is not an easy endeavour. How exactly can you produce a script that is valued by the reader, reviewers and the editor? The truth is there is no single way to achieve this. You should aim to let your data speak for itself and ensure the reader doesn’t have to spend time trying to understand what you have written. But how exactly can you achieve this? This article will explore several different steps you can take to maximise your chance of writing a successful article.
The first thing to consider is what problem you would like to solve. This may take you some days or weeks to formulate and the question you arrive at will form the basis for your hypothesis. Next perform a brief review of the literature around your chosen topic and select articles which could be cited in your paper. You are now in a position to embark on your first research article. Satisfy yourself that you can answer these four questions:
- Why do you want to publish?
- What type of manuscript?
- Which journal?
- What are the journal requirements?
Why Do You Want to Publish?
Think about why you want to publish your work and take some time to question your hypothesis to check if it is publishable. If you answer yes to the following questions, then you should start preparation of your manuscript.
- Have I done something new and interesting?
- Is there anything challenging in my work?
- Is my work related directly to a current hot topic?
- Have I provided solutions to some difficult problems?
What Type of Manuscript?
There are three main categories of manuscript. Decide which type of article you will be submitting. They are as follows:
- Original Articles: These are often substantial completed pieces of significant research.
- Letters/Rapid Communications: These are published for quick and early communication of significant and original advances.
- Review Papers/Perspectives: These summarise recent developments on a specific hot topic. They highlight important points that have been previously reported but do not introduce new information.
Most of the articles you have used to prepare your paper are probably from one or two journals. These journals are likely to be the best choices for your article. Read the most recent publications from them, find out what type of articles they publish and what the current hot topics are.
What are The Journal Requirements?
Once you have decided which journal to submit to, spend some time reading and thoroughly digesting the journal requirements. These are often detailed in the ‘Guide for Authors’ which can be found online. Ensure you follow the guidelines as this both shows respect for the editor and will save you and the editor time in the future.
Finding the Narrative
Your article can be said to have been successful if readers are able to recall your main concepts a year after reading. Narrative writing can improve retention and comprehension by telling a story around your data. This leads the reader to your conclusions, improves transmission of ideas and will boost the uptake and influence of your research. So how do you write a narrative?
Imagine there is a red thread that runs through your article. This is the narrative of your story. Now you need to make sure the thread is telling the narrative you want it to. Begin by making a strong and concise summary of the story you want to tell; this is the big picture. Use the summary to outline your entire article within a few short sentences and write it down so it can act as a reminder. From this point you can begin unspooling the thread and building upon the various details within your narrative. Frequently return to your outline for some perspective and as a reminder of the big picture.
Do not worry if your narrative changes over time. As you write, you will invariably do more research and improve your understanding of the subject matter. It isn’t uncommon for your narrative to change and you may even need to reconsider the direction of your narrative as you acquire insights along the way.
Choosing a Title: Identify the Central Contribution
Your article should focus on a central contribution which can be communicated within the title. This is the backbone of your narrative. A well-chosen title will serve as a constant reminder of this idea and will help transmit the message as the article is being read. Make your claim as simple as your data will permit.
When you work with a multi-disciplinary group of authors it is important to sit down together and seek consensus for the main message. This includes the selection of data, how you will present it and the supporting information that is needed to transmit your central idea. The title is an important part of this process. Think regularly about the title and return to it often. Processing your thoughts on the central contribution (and thus the title) will help you plan your article and further develop the theories within it.
A Logical Framework
You should create a logical progression of ideas and results that will support the central concept of your article and resonate with the key message communicated within the title. Careful planning will ensure that no data or logical steps are missed on the way to the conclusion. Each subject should only be covered in one place with similar ideas discussed immediately after the other. Only the central idea should be touched upon multiple times.
You can take this logic further into both the architecture of the article and the components within each paragraph. At the article level, the introduction sets the context, the results present the content, and the discussion reveals your conclusions. At the paragraph level, the first sentence describes the topic, the body will outline the new idea and the final sentence will provide conclusions to remember. If you ever find yourself asking “Why was I told that?”, it means the context is missing. Similarly, if you ask yourself “So what?”, it means the conclusion is missing.
The Science Writer’s Paradox
The purpose of publishing is to communicate your research and ideas to a wide-reaching audience while convincing the specialists of the credibility of your findings. However, scientific writing has the reputation of being dense, uninspiring and difficult to understand. The problem with difficult to read articles is that the reader must spend energy to unpack and understand what is being said. This impedes communication and reduces the amount of information that the reader will be able to recall at a later date.
You might blame the scientific writing style on the need for objectivity and accurate writing, but the real reason is one of convention. Scientists often feel bound to official styles because that is what is required from reviewers and editors. This official style hinders communication and should be seen as an influence rather than a rule on our writing style.
However, care must be taken with creativity. Excessive use can distract readers and make the text difficult to understand for non-native speakers. Furthermore, you should not be using muddy prose to defend from criticisms that have yet to be made. Instead, boldly state what you have done and make it easy for the reader to pay attention and remember what they have read.
Putting Pen to Paper
Write as quickly as possible once you have reached the stage where you can begin putting your words onto paper. Don’t forget your outline and make sure you get everything down. Your aim is to capture your thoughts and ideas as they spill from your mind. Don’t worry about grammatical or stylistic errors. After this torrent of ideas has finished you can correct and re-write the whole text. Once you have written the first complete draft you should ask co-authors to amend it and add new text. This way you can ensure the internal coherence of the paper (as it has been written by one person) and make sure everything ties around a central theme.
Making Use of Time
As a working clinician your greatest limitation will often be the time you have to write. Therefore, you should be careful how you allocate it. Try to spend time in areas which matter the most. These are usually those sections which are viewed most frequently and might include the title, abstract and figures. It is also vital to establish the central logic of your article in the early stages because it will steer the outline of your paper and connect the experimental phase to the communication phase.
You can increase the efficiency of your writing by planning what you will write before you start. This enables you to scrutinise your article at the outline stage rather than wasting time as a wordsmith on paragraphs that you eventually scrap. Your outline should include one informal sentence for each planned paragraph where each planned paragraph has a role in advancing the story.
Making the Reviewers Life Easier
There are five simple things you can do to make the reviewer’s life easier. This shows your respect for them and will ultimately save you time in the long run. Refer to the journal’s ‘Guidelines for Authors’ for specific details, but generally you should:
- Keep the text and layout style consistent. Use the same font and font size in the manuscript and any figures or tables you may have.
- Double line spacing with margins of 3cm.
- Number all the pages.
- Number each row in the text.
- Ensure abbreviations are defined when first used in both the abstract and the main text.
You should view writing your article as an optimisation problem. Your aim is to improve the narrative while outlining all the pertinent features. Obtaining opinions from multiple colleagues can help you understand where the narrative moves too quickly or not fast enough. They can also clarify whether it is best to tweak your text or go back and start again.
Feedback from journal reviewers can also prove insightful. If you receive non-specific feedback and unenthusiastic reviews it means they did not get the big picture story, while very specific feedback points to places where the logic within a paragraph is not sufficient.
Iterative use of feedback allows authors to improve their writing throughout its creation and acts as a positive force in making your article more memorable. But be warned; it is important not to get attached to your writing because you will find occasions where it is faster to trash an entire paragraph and re-write it rather than incrementally hone it with recommendations in mind.
You can further improve your writing skills by reviewing papers from colleagues. This both acts as a form of repayment for those that have helped with your articles and it will help give you a broader view of the hot topics as well as introducing you to a range of writing styles.
Top Tips on Writing
- Avoid long sentences. This includes avoidance of poor sentence structures with incorrect conjugations and the excessive use of subordinate clauses.
- Take care with conjunctive words or phrases such as “however”, “in addition” and “moreover”.
- Do not use spoken abbreviations such as “it’s”, “weren’t” and “hasn’t”.
- Do not begin sentences with a numeral. For example, “5mg of amlodipine was given” is better written as “Amlodipine (5mg) was given”.
- Single-digit numbers should be spelled out. Numbers with two or more digits should be expressed as numerals. For example, “five patients” and “25 respondents”.
- Take care to avoid sentences that don’t follow on logically.
- Take care not to make grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and typos.
- Check whether all your references have been included.
- Check that you have spelt the names of all authors correctly.
- Define technical terms clearly. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms where possible so readers don’t have to go back to identify them.
- Minimise loose threads that the reader must keep in mind at any one time.
Writing is about communication. As you put your pen to paper you must think about the different motivations and priorities of the parties involved. Consider the following: editors would like a significant paper, reviewers want conclusions which are justified by the results, readers want to understand the conclusions of the paper and writers (you) want to convey the important contributions to the broadest possible audience while convincing the specialists of the credibility of the results.
- Elsevier: Writing the first draft of your science paper — some dos and don’ts
- Elsevier: Six things to do before writing your manuscript
- Elsevier: 11 steps to structuring a science paper editors will take seriously
- PLOS: Ten simple rules for structuring papers
- Publishing with Objective Charisma: Breaking Science’s Paradox
- Nature: How to produce a first-class paper that will get published, stand out from the crowd and pull in plenty of readers.
- Health care articles with simple and declarative titles were more likely to be in the Altmetric Top 100
- Writing a Biography