Advice on Writing a Paper

It is worth writing well!

The better your paper is written, the more people will read it. Don't let poor writing drive away scientists who should be reading and appreciating your scientific work. Here are a few pointers.

  • Section the paper properly. In particular, keep methods out of the Results section. Too many papers provide a Methods section, then introduce further methods in the Results section. This is sloppy and distracts the reader from the logical flow of the results. It is sometimes useful to merge the Results and Discussion sections, but more often this approach leads to a trackless, sprawling Results and Discusion section that buries the chief points of the paper hard to find.
  • Make your points. Identify the key conclusions of your work and state them clearly and succinctly in the Abstract and in the Discussion. Far too many papers say that "important insights were gained", but do not explicitly state the insights. This leaves the reader suspicious that no insights were, in fact, gained.
  • Use correct grammar. Incorrect grammar is jarring to the reader; more importantly, it obscures your meaning. Do not expect your reader to finish reading a paper whose every sentence must be deciphered. If English is not your native language, don't hesitate to get help! Many universities employ professional grant writers who can also help with your papers.
  • Be consistent. Scientific papers are hard to understand; consistency can make yours easier to read. For example:
    • Use consistent terminology even at the risk of seeming repetitive. Clarity is more important than elegance. (Thanks to Barry Honig for this paraphrased advice.)
    • The order of the rows of data tables should match the order of presentation in Results. Then your reader can follow the text by going down the rows one by one.
    • The column headers of your tables should be consistent across tables. For example, if you use G for free energy in one table, use it in the other tables as well.
  • Provide overviews. Start the Methods section with an overview of the methodologic approach. Then describe the methods in more detailed subsections.
  • Don't ramble. Beware of writing long, boring descriptions of your results. Focus on the results that support your conclusions. The other details can be summarized in tables, figures, and/or supplementary materials.
  • Provide supplementary materials. A paper is supposed to allow the reader to reproduce your work. This ideal is not always achievable, but providing supplementary files of data, structural information, methods, graphs, etc., can go a long way.

And here is some great writing advice from Ira Herskowitz via Dyche Mullins!

And... more great writing advice from Dan Zuckerman!