Saturday, May 13, 2006

Writing journal articles - 1

Thirteen tips on becoming a prolific writer of scientific journal articles
(13 is a lucky number in my culture)

1. Fall in love with writing, right now!
Learn to love the process of writing. For some scientists, it might be an arranged marriage, but you have to do it all your life, so you may as well make yourself fall in love with it. One thing that helps: don’t be hypercritical of your own writing – don’t edit as you write. Write when you write.

2.Don’t say you don’t have time to write even though you want to; you have just as many hours in the day as Einstein, Marie Curie, and Subramanyam Chandrashekar.
This is at least somewhat true.

3. Write everyday, even if you don’t write everyday.
Keep in touch with subject matter mentally on days when you aren’t able to write. Think about it – think actively and constructively about your manuscript – sometime every day – maybe not when you are driving to work, but perhaps at least when you brush your teeth at night. Why? It keeps the subject alive in you.

4. Write as you read.
Read critically; turn on the editor in you as you read other manuscripts and proposals – what works, what doesn’t; what you like and what you don’t and why; what is hard to read and what isn’t – sentences, paragraphs, papers – why are some so easy to read and others so hard to understand – it may be partly because of the writing style.

5. Are you schizophrenic? Do you suffer from mild or not so mild attention deficit disorder?
Someone told me all scientists are. I know I am both, so this statement must be true (n=1). Make ADD work for you: Write different mss or different aspects of your mss. It doesn’t have to move from the beginning to the end, and you can work on many at one time – you probably have to work on many at one time.

6. Don’t start at the very beginning. That’s a very bad place to start.
Scientific manuscripts are NOT written starting with an abstract and proceeding through to the conclusion section. Don't start with the introduction, either. Write your methods down as the experiments are done and make sure to let your students know to do this as well, as they work, not after they are done and can’t remember what on earth they did – you don’t want to wonder later if they did what they said they’d do in their proposal or did they do something differently – and they don’t want to rely on memory rather than writing this section while it’s fresh in their minds. Other sections: keep things in order; file your presentations, abstracts and other “written on the way to the mss” items in the folder where you’ll end up filing your mss. See presentations and abstracts as steps towards the mss and use them as you write.

7. Deal with rejection.
If you think scientific papers and proposals are hard to get accepted, you should really try your hand at writing something else. In my current field, anyone who has an acceptance rate of 5% is considered an “easy” publisher. The moral of the story: keep moving forward; read the reviewer’s comment and then go and have a glass of wine; come back and read them again with a pen and paper so you underline what’s constructive and strike out what isn’t, and, most importantly, start making points on how you’ll address the comments – which ones to address first, etc.

8. Hand someone else a bit of authority.
Set a deadline, and then write to someone else (your internal reviewer) and say, “I’m working on a mss for XXX journal and I’d really like to have your comments. I will be sending it to you on May 5. Thanks!” Why? If you tell someone else you to expect this from you, you are less likely to let your deadline slip. You no longer have a major prof., but you do have colleagues, help yourself help them help you to stay on track.

9. Give yourself a carrot when you get done writing. Champagne works, too.
Yes, you can invite me to the party – so long as it’s a party about finishing a proposal or mss. Getting funded is fabulous – getting a manuscript accepted is magnificent – but the most important thing is finishing that bit of writing – and it’s also something we DON’T pat ourselves on the back for. You carried something through to completion and did the best job you did, didn’t you – reward yourself now! Who cares what NSF or the reviewers think – your tenure panel might – and you might want to care at some later date – but first, CELEBRATE!

10. Make writing a priority.
Doing research without communicating it properly to others is like cooking a meal and then not eating it yourself. Guilt trip yourself if you must – as a scientist, it’s your duty to let others know about the progress you’ve made in your field.

11. List mania.
Aim for the highest and best journal – believe in yourself and let someone else turn you down. And after you send your article off in the mail, get realistic and make a list of all the other journals you can send to if your dream journal doesn’t reply with a romantic review.

12. Respect yourself and others.
Be ethical about authorship and don’t be afraid to ask for it and demand it if you have to. Give others the credit they deserve and take the credit that is rightfully yours.

13. Never compromise quality for quantity.
Don’t go the LPU (least publishable unit) route, but don’t write tomes that people sigh when they look at, either. Write a paper when you feel there’s enough substance – and allow others to be the judge of what’s enough, too. You don’t want to wait too long, but you also don’t get recognition for publishing a lot of poor papers [not the type of recognition you want to, at least].
Prolific is what you define it to be.

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