Tom’s Top Tips for…Writing a Paper

By Thomas Crowther

Writing papers is arguably the biggest stumbling blocks for academics. Many brilliant people never make it in academia because they were unable to effectively communicate their message in papers. The best academics are not necessarily the best scientists, but they are the ones who can deliver their message clearly.

Here are a few tips to help you do this:

  • Don’t write and/or cite everything you know. The more information you put in, the less easy it is to understand the story. As scientists, we sometimes feel like imposters. This makes us feel as though we need to include as much information as possible to prove we’re not frauds. Fight that urge!
  • Before you start writing, summarise each paragraph with single line bullet points. If those bullet points don’t tell the story then you haven’t got a paper. Narrow it down to the most important points and try to have only one main message.
  • Never have more than four paragraphs for an introduction and never have more than five paragraphs per discussion. Keeping the message clear and concise is the best way to keep the readers interested.
  • When writing papers, there are usually one or two other key publications that propose the opposite or same thing as you. You don’t need to have too many. Just find the one that you can test and that’s often enough to help you when building your argument. You do not need to prove that you have read everything in the world, just prove you have one clear message.
  • The hourglass rule: start broad and introduce the big picture so your reader knows what you are talking about. Then become more focussed, showing specific details and exactly what you will do. At the beginning of your discussion, say precisely what you found and offer in depth detail. Finally, at end of the discussion explain how what you have done fits into the bigger picture.
  • Avoid jargon. We sometimes think that the papers that are difficult to read, are the smartest ones. But it is much smarter to be able to communicate a message clearly that is understood by everyone.
  • Just start! The nerves surrounding starting the writing part often puts people off. This is the biggest time for procrastination within scientists. Just put pen to paper.

And of course: enjoy the process!