How to Write a Paper in a Weekend (By Prof. Pete Carr)
I’d like to talk to you this afternoon about how to go about writing a research paper. Over the years I and my group have produced about 400 papers. And in working with new graduate students, I’ve learned that there’s a lot of fear and trepidation and at the same time excitement about writing a research paper especially the first one. And I want to see if I can make it an enjoyable and productive experience for you. I believe that doesn’t take that much time to produce a first draft and that’s what I’m going to focus on this afternoon is how to produce a first draft which is really important. I think one of the biggest problems in writing a research paper certainly the first one is suppressing the urge to procrastinate and put off beginning the work. And that’s part of my strategy and the way I approach writing research papers. So, before you get ready to write the paper, there are some important preliminaries.
Number 1 – you should review your own notes that you’ve taken on papers that you’ve read that are relevant to the work that you’re writing up, and you should renew your literature search. This is very important to have this done before you start writing your paper. The second preliminary issue is very important, and it goes back to high school and that is you need to determine who your audience is. I’m sure you were taught this way back when. And this is important in writing up a research paper – you need to know what the purpose of the paper is, is it a research paper, is it a review paper, is it a tutorial paper, what journal is it intended for are the primary readers of the paper going to be undergraduates or researchers.
But as always with any paper, the real primary reader is the reviewers. These are the gatekeepers, and it is very important that you address their concerns and the more you can get them addressed in the first draft the better off you are in and in finally getting the paper published. So, preliminaries don’t count for the weekend that you’re going to write your paper you’ve got to have your preliminaries done.
Okay, now before getting into the details I want you to understand what I consider to be the big picture. First of all, producing your initial draft is the creative part of the job and what I want you to do what I think you need to do is resist the temptation to correct mistakes as you produce this first draft. Your job now is to produce a complete first draft, not a perfect first draft.
Editing is the second stage of the work, it is the critical thinking analytical part of the job and editing at this point before you’ve completed your first draft is a waste of time. Fixing a sentence and making it perfect if it never appears in the paper because it turns out to be irrelevant is a waste of time.
Okay, so over the years I’ve developed an algorithm, and I’ve talked a number of my colleagues, and many of them use the same algorithm. And it runs roughly as follows: number 1 – just get started, don’t procrastinate, get something down on paper. Number 2 – you need to work from an outline. The reason an outline is important is you may not finish the paper in one sitting, you probably won’t finish the paper in one sitting and if you’ve got an outline you can pick the work up back where you finished before you’re not going to have to read it over. You’re going to know where to begin.
The third part of this is that the outline is easy to do. So, it’s actually fun to write an outline. Before you have a paper to write in your head you’ve got your data, you’ve got your tables of data, you’ve got your figures. Take those and put them in order. Arrange them in some logical sequence. Much like you might arrange them for a talk. And that list of figures and tables in order is really the outline for the paper.
Now the next point is the following – do not write the introduction to the paper at this time. The introduction is the hardest part of a paper to write. So, don’t start there because the urge to procrastinate is going to kick in again. The easiest part of a paper to write is experimental. It’s the part of the paper that you’re most familiar with, you’ve done the experiments, you know how they were done. So, write the experimental, and you will be moving forward, it’s an easy part to write. The next part of the paper that I would focus on would be the results in discussion following the outline that you’ve created from your list of figures and your list of tables. And this is a little bit more difficult to write than the experimental, but you’re really getting started now. Okay, so basically, you’ve got a draft consisting of the experimental and the results and discussion. Once that’s done the really hard part of writing kicks in and that’s doing the hard critical editing but you’ve got a first draft and that’s the important thing. Now, the critical part is when you convert that into clear concise and coherent English and make sure that the science that you’ve written is correct.
The final part of the algorithm is the clean up right the conclusions. Personally, I like conclusions or summaries that is a numbered format – conclusion one, conclusion two, conclusion three, where these are quite clearly separated from one another, and it’s easy to see the contributions of the work. Now we have to do the introduction, and there are two very important things that need to be covered in the introduction. Number one why was the study done, what is its purpose. Number two you’ve got to collect the relevant essential background information and put that together in the introduction. You need to be able to give the readers a sufficient background to understand what you did. So, the very last step in following this out this algorithm is producing the references for the paper. Actually, I think it’s a good idea for you to write some notes as you go through the first draft and manuscript indicating what references might be needed, what they would be about but not to stop and collect the references at that time because it’s just going to interrupt the entire flow of the work. But when the manuscript is just about finished you need to get the exact references so that the reviewers and the readers can really find the information without trouble. It’s extremely annoying to reviewers and readers when these are not done properly.
So basically, you’ve got the job now and I want to leave you with a few final words. There’s an old saying attributed to Sir Francis Bacon «Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man and writing an exact man» and each of those things that we do in doing science we talk to our other our fellow scientists, we go to conferences, a lot of reading, but in producing a paper for publication that’s when we want to focus on our critical skills when we want to make sure that our scientific arguments are correct and logical. So, writing is the most exacting part of what we do as a scientist. Some final points – always review the manuscript requirements for the journal of interest there’s no point being a paper that doesn’t follow the manuscript requirements it will probably be returned unreviewed with a semi nasty-note from the editor. And really finally I want to leave you with a few references on writing. There are some classic books here, there are some books very relevant to writing a paper on chemistry and I want to point out a wonderful short paper by Professor Royce Murray, the former editor of the journal analytical chemistry «Skillful Writing of an Awful Research Paper. Seven Rules to Follow». This little paper is a gem it will in mock style tells you the worst things you can do in writing a manuscript. I hope that you’ll find this helpful and it was a pleasure being here.