When you’re writing a scientific paper, what’s on your mind? What are you thinking of? What are the aims?
I find myself in a shift of attitude when it comes to writing.
When I wrote my first paper(s), I had no clue what I was doing. I was summarizing everything I did, and not necessarily in very concise form. I included everything I measured, everything I analyzed, in every possible way. Drafts were endless. Everything was there, but there was no coherence.
This was nicely illustrated in a review paper I once wrote for Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Well, that is, in the first version I submitted. The ~17 pages (first round) and ~8 pages (second round) of reviewer comments helped me to greatly improve it, but it was pretty bad. The first version was literally a summary of every single study I had collected from an exhaustive literature search. That was that. It wasn’t a review. It was a series of summarizing statements slapped together. It was horrible. Luckily, I had reviewers that went out of their ways to make things better. It was a rough experience, but a tremendous learning moment.
What was wrong with my initial approach?
I think what was missing then was a central thesis. A message! There wasn’t any. I just slapped together some summaries, thinking that was all that a review was about. Boy, was I wrong… I didn’t think about what was the story I wanted to tell to my readers.
Yes, you read that right.
Scientific writing is as much about storytelling as is writing a novel. Only in academia the facts and storyline of your piece are determined by your hard-earned data, and your interpretation of the results. It took me a couple of years to see this myself, and to make this transition towards writing with story in mind. But I think this transition is a vital one.
What’s the story you want to tell to your reader?
What’s the thought you want to print into their minds after they put down your paper?
Approaching scientific papers this way is more fun, and can greatly help speed up the writing process, but also – in my opinion – creates more easily readable papers. It requires you to critically think of your experiment before analysis and writing. What key components would be needed to tell your main story? Are there additional components that might add an extra dimension? (Let’s call them supplements). Is it necessary to include all those extra things that you measured just because you had the time and because you would get that burning sensation of fomo if you wouldn’t? My guess is probably not. Include what’s appropriate. Don’t clutter a manuscript with unrelated and irrelevant data only because you mindlessly collected it at some point. (I have been guilty of this myself*, and know it’s a vice of many colleagues).
Find the story in your ‘main’ data, and include the support you need to tell that story as best you can.
It’s all about story, and I can’t repeat it often enough.
Story. Story. Story.
Better start telling!
* Improving as a writer is a continuing process for all of us, and certainly also for me. I still cringe when I read old papers of mine. But my gut feeling is I’m on an upward trend, and I hope my papers get better (in terms of writing) with every new publication.