Writing Your First Scientific Journal Article: Have a Strategy

By Richard Webster, Methodologist at the CHEORI Clinical Research Unit

With the cursor flashing on a blank word document, how do you start writing a scientific paper? If you jump into the writing too quickly, you can find that large chunks of your text are redundant, confusing and off-message. For these reasons, starting to write a scientific paper can be overwhelming for students and professionals alike.

Before putting pen to paper, you need a clear idea of your hypotheses and predictions. A hypothesis is a general statement about how the world might work (e.g., There is a difference between dogs and cats intelligence). While a prediction is a version of the hypotheses tailored for a specific scenario (e.g., There is a difference between dogs and cats IQ score, in our Ottawa sample). Hypotheses and predictions can either ask if there is any difference at all or if there are  a specific directional differences (e.g., Dogs have a higher average IQ score than cats, in our Ottawa sample).

Once your data is collected and clear hypotheses have led your data analysis, your task is to communicate your take home message. One of the reasons for writing up your data and research is to help distill your insight. As exaggerations and unfounded claims will not fly with a critical reader, it’s important that the data supports your interpretations. To formulate these honest take-home messages you need to reflect on your tables and figures. Write down your take-home messages and then revise and re-revise every few days until you are happy with it (Figure 1). Don’t rush this step! It takes a long time to be sure of your message. A few hours of initial planning can save tens of hours at the editing stage.

The next step is to draft an outline. Drafting an outline before jumping into whole sections allows you to focus on the overall argument and narrative. Your outline should include headers for sections / subsections and a topic sentence for each paragraph. The topic sentence is the first sentence of each paragraph. This ensures each paragraph has a purpose and it moves the story forward. It also avoids ‘burying the lead’ (where the main point you make is cryptically hidden within a paragraph). A pro-tip for editing and revising your paper is to read each paragraph’s topic sentence and ask yourself if the take-home messages are clear and presented in a logical order. With an outline complete, the busy work of filling in the gaps begins.

With an outline in hand you can start to writing, each section by section. My preference is to write up the easy sections first. The methods and results are good to start, do one, revise it and do the next. Just like when you were forming your take-home message give you self a break between writing and revising sections, so you edit with fresh eyes. With two sections written you have the momentum to write the discussion, introduction and abstract.

Good luck with writing up your science fair projects.