7 TIPS FOR WRITING YOUR FIRST PAPER

PhD, science writer
All those years at university mixing coffee, study, sleep and fun have finally culminated in you doing some original research. Congratulations, you're now at the cutting edge of current knowledge! But if you're like many early-career researchers, the next step of sharing your work with the world can be daunting. Here are some handy tips to set you off on the right course:


1. Structure your time
With new research ideas burning in your brain, ongoing experiments waiting for your attention and a host of other commitments to attend to, it can be easy to put off writing a paper. Make a writing schedule that fits in with your life and work commitments, and then stick to it. You'll be surprised how much you can accomplish even if you can only dedicate just a few hours per week to writing.


2. Get ideas down on screen/paper
Before you begin to actually write anything, it can feel like there are thousands of factors to consider in writing your very first paper. A good way to get the ball rolling is to forget about writing polished sentences. Just focus on the main reason why you want to share your research: because it is new knowledge. You can simply write down a very brief (or very long if the words just spill out) outline of what your results are, what they mean and why the work is important. This is half the battle done! The rest is simply a matter of adding context and structure.


3. Dissect the best articles from your subject area
You can put those well-trained research skills to use in studying how your peers have presented their work. There may be certain terminology and ways of describing different elements of research that are particular to your subject that everybody uses. And you might find some authors are really good at explaining relevant complex topics. Ask yourself why these explanations are so good, and keep your answer in mind for when you start to write in earnest. Also, note down the journal names, as this can help you in deciding where to submit your article, which we will discuss next.


4. Choose where you intend to submit your paper
Resist the temptation to start writing just yet. There is one more thing to do first: choose where you want to submit your paper. The first thing to consider is which journals are relevant to your work. If you're not sure, the journal's scope will give you an idea, and advice from your peers and supervisor(s) can also be a great help. Next, you need to consider the journal's reputation and visibility. Check the journal's Impact Factor and overall reputation, and ask yourself whether a particular journal is likely to be read by the people you want to read your paper. If you want the public and media to have access to your paper, you need to find out if the journal charges with open access, and whether your institution/supervisor will foot the bill. Other factors such as the language the journal publishes in or its peer review process may also be important to you. A checklist might help in making the final decision.


5. Work in blocks
Though it can depend on the journal you choose to publish your work in, most academic papers follow a tried and tested format: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results, and Discussion & Conclusion. What is expected in each of these sections can be found on the journal publisher's website. You can use this format to your advantage to break down both your research and the writing process into more manageable chunks. It can be tempting to start from the top and work down (i.e. Title -> Abstract -> Intro -> etc…), but this can often make the whole process extremely laborious. An easier way may be to start with what you know most intimately: Materials & Methods, followed by Results. With these in hand, you will be better prepared to add the context and implications of your work in the Introduction, and Discussion & Conclusions sections, respectively. You then have all the elements you'll need to summarise your work in the Abstract. And at some point during the writing process, a Title is bound to pop into your head.


6. Clarity is key
As this is your first paper, you want to create a good first impression, and show that you have complete mastery of your topic. This is totally understandable, but often leads writers into the trap of penning long, convoluted sentences and paragraphs that cover all bases. While writing, remember that the readers may be highly educated academics, but they are also human. No one enjoys reading a complex 10-line sentences with multiple clauses. In contrast, shorter sentences and paragraphs allow the reader to grasp what you are saying more easily; and make your work more accessible to the public and media. A good tip is to discuss the different elements of your research with your peers, and even friends and relatives. The more you do this, the easier it becomes to describe the story of your work in a clear and concise way. If you lack experience of writing in English, you can use tools like Grammarly, ask a native speaker to edit your manuscript or approach the publisher's language editing service for assistance.


7. Edit till you're blue in the face
Once you've written the first draft of your paper, you're nearly done. But not quite. Check your paper for grammatical errors, inconsistencies, sentence/paragraph/section structure and language usage. And refer to the journal's house style for the final touches. You should also send the paper to your supervisor(s) and peers for feedback. Editing might take a long time and mean writing several drafts before you're happy. If you find the editing process frustrating, compare your first draft to your latest version – you'll see why editing is so important.


Good luck!



About the author

Benjamin Skuse is a former mathematician turned freelance science writer based in Somerset, UK.
Twitter: @BenSkuseSciComm