You’ve done the experiments, gathered the data, interpreted the results, and now you’ve got something important to share with the scientific community. Congratulations! You’re writing a scientific paper. Once you’ve decided on which journal to submit your paper, you can get the guidelines from that journal.
All that’s left is to write the paper. Your goal is to write #### words. But all you see before you is a blank computer screen. Don’t panic.
The guidelines give you a structure to follow. It probably looks like this:
- Methods, or Methods and Materials, or Patients and Methods, or …
- Results, or Observations
Let’s skip the scientific abstract, acknowledgements, and references because you write those last, and we’re just trying to get you started. Let’s also acknowledge that writing your Title is the hardest and last thing you do. What’s left?
Getting Started – What Not to Do
The typical author starts with a blank page and fear, then just starts writing that Introduction. The rough draft of the introduction is usually much too long because the author doesn’t really know what they are introducing yet. It usually stays too long as well because the author’s just glad to get it over with. Then, they just write the other sections in the order I’ve listed above.
Eventually, the entire paper gets written, and—with enough self-editing and/or outside editing—it might even turn into a good paper. But getting the paper into good shape is hard work.
Let’s try taking a few minutes to plan before we start writing massive chunks of text. Once you write those massive chunks of text, you’re so pleased to get the words out of your head and onto the page (or computer screen) that you might hate to delete them—even if they need deleting.
Before You Write, Plan
“What’s your paper about?” If I ask you that, you should be able to tell me in a one to three sentences. If you can’t do that, then you’re not ready to write it yet. If you can tell me in one sentence, then that’s your thesis statement. That sentence might be the first one in your introduction or it might be the last one in your conclusion.
Einstein said that if you can’t explain something to an eight-year-old kid, then you don’t understand it yourself. I really like that idea, but maybe your study’s a bit too specialized for an eight year old. Explain it to a twelve year old, then. Just keep it simple.
How simple? I’m still a pen and paper guy. Maybe you open Notepad on your computer, or use your iPad, or start your Dictaphone. Whatever works best for you.
Eight steps. Don’t write your paper yet. Instead, answer each of these questions, briefly, just a sentence or two. You’re still not writing a paper yet.
Answer These Eight Questions to Plan Your Scientific Paper
- What was I trying to do?
- Why did I think it was worth doing?
- How did I do it?
- What did I show?
- What do I need to emphasize?
- What do I need to justify or explain?
- What is my message?
- What would I like to do next?
Can you answer those? I think you can. If not, then maybe you don’t have a complete story yet.
Now Put Those Answers Together to Write the Manuscript
The answer to question #2 (why you thought it was worth doing) is your introduction. Briefly review your important facts and references. Maybe the journal will publish a too-long introduction, but maybe that same introduction will stop reading your paper because of it. Be ruthless. Cut your introduction down until it only what’s necessary to understand the rest of your paper and to answer question #2 is left.
The last sentence or paragraph of your introduction should answer question #1.
Your answer to question #3 (how you did it) is your methods section. Make a set of logical notes in sequence. That’s the outline you can use to write the methods section of your paper.
Small, simple steps, done one at a time. That’s how you write a paper. Come to think of it, that’s also how you do an experiment. Easy, isn’t it? Sure, you can do this.
Question #4 asks what you showed. Those are your results or observations. Just report what you measured or described, without interpretation. Tables and figures can help readers here. Remember that dense paragraphs of text are hard to read.
Questions #5 through #8 are the basis of your discussion/ limitations/conclusions. This is the most interesting part to write, because that’s where you interpret your data, discuss the implications of it, and share your opinions on it, which are of course supported by your evidence.
As you answer each of these eight questions and turn each of the answers into the sections of your paper, I have one other trick to help you focus. The question at the forefront of your reader’s mind is probably “Why should I care?” Put it at the forefront of your mind too.