So, you're part way through your graduate school experience and it's time to start writing your first manuscript for submission to a scientific journal. What's the first step when staring at the awful blinking cursor?
Yes, since high school we have all been told we should create an outline before starting the writing process. But we're not necessarily taught how to make a good outline. Here are what I consider to be bad and then good outlines. I have used the introduction section as an example but the general advice applies to all sections of the manuscript.
Paper title: Cuteness index for prairie unicorns
Write something about unicorns
Write something about cuteness
Unicorns are awesome and breathe rainbow fire
Unicorns are related to horses
- Closest relative is extinct Dinohippus (cite Fraser et al. 2013)
- Possess horns
- Much cuter than other living equids (cite Equus and Fraser, 2012)
Unicorn cuteness can be measured as the index of horn length to tail length
- Horn length is a measure of breeding vigor (cite James and Cutie, 1988)
- Longer tails make unicorns more attractive mates and are proportional to strength of rainbow fire breathing (cite D'ior and Gabbana, 2001)
I won't go on any further. The point I am trying to make here is that a good outline should be detailed and guide your writing on the topic (even if it isn't unicorn cuteness). A good outline will bring together the relevant information and literature.
2) Start "barf writing" (also called stream of consciousness writing, if you prefer something less grotesque)
I don't mean projectile vomiting at your computer screen (although I have had the urge once or twice!). Once I have made an outline, I start filling in the gaps. Importantly, I don't spend much, if any, time editing my writing at this stage. Why? It's better to get your ideas and thoughts on paper and then cut them down or add to them later as needed. Additionally, if you "edit while you write" it will take exponentially longer to write the paper.
Your "barf writing" will likely be terrible. But that's okay! No one has to see the paper at this stage. I have written some absolutely awful sentences during barf writing but that's what editing is for!
3) Edit like mad (re-write entire sections, if need be)
I am using the word edit very broadly here. I say I am editing even when I am re-structuring paragraphs and moving sentences from one paragraph to another. This is the stage where I asses the flow and structure of the paper. The introduction, for example, should introduce the problem of the study early on and then explain the details of the problem and how it will be solved. I carefully assess the flow of each sentence and it's placement in the paragraph/entire section. Anything that doesn't fit, is cut. The introduction/discussion (at least) should tell a story that flows logically from one element to the next. Resist the urge to tell the reader everything you know about the topic. We don't want to bore them! We want to lead them logically through the problem, convince them it is important/interesting, and tell them how our study is a great way to address it.
I admit this is the most challenging part of writing a scientific paper and it takes the longest. But I find it the most rewarding. As a coherent paper starts to form, I enjoy the sense of accomplishment.
I wouldn't call this post exhaustive advice on writing scientific papers but it is a start and I consider the points above to be among the most important. If you have any tricks or advice, leave them in the comments!