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How to Format Your Manuscript

Understanding how to format your manuscript is an important skill for researchers and getting it right will make your PI very happy – they’ll spend less time proofreading and editing the document for you and it might just help get your manuscript through to peer review faster.   When writing up your results for a particular journal style, here’s my take on how to do this.

Title

A good title catches the reader’s attention and makes him want to read the article. It tells the reader what the article is about. I’ve also found that it’s hard to write a good one, and that it’s one of the last things I do.

Most effective titles are fewer than ten words. Think of it as a label. Leave out nonessential words and phrases such as “report on,” “pilot study,” “assessment of,” and similar descriptors.

Phrased another way, think of Google keywords. If you wouldn’t ask Google to find a word, try to leave that word out of your title.

Excess words:

Report on the Destruction of Renal Calculi by Use of Ultrasound

Better:

Ultrasonic Destruction of Kidney Stones

That’s an example from SPEAKING & WRITING FOR THE PHYSICIAN by LT Staheli, Raven Press, 1986. “Report on the” and “by use of” are obviously wasted words. The second example looks more “active” to me even though, grammatically, it isn’t.

The choice between “renal calculi” and “kidney stones” is perhaps a case of deciding which phrase a searcher might use. I can’t answer that without knowing more about your target reader.

Excess words:

Prior Study to Access the Incidence of Coronary Artery Disease in a Group of High School Football Coaches

Better:

Coronary Artery Disease in High School Football Coaches

“Prior study to access the incidence of”. Wow. Guess what? That was a published article, and I’d call it an important one. But what a long title. “In a group of” is also a mouthful of nothing.

In one of my lectures, we discussed an alternate title such as “Artery Disease in High School Football Coaches in Thailand”. If the country-specific nature of the data is a factor, my instincts say to mention that. But a few years after my lecture series, an engineering journal told one of my authors to never mention the location of a study.

Obviously, your target publication’s guidelines always override anything you read here or anywhere else.

 

Introduction

Start with a strong opening sentence to set the tone of your paper. Staheli gives us this example:

Is the busy executive more likely to die prematurely from coronary artery disease?

The title grabs the reader’s attention. The abstract gives him a better idea of what to expect. If he’s still reading, a good introduction will keep him interested and keep him reading. It’ll tell him why you wrote your paper. It’ll present the purpose and scope of the paper and provide any background information he needs. It can range from a few sentences to a page or two, depending on the nature and complexity of the study. Most introductions are too long.

Write your introduction in the present tense, because you’re giving established and accepted information.

 

Materials and Methods

This is where you explain how you conducted your study. Write it in the past tense.

Include source of data, method of organization, and system of analysis. Give the reader enough information to assess the validity of your study and repeat your method if he wants to. If your method is well established, this section can be relatively short. Otherwise more detail will be needed.

 

Results

Present your data or results in a straightforward, factual manner, without commentary or interpretation. This is the heart of your paper. Summarize your data in the most complete and efficient manner possible.

Write this section in the past tense. Tables and figures can be a big help in clarifying your data presentation.

 

Discussion

“So what? Why do your findings matter?” Answer that here. This is also where you speculate and theorize. Spark the reader’s imagination. I think of this as the “fun” part of writing.

Write this in the present tense, because your findings are now established scientific knowledge. Ain’t that cool?

 

Summary and Conclusion

The purpose of this section has evolved over the years, so check the policy of the journal you’re submitting the paper to. You might just need to restate your main thesis and summarize your findings and conclusions, or perhaps make recommendations for further research or application of your findings.

 

Abstract

Most journals now include an abstract, and to a degree the abstract has replaced part of the summary and conclusion’s old job. It provides an overview of your findings and should stimulate reader interest.

Abstracts are frequently reprinted in other journals or entered into computer literature retrieval systems, so they must be able to stand alone. In other words, this might be the only part of your paper some people read. Some websites let readers read the abstract free, and charge money for the rest of the paper.

Write the abstract last, after the rest of your paper is ready to send to a journal. Write it carefully, and revise it to get your word count as low as you can. An abstract should concisely state the purpose, methods, results, and significance of the study. Use short sentences and active verbs for brevity, clarity, and impact.

Abstracts usually range from 100 to 200 words, but length varies with the journal. Check length requirements in the “Instructions to Authors” page and stay within the suggested word maximum.

 

And remember to write your abstract in the past tense.

 

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