Tips for writing academic manuscripts (or dissertations)!
Updated: Jan 3
About a month ago I started a hashtag on Twitter (#sciwritingtips) to share tips about academic writing, presentations, and citation management. I have a page on this website (see aboe) but I thought I would also put them in a blog post (as they may be a little easier to read here). So below are a list of tips! If you have a tip to share, put it on the page comments! The goal is to make academic writing easier for everyone!
1. After you publish a paper, keep the word file and not just the PDF. Transferring info from the word doc into the final dissertation file will save you a lot of time. You can lose symbols and formatting when coping from PDF.
2. Mendeley is a FREE reference storage program that works like EndNote. You can use it for manuscripts, posters, and dissertations. I didn't learn about this till later in grad school, so I thought I'd share!
3. When submitting a doc to your committee (proposal, dissertation, etc), submit it as a PDF instead of Word (unless they specifically want Word). Depending on the version of Word, the formatting (figures) can be altered in a way you didn’t intend.
4. When submitting a document for publication or to your committee, double check that you have your figs and tables properly cited in the text (and in numerical order). It may sound silly, but in the process of editing, these may get jumbled.
5. Feeling stuck? Just type out your thoughts. Even if they’re not organized. Type it, print it, don’t look at it for 1-2 days, then edit it. The ideas will be laid out and it should be easier to identify the gaps to get you started on writing!
6. One organization method that can help you get started with the methods and results section is to mirror them. Introduce your methods in the order with which they will appear in the results section.
7. When you introduce abbreviations within a figure legend, define it again within the legend. This saves your reader from having to sift through the main text to find a definition. It’ll make your committee happy too…
8. Instead of starting your results section by saying “Figure 1 shows x, y, z” provide a good introductory statement of what your paragraph will be about. And then incorporate your findings of Figure 1. This helps with reading flow.
9. In your results section, don’t just list data in sentences. Give your paragraphs introductory and conclusion sentences- they improve the flow. Give your precious data the narrative they deserve.
10. Try to avoid one sentence paragraphs in your manuscript. It disrupts reading flow and can sometimes be confusing. Instead, try to trying together multiple ideas into a cohesive paragraph. Introductory and conclusion sentences can help
11. When writing a manuscript, think about how your words would be read by someone who is not an expert in your field. The goal of a paper is to teach people something new. So make sure your language is accessible.
12. For addressing manuscript reviewers: Before editing the manuscript, type out responses to reviewers as if you have already made the edits. This way you outline exactly what you need to change. After you edit, double check your comments to reviewers and submit!
13. Many journals will ask you for your ORCID when you submit or get a paper accepted. ORCIDs enable you to link all of your articles, even in cases of a last name change or differences in name formatting across journals
14. Be careful when starting a sentence with: ‘it’, ‘they’, ‘this’, ‘those’, ‘these’, and ‘that’. These words can be ambiguous with the specific subject they are referring to. Instead, spell out the specific topic to guide readers.
15. In a review paper with a lot of dense sections, split them up with descriptive headers. It sounds simple, but it really helps to guide the reader to the specific topics being discussed (and makes the paper really organized!).
16. During my PhD, I knew the AMA guide existed, but I never looked at it. It’s a great resource with definitions and style guidelines for science/medical manuscripts. If Google isn’t helping, do a quick search in the AMA guide.
17. Be your own reviewer. After you finish writing something, leave it for a few days and then come back to it with a fresh set of eyes
18. Use the hour-glass shape to orient yourself when writing the introduction and discussion of a manuscript.
19. Before you hit submit, double check your math! Lots of time goes into your statistical analyses, but what about the simple math problems involving percentages, addition, etc? These can be overlooked and errors may remain.
20. If you want to get started in writing: You could start with reading and writing blogs. Ask your PI if you can write a review article. You could start a website and write mini reviews or provide helpful tips to others.
21. Be conscious of the amount of abbreviations you put in a manuscript. To someone new to the field, these can be overwhelming and make a paper hard to follow.
22. On how many copies to have saved: “A 3-2-1 strategy means having at least 3 total copies of your data, 2 of which are local but on different mediums (read: devices), and at least 1 copy offsite.”
23. "Write while the heat is in you...the writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which as cooled to burn a hole with" -Henry David Thoreu
And to that I say: If I got exciting lab results during grad school, I would just write the results section like I was submitting it for publication the next day. Then I had the text down for when I needed it in the future.
24. On being updated in your field: Set up alerts on Google Scholar or NCBI to get notified when papers are published in your topics of interest!
25. On writing an abstract: Shoot for 200-300 words. Basically you need 6-8 sentences. (s1) introduction (s2-3) background (s4) result 1 (s5) result 2 (s6) result 3 (s7-8) conclusion and significance. Think about the most important aspects of your manuscript/project that you want ppl to know