I recently had the opportunity to attend an excellent course on academic writing entitled 'How to write a scientific paper - and get it published', developed by former journalist Tim Albert and delivered by the extremely engaging Mark Pickin.
Participants were encouraged to attend the course having already completed a piece of research or having an idea for a paper; and then over the course of two days, this would be developed into a plan for publication.
It's a very interactive course with lots of group discussion to identify the barriers to writing (and then work out strategies to deal with them); and there were plenty of practical tasks to help us start to get something down on paper and overcome writer's block.
I can't possibly do justice in a brief blog post, but here are a few key points I took away from it:
1. Know your audience
Write with a specific readership and target journal in mind. What sort of topics are they interested in? Are you responding to an ongoing theme or thread of discussion within that journal? What is the correct tone? The more you know about your target journal and readership, and tailor your paper to their preferences, the more likely it is to be accepted.
2. Know your message
What do you want to say? Can you summarise your argument / the conclusions of your research into a single sentence? If you can't, either it's not sufficiently clear or you may have more than one message (in which case, perhaps you need to think about two or more publications).
The course also gave valuable advice on where to situate your message within the body of your article to give it maximum prominence.
Have a good think around your topic before facing that daunting blank page. For some people, this might work best away from the desk - go for a walk, wash the dishes, do the ironing... a bit of exercise or mindless repetitive activity can give you fresh perspective.
When you're ready to put something down on paper, start with a brainstorm or mind-map - this helps you see connections between different ideas and topics; and might also help you to identify any gaps which you need to address. We were prompted to think about four or five key questions about our study, which gave us a framework around which to structure our articles.
4. Writing takes less time than you think
Estimates vary as to how long it takes to write an article, but it can certainly feel like a lengthy, time-consuming task. However, if you've done enough preparation, you can actually get something written relatively quickly.
After several hours of planning and rumination, the first day of the course ended with 10 minutes of "free writing" (using pen and paper) during which I managed to produce the first 400 words of my draft article! The key is to switch off your critical faculties (or anything else that inhibits the creative process), get something down on paper and worry about correcting it later.
5. "First things first"
For many people, writing is an "important" activity but rarely an "urgent" one. The danger is that with our busy working lives, we spend all our time fire-fighting / dealing with e-mails and never get round to important non-urgent tasks. To get around this, the course recommends allocating protected time first thing in the morning for writing BEFORE you get engrossed in dealing with your e-mails.
Now that we had a draft, day 2 looked at the editing process.
Too often, people get bogged down in micro-editing (grammar, punctuation etc.) but...
6. Don't forget to macro-edit
Macro-editing involves looking at the structure of your article and ensuring it is appropriate for your target journal. The course taught us to see beyond the content and identify the structure and format of articles in our target journals so that we could ensure that ours were the right fit.
7. Use plain English
Try to make your article as easy to read as possible by avoiding unnecessary jargon or - my own bad habit - long, rambling sentences. This is of course especially important if you want your article to be readable to non-native English speakers. We learned a simple technique to calculate the clarity (or otherwise!) of our writing style.
8. Planning your time
Set yourself a realistic deadline for submitting your article, and then work backwards from that date to set yourself "mini-deadlines" for each step in between (complete first draft; macro editing; micro-editing; proof-reading etc.). One of the trickiest aspects can be dealing with co-authors, but the course offered advice on how to manage the contributions (and egos!) of others.
9. Dealing with rejection
The more prestigious and high impact your target journal is, the more submissions they will receive and therefore the more papers they reject. If this happens, remember that you're in good company (everyone has had papers rejected), and there may be another journal who will be interested in publishing it; but remember to tailor it accordingly - this shouldn't take too long, but it is worth doing properly.
10. Dealing with acceptance(!)
Papers are very rarely accepted without some comments from peer reviewers. Reviewers can sometimes be frustratingly vague or contradictory, but don't be discouraged - it's a sign your article is nearly there.
Having been motivated by the course to "just get on with it" and increase my writing productivity, I wrote this post in around 45 minutes (and another 15 or so editing). Unfortunately this means I've had to leave lots of things out, but if you want to know more...
- Contact Mark to arrange a similar course to be delivered at your institution
- Pre-order the 4th edition of Tim Albert's book Winning the Publications Game - The Smart Way To Write Your Research Paper & Get It Published, on which the course is based.