Self-editing Tips for Manuscripts
Note: While this piece is written about manuscripts, these tips can easily be applied to theses and dissertations as well!
Editing your manuscript after you’ve written it is critical. I know that when I write my papers, the first and second drafts have many errors in them that need to be fixed before submission. When I edit, I prefer to print my papers out and scribble on them with colored pens. I make sure that the sections flow and provide enough detail to be understood. I look for any areas that may be confusing. I try to read it as a person who has never read about the topic at hand. It is important to be your own reviewer during editing. It’s also important to edit as you write your manuscript as well. Write a section and then come back to it in 2-3 days. This gives your mind some time to ‘restart’ on the topic and you can look back at it with fresh eyes.
I will note that I think a “re-read blindness” occurs when we read and reread our work. We spend so much time on a single document and it becomes very difficult for us to see typos and potential inconsistencies in the paper. While in the final stages we, as authors, are likely still reading our papers at a high level for content, rather than grammar, which makes identifying small mistakes difficult. For this reason, is important to get feedback from others in your group.
I’ll also note here, if someone comes to you and wants your help with editing a document, actually edit the document. Don’t just comment out places that need work. There may be some areas that need content improvement, those are perfectly fine to comment out.
Being Aware of Self-plagiarism
After you submit an article, journals will go through a process of checking if there are any areas of plagiarism within your manuscript. Sometimes there may be redundancies within the materials and methods due to similar methodologies being used across different projects. Using the same protocol is fine, just make sure that you do not just copy and paste the text from an old manuscript into your new one. If warranted, you can put a citation to a previous paper- but make sure that the paper you are referencing actually has the protocol listed rather than using a reference that points the reader to another, secondary paper with the protocol. Additionally, in the introduction and discussion it may be easy to accidentally copy text that you are reading from your references.
Make sure to put the topics you write about in your own words. If there are substantial areas of plagiarism (some shorter phrases are unavoidable and references come up during plagiarism checks) within your manuscript, it will be sent back to you as either a reject or revise- you may end up jeopardizing your opportunity to publish in a specific journal. Depending on your university or workplace, you may have access to a free plagiarism checker. Consider using one of these programs prior to submitting just to double check that your manuscript is good to go.
Being Aware of Study Weaknesses
No study is perfect- there will always be more data to collect. At some point we make the decision that a study is complete and start writing the manuscript for it. As you are writing, think about the weaknesses of your study- think about what questions might come up during the review process. Depending on the weakness, you may be able to add a sentence or two in certain areas of the manuscript to address these weaknesses as a reviewer is reading your paper. Thinking about these weaknesses also prepares you for writing your responses once you get your reviews back as well.
Question and Topic Checklist
You should aim to have in the ballpark of 5-8 abbreviations in your paper. If you are writing about a very sub-specialty field, a reader may get lost in this so-called, “alphabet soup”. You don’t want to confuse your reader or force them to struggle through your paper. Abbreviate the most commonly known or understood phrases and spell out the rest. One exception to this rule would be gene and protein names. Some gene names are not usually expanded, and providing a shortened version of the name is acceptable.
2. Hypotheses and Significant Statement
Most studies have some type of hypothesis that was formed prior to starting the study. In cases of a meta-analysis or exploratory research, a hypothesis might not be warranted. The hypothesis can typically be written within the last paragraph of the introduction section. Providing the hypothesis to your reader will help to guide them through your experiments. Additionally, while the importance and significance of your work might seem obvious to you, it is best practice to write this out within your manuscript as well. High-level significance statements—statements that describe the significance of the entire study—can be placed in the last paragraph of the introduction. Again, this gives your reader a better understanding of why you performed the study and what the potential future implications of your results might be. If you don’t include this, you may leave your reader thinking, “So what?”, if there were any areas that were not clear within the introduction.
3. Avoiding Vague Words
Does your manuscript have a lot of sentences that start with “this”, “that”, “these”, “those”, or “it” without a noun or a subject afterwards? Many times, these words are being used to refer to the subject of a previous sentence. But again, we don’t want to make our reader have to figure out what we are talking about. If you do use these words, make sure that you provide the subject within the same sentence.
4. Confirming Consistency in Data Across the Entire Manuscript
Do you have data or methodology written out in your abstract? Is the information consistent with the information within the main text? Does the data you have written in the results section match what is in your figures and tables? Sometimes inconsistencies can pop up when you are writing- such as changing a “74” to a “47” or writing out the wrong numerical information for a given experiment. Before you submit your paper, make sure your methods and results are consistent across all parts of the manuscript. If there are consistencies, it can make it very difficult for reviewers or editors to assess your work. Additionally, for any type of statistical analysis that you perform, make sure you explain to the reader which data were used in the analysis and how the groups were compared to one another.
5. Provide Detailed Section Headers
Add detailed headers in your methods, results, and discussion (if allowed) because they allow you to tell your readers exactly what the section will be about. Within these section headers, don’t just name out the protocol that you used - provide your reader with the key point of the section. Headers are also nice because they break up the text into smaller chunks, which makes it easier for a reader to digest. Detailed headers will describe the key point that is being discussed within the section.
You should use descriptive headers within your materials and methods, as well as the results section. Sometimes journals will allow you to use section headers in the discussion, which can also help with segmenting material for your reader to digest.
6. Introductory and Conclusion Sentences to Guide Your Story
Introductory and conclusion statements are important to include in your paragraphs so there is a coherent flow from section to section. I often see that these sentences are missing, however they can really help to bring together the components within the results section. Most manuscripts are telling a “story” in that one experiment result led to the development and execution of a second experiment. Introductory and conclusions statements help guide the reader. Try to avoid starting paragraphs with “Figure 1 showed….”. Instead, introduce the topic and question being addressed, and potentially a sentence about methodology, before going into the details of your results.
7. Ensure that Figures and Tables Could Stand Alone
When some people read papers, they will jump straight to looking at the tables and figures. For this reason, it is important that everything is redefined within either the figure or table itself or within the legend. This would include making sure that you have redefined abbreviations in the legend, as well as clear keys, headers, and labels. If these identifiers are missing, it can be really difficult to understand a figure or a table. Keep in mind that reviewers will point out when tables and figures are unclear, so think critically about their organization and presentation before submitting your paper. If there are any statistical analyses being shown, you may want to provide a sentence or two on what the analysis was and where the numbers came from.
8. Emphasizing the Take-home Message in the Discussion
Some readers may jump to reading the discussion if they want to immediately see the big points of the paper. Discussions should usually follow this format: (1) overview of results, (2) put results into the context of the field, (3) discuss limitations, (4) discuss next research steps, and (5) provide the grand take-away for your paper. The discussion should have it all. Ensuring that you have all of these components will make it very easy for your reader to see all of the important parts of your research.