Tips on writing a research paper

Daisy paper

Getting started on writing a manuscript isn’t easy but here are some useful tips on how I approach writing a paper:

  1. Add line numbers to your blank document. If you’re ever tried reviewing a paper where the authors haven’t done this, you’ll know that counting line numbers manually is very tedious. How you do this in Microsoft Word is in Layout >> Line Numbers >> Continuous.
  2. Set up your Reference/Citation Manager. I used to love Mendeley but since it doesn’t work with the latest Microsoft Office, I sadly can no longer use it. EndNote, fortunately, does work with Microsoft Office so I’ve been using that lately. Note that Mendeley is free whereas EndNote requires a paid subscription.
  3. Pick a tentative journal that you’d like to submit the paper to. Think about your audience and the typical journals that you access to find relevant papers in your field. This is particularly important to do early in the writing phase as it will define how you write your abstract, order your sections, label your figures and decide on what typeface/font to use in your figures.
  4. Write a list of tentative titles and pick your favourite. This will help to orient you throughout the writing process and it will change but at least you’ve started thinking about it. Keep it short, easy to understand and actually spell out what the paper is about. Think about what catches your eye when you scroll through a list of previous publications in your field as a guide.
  5. Write an authors and affliation list in the order that it will appear when you submit the paper. This is an important discussion to have as early as possible. Not an easy topic to broach but I assure you that you don’t want to be asking about where your name will fit in when the draft is finalised. Your future self will thank you.
  6. Do you have an abstract already written for a conference that you submitted to? If so, add it in.
  7. Next, write your Methods. This is the easy part because it’s literally just writing out what you did. Of course, be sure to know the exact names of the reagents you used. Don’t forget to write down the catalogue numbers for the primary and secondary antibodies you use. Create a table with a list of qPCR primers. More detail is better than less in the draft stage so don’t write, “as previously described by Smith et al.” but rather, actually write out what you did. You can always cut this down later in the final editing stages.
  8. I like to write the Introduction next. Why? Because it gives me some direction and helps me figure out of the flow for the figures and also forces me to write a mini-literature review to see how my data will fit into the bigger picture. Talk about what inspired your research. Keep it succinct, don’t give a history lesson.
  9. Put your figures together and order them in the most logical manner. Write up succinct figure legends as your go. Think of it like a movie storyboard. Any data of secondary importance can go in the supplementary section.
  10. Write the Results section with reference to your figures in chronological and alphabetical order.
  11. Write the Discussion. This is where you discuss your results and talk about how it is similar or different to published work. Talk about any future directions your data opens up.
  12. Acknowledgements, Author Contributions and Data Availability Statements and Conflict of Interest Statements usually follow the references but check the journal’s guidelines.

Some general tips

    1. Define all abbreviations
    2. Limit the use of jargon
    3. Fix any typos, grammatical or tense errors
    4. Check that all images have scale bars and that figure legend has the corresponding value
    5. Is all text legible in the figures? All x- and y-axes are labelled?
    6. Try to avoid non-specific qualifying words e.g. much higher or lower but rather use numerical qualifiers
    7. Write a cover letter to the editor explaining why you think this paper is a good fit for the journal and include what is exciting about the paper including any unmet areas or controversies. Don’t list past accomplishments from your lab in this letter.

Hope these tips are helpful! Let me know if you have any questions or any of your own tips you’d like to share in the comments below. Take care and stay healthy!

Useful links

  1. Easy exercises for building manuscript writing skills here
  2. Tips on writing a good research title here

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