Breaking the Writer’s Block
(March 30th, 2016) Some say, writing a manuscript is the hardest part of research. To make it easier for you, open access publisher Biomed Central has a few hopefully helpful tips.
The first things to think about…
* Think about your readers, and how you yourself read research articles. The editor and reviewers will (hopefully) read the entire manuscript carefully, but after publication many people will skim read. Therefore…
* Decide on your message. State the most important conclusions as clearly and concisely as possible. Then work backwards – how do your data support this? What is the advance over previous studies?
* Put all the above information in the introduction so that the reader understands exactly what you did and why. Do not keep back any important information to give your conclusions section an exciting twist.
* What’s new? In the introduction, refer to recent similar publications and explain how yours differs. Remember that your manuscript will be read by your peers, who know the field and will not be fooled (and may be annoyed) if you ignore or gloss over other recent work.
* Keep it simple. Formal or complex language is not usually necessary. Try writing in the active voice (“We recruited participants” rather than “Participants were recruited”), at least in the early draft, to help you write naturally and clearly.
* Methods in the madness. Before we can trust your conclusions, even if they seem to be supported by the data, we need to know exactly what you did and how you did it. Be sure you include all the relevant information, reflecting on any issues that might introduce bias into the research.
* Follow the relevant reporting guideline(s). Many study types in biomedicine have consensus research reporting guidelines, which set out minimum set of items required for a clear and transparent account of what was done and what was found in a research study. You should follow these to ensure your report is complete, which cuts down on the number of review and revision cycles. Many journals also ask you to submit a populated reporting checklist to demonstrate you have followed the relevant guideline. You can find reporting guidelines on the EQUATOR Network or Biosharing Portal.
* Choose how to present your results. Your results section should be focussed and coherent, and presented in a logical order. Use supplementary files to back up these main points and provide access to raw data, large tables and other detailed results.
* But equally, don’t bury important details in the supplementary information. BioMed Central journals generally don’t have space constraints, so you can put all the important data in the main text. This includes non-confirmatory or null data – don’t hide or exclude results that don’t fit your conclusions.
* Get your figures right. Many people go straight to the figures when reading manuscripts, so it is well worth taking the time to ensure they are clear and uncluttered. Print out in greyscale to make sure the message is not lost. The legend should contain enough detail that the figure can be understood without the main text.
* Wrap it up. What do your results really show? How does this fit with existing knowledge? What are the limitations?
* Don’t overstate your conclusions. If this is the first time something has been shown, say so! Speculate a little on how your findings might be applied in future. However, your readers know that your study won’t really eradicate all disease and save the rainforests, so be realistic.
* Proof-read. Brilliant research can be completely disguised by poor writing. Ask a colleague to read the manuscript and tell you whether you are expressing yourself clearly. If you are not writing in your native language, consider using a copyeditor before submission.
* Define abbreviations the first time you use them. No-one wants to fight through a thicket of initials.
* Deposit your data and put the accession numbers in the manuscript. Hopefully you thought about this before you began gathering the data in the first place, and you’ll be aware of the community expectations and most-used repositories in your field. Deposition can be a slow process, especially with human data, so make an early start on this.
And then the next stage…
The second stage of the process is getting the manuscript ready to submit to your chosen journal. Hopefully you’ll only have to do this once; realistically you may have to repeat a few times before finding the perfect home for your manuscript.
* Read the journal’s Instructions for Authors and follow the guidelines for formatting. Some journals are more lenient about formatting on submission, but getting it right now will save time later.
* Read the journal’s editorial polices and make sure your manuscript contains all the required information.
And last but not least…
* Good luck!
Rebecca Furlong and Daniel Shanahan (Biomed Central blog)