In writing, you must kill all your darlings.

Getting your paper published: How to actually write it

I recently attended a talk given by the editor of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, who gave his best tips and things to look for when you’re trying to get published. This is part 2 of 3. Check out part 1, cover letter and abstract, and part 3, responding to reviewers’ comments.

Now we’ve got the cover letter and abstract sorted. Time to look at the actual paper.

Over time, the readability of scientific texts is getting worse. For some reason, scientists seem to have an innate belief that if you have to read a sentence 10 times to understand it, they’re on to a winner. I’m sure we all know that it’s no fun re-reading the same sentence over and over. Scientific papers are heavy reading, so try to make it easier on your audience. Short snappy sentences, 20-30 words in length as an absolute maximum.

Use simple english. Don’t obfuscate your language. Yep, exactly, case in point. Being a scientist isn’t an excuse to use big words and get the thesaurus out.

I remember starting my Masters’ program and reading a paper for the first time in months. I had to get a dictionary out. When you’re writing, do so with a non-expert in mind. Not everybody is going to make the same conclusions you have, simply because they haven’t read what you have read. Your audience shouldn’t have to read every single one of your references to understand your work.

One top tip is a famous quote attributed to William Faulkner,

In writing, you must kill all your darlings

In laymen’s terms, any particular sentence or paragraph that you’re proud of; delete it immediately. The reason you’re so proud is most likely that it doesn’t fit with the rest of your writing. If it did, you would be no prouder of it than any other sentence. Kill it now.

Following on from this, don’t use a long word or phrase when a short word will so just fine.

  • Utilise = use
  • Majority = most
  • Perform = do
  • In the event of = if or when
  • In order to = to

Let’s not make this more difficult than it needs to be.

From early on in my scientific career, I was always told to write in the passive voice. Switching sentences up, so that rather than the active,

“We treated cells with compound X for 10 minutes.”

I was told to write the passive,

“Cells were treated with compound X for 10 minutes.”

However, science is changing. Journals like to see the active voice rather than passive. IT makes you more involved in your own work. You did all of those experiments, take credit for them. Shout it from the rooftops,

“I did this, and damn, look at those error bars!”

Using the active voice is a) much easier to write, and b) easier to read and understand for the reader.

Do you have any top writing tips?




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