Writing should be fun! While some may view writing as painful (i.e., something you rather put off until all your household work, taxes, and even changing the litter boxes are done), writing can and will become more enjoyable the more you do it. Over the years that I have been writing with students, residents, and faculty, I have found that writing the discussion section of a manuscript remains the most daunting aspect of writing a paper and the No. 1 reason people put off writing. Thus, I have developed a strategy that distills this process into a very simple task. When followed, manuscript writing won’t seem so intimidating.
I like to consider the writing process in three phases: preparing to write, writing, and then revising. Let’s address each one of these.
Preparing to write
In preparing to write, it is important to know what audience you want to reach when selecting a journal. I recommend that you peruse the table of contents of the journals you have in mind to determine if that journal is publishing papers similar to yours. You also may want to consider the impact factor of the journal, as the journals you publish in can have an effect on your promotion and tenure process. Once you have decided upon a journal, retrieve the Instructions for Authors (IFA). This section will contain very important information about how the journal would like for you to format the manuscript. Follow these instructions!
If you do not follow these instructions, the journal may reject your manuscript without ever sending it out for review (that is, the managing editor will reject it). Think of it this way, if an editor takes the time to develop the IFA, you’d better believe that the requirements are important to that editor.
Once you have decided upon the journal and read the IFA, it is time to make an OUTLINE. Yes – I said it – an outline. So often we skip this simple task that we were taught in grade school. For a manuscript, the outline I start with includes the figures and/or tables. Your figures and/or tables should tell the story. If they don’t tell a cohesive story, something is wrong. I like to draw out story board on 8.5” x 11” plain paper. Each sheet of paper represents one figure (or table), and I literally draw out each panel. Then I spread the pieces of paper out on a desk to see if they tell the story I want. Once the story is determined, the writing begins.
The main structure of a manuscript is simple: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. The introduction section should tell the reader why you did the study. The methods section should tell the reader how you did the study. The results section should tell the reader what you found when you did the study. The discussion section should tell the reader what it all means. The introduction should spark the readers interest and provide them with enough information to understand why you conducted the study. It should consist of two to three paragraphs. The first paragraph should state the problem. The second paragraph should state what is known and unknown about the problem. The third paragraph should logically follow with your aim and hypothesis. All manuscripts can and should have a hypothesis.
The methods section should be presented in a straightforward and logical manner and include enough information for others to reproduce the experiments. The information should be presented with subheadings for each different section. For example, a clinical manuscript may have the follow subheadings: study design, study population, primary outcome, secondary outcomes, and statistical analysis.
The results section should also be presented in a logical manner, with subheadings that make sense. Be sure to refer to the IFA on the type of subheadings to use (descriptive versus simple, etc.) and remember to tell a story. The story can be told with data of most to least important, in chronological order, in vitro to in vivo, etc. The main point is to tell a good story that the reader will want to read! Be sure to cite your figures and table, but don’t duplicate the information in the figures and tables.
A nice trick is to present the data in each paragraph, and end with a sentence summarizing the results. Remember, data are the facts obtained from the experiments while results are statements that interpret the data.
The discussion section should be seen as a straightforward section to write instead of an intimidating discourse. The discussion section is where you tell the reader what the data might mean, how else the data could be interpreted, if other studies had similar or dissimilar results, the limitations of the study, and what should be done next. I propose that all discussion sections can be written in five paragraphs.
Paragraph 1 should summarize the findings with respect to the hypothesis. Paragraphs 2 and 3 should compare and contrast your data with published literature. Paragraph 4 should address limitations of the study. Paragraph 5 should conclude what it all means and what should happen next. If you start by outlining these five paragraphs, the discussion section becomes simple to write.
The most important aspect of writing a manuscript is revising. The importance of this is often overlooked. We all make mistakes in writing. The more you reread and revise your own work, the better it gets. Aim for writing simple sentences that are easy for your reader to read. Choose words carefully and precisely. Write well-designed sentences and structured paragraphs. The Internet has many short online tutorials to remind one how to do this. Use abbreviations sparingly and avoid wordiness. Avoid writing flaws, especially with the subject and verb. For example, “Controls were performed” should read “Control experiments were performed.”
In summary, writing should be an enjoyable process in which one can communicate exciting ideas to others. In this short article, I have presented a few tips and tricks on how to write and revise a manuscript. For a more in-depth resource, I refer the reader to “How to write a paper,” published in 2013.
Dr. Kibbe is the Zack D. Owens Professor and Chair, department of surgery, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.