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Top tips for writing your paper
“Why do I need tips? I know my subject backwards, I’ve written countless papers and reviewed even more, and anyway most people only ‘read’ the abstract!”
Even if all of the above is true, and you’re not a novice author, we’ve all struggled with articles that are more difficult to read than they need to be. With ever-increasing numbers of articles published, and less time to read them, a well-written paper will have a better chance of being read more widely.
It may even be reviewed more quickly!
The tips below will help identify areas that can make an article quicker, easier and more pleasurable to read.
- When everyone is short of time, getting to the point of the article clearly and simply is likely to encourage more people to read – and remember – the main message.
- What must your reader understand about this paper? Ensure all sections of the article support the main theme or findings.
- Increasingly readers find articles using search engines or by browsing email alerts, meaning that the first part of your article they see is the title.
- Be clear and avoid ambiguity. Only relevant articles will make it into a results list, so include any essential terms.
- Evidence suggests that ‘short is good’, but if a title doesn’t state what the paper is about, readers may not bother checking whether it’s relevant or not. Encourage browsers to become readers.
- Titles often benefit from being reviewed after the paper is finished – adjust and amend an original title to better reflect any revisions.
- Most journals ask for an abstract, or even bullet points, to summarise the key findings in an article. Don’t use abbreviations, and be clear and concise. Avoid discussion, which should be kept to the main body of the article.
- Many abstracts are freely available, even in subscription journals, so it’s worthwhile being as informative as possible to encourage more readers to go to the full text.
- A beginning, middle and end. Most readable articles have a clear introduction to the topic, outline what findings the article wants to communicate, and how they fit into the wider context of the research field.
- Many article types are structured. Ensure the right bits are in the right section to avoid confusing the reader; it also makes for a more logical story.
- Keep to the point. Be ruthless with text that doesn’t fit.
- Remember many readers are non-native English speakers, so avoid jargon and ambiguous language. Scientific articles often need longer sentences than ordinary text, but a good rule is to follow a long or complex sentence with a short one which reinforces the key point.
- There is evidence to suggest that an active voice works better in communicating ideas and information – ‘we found’, rather than ‘it was found’.
- Figure or table? Decide what works best, and avoid putting too much information in a single figure or table. Alternatively, related information may be clearer if two tables or figures are combined into one.
- Use of supplementary material can help to avoid making the article too complicated.
- Remember to refer to all references, figures, tables, media and supplementary files in the text.
- Most research articles are multi-authored, and read and commented on by several people. Ensure that all sections fit together seamlessly, and avoid repetitions. Always re-read the article from beginning to end after any revision and check it still makes sense.
- Always read the ‘Instructions for Authors’, and be clear about the requirements for your journal of choice.
- Get the right journal at submission! It may sound obvious, but articles have been submitted to the wrong journal, and even withdrawn after acceptance.
- Check that you have all parts of the article before you submit it. Many articles are found to lack ‘Figure X’ or ‘Table Y’, and review of the article will be delayed.
- Make sure you know if there are any publication charges.
- Include any statements regarding funding, author contributions or permissions as needed.
- Ensure figures, tables or media files are in the right format, and are at the right resolution.
- Most journals will now check articles submitted to them for compliance with the editorial and ethical policies. Check these and make sure you comply, as breaches may result in severe penalties, such as a ban from submitting to that journal.
- Ensure any quotations are attributed, and include permission to reproduce any previously published figures or tables.