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The 12 Steps to Writing a Paper and Staying Sane

When we started talking about writing a blog and the kinds of resources we could share, the decision about what should be first was unanimous: the 12 steps.

Stumbling across this blog post from ConversationBytes.com changed our writing lives, it changed the way we think, plan and develop manuscripts for publication. Massive thanks to Barry Brook and CJA Bradshaw for sharing this method! The original post (http://conservationbytes.com/2012/10/22/how-to-write-a-scientific-paper/) had a sciencey spin so we have copied this brilliance and adapted it to suit our styles and more of a health research approach. Please have a read, have a go and share with us your thoughts, feedback and suggested updates…



Step -1.
Conduct your research in an adequate, well-planned and sufficiently replicable manner, engaging your research users from the beginning.


Step -0.5.
Buy peanut M&Ms.


Step 0.
Mind map (jot thoughts down on a whiteboard or paper) and ‘group plan’ with collaborators (face-to-face or via email or video-conference). As first author, make notes, collate discussion. You are the one primarily responsible for deciding what goes into the paper and what doesn’t. Don’t worry about self-censoring during this ‘mind mapping’ step.



Step 0.5.
Discuss authorship (a challenging concept likely to be the focus of a future blog post!). There are a wide variety of resources to choose from, some useful ones we’ve found include: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~osp/docs/Authorship.pdf and http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html


Step 1.
Write down your main message in 25 words or less (adhere to this limit, 26 words are too many). You may have multiple lines of evidence in your paper, but you should have one main message. If you can’t think of just one, you are either not focussing enough, or you have more than one paper to write.


Step 1.5.
Select up to 6 keywords.


Step 2.
Write a working abstract. It should answer the following, explicitly:

  • Why are you doing this? [context and aim]
  • What did you do? [methods]
  • What did you find? [core results – say something useful – no motherhood statements or deference to the main text!]
  • What does this mean? [interpretation in context]
  • What is it good for? [application]

No one will download and read your full paper (or cite it) if they are not interested by the abstract.


Step 3.
Based on your main message and working abstract, write down your title. Or perhaps 3 alternatives if you can’t decide. A good title should lure the casual browser to read further. In most cases, especially for primary data papers, give your main result in your title – hence, a direct link to your main message. No one will read your abstract if your title is boring or lacks relevance.


Step 4.
Up until now you may have been working on this in isolation so it’s a good time to send it off to co-authors; they are likely to be pleasantly surprised!! So go ahead and send to your co-authors the:

  • main message,
  • working abstract and
  • proposed title(s)

When you write this email put a deadline for feedback – be realistic, co-authors can always suggest a time frame but this way you won’t be waiting by your inbox for months on end. After their feedback, revise and send back. Iterate until everyone is happy (happiness of course, is both a subjective and a relative emotion).


Step 5.
Decide on display items. Impose a strict upper limit of 6 (any mix of figures and/or tables). If you have more than 6 items, rank in order of importance and move the lowest ranked ones to the online supplementary information. You may have fewer than 6.


Step 6.
Create the figures and tables, and write the legends for each. Ensure that each legend is stand-alone from the main text.


Step 7.
Circulate your choice of (up to) 6 display items with legends to your co-authors. Revise accordingly, iterate until everyone is happy with selection and presentation.


Step 7.5.
Select a journal. There are a number of ways to do this including looking at the common journals appearing in the reference lists of the papers you cite; visiting JANE; or doing a keyword search on Mulford Library’s handy list of journals’ Instructions to Authors in Health Sciences. It is often good to list 2+ journals and ask your co-authors for suggestions.


Step 8.
Plan the paper’s skeleton (this requires careful thinking, and might take you up to a day to do properly – but believe us, it is time well spent!):

  • Decide on length of main text based on journal specifications.
  • Work out the relative size of each section (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion). A rule of thumb split is 30%, 20%, 20%, 24% 6%, but it varies depending on how much context setting is required, how many lines of evidence you are using, etc. Yet, despite this, it surprisingly often works out at roughly this ratio.
  • For each section, plan the paragraphs. Each paragraph should be about 50 to 250 words, but at this stage, do only this: write out each paragraph’s main message in 15 words or less (similar to the concept of the paper’s main message – remembering that each paragraph should be about only one thing). Then, play around with the arrangement of the paragraphs until you are satisfied with the logical flow.
  • If you wish, add to each paragraph some additional notes, keywords, indications of reference to cite, display items to refer to, etc. Helps elaborate on the 15-word main message.
  • At this point, flag which paragraphs will be written by which author.
  • Circulate the skeleton to co-authors and invite critical feedback. Emphasise that this is the appropriate time to fix problems with flow, ideas/content, thrust towards main message, etc. Iterate the skeleton’s revisions until co-authors are happy (or at least some consensus has been reached). Often you’ll get no feedback except “that’s fine”. No problem – this indicates that you’ve planned well.


Step 9.
Write the paragraphs! You can do this in any order you like because you know your structure and flow are already established. This is a great advantage, because some parts of a paper are inevitably easier to write than others (and getting more and more final text down is a psychological boost). This also punches through writer’s block, and also permits you to work on discrete units of your paper to avoid mental burnout (don’t try to spend all day writing – take a break with email, a walk, some analysis or coding, etc.). DO try to set goals for a day (e.g., 5 paragraphs for a day, with an hour on each). Add the references (via Endnote or similar) as you go.


Step 10.
Revise the working abstract into a final draft form, based on the final structure and content of the paper. This now becomes your paper’s abstract.


Step 11.
Circulate the finished draft manuscript to your co-authors and give them sufficient time (say 2 weeks) for feedback. You’ll find they’ll be happy to meet this time-frame, as they’ve already been embedded in the manuscript development project quite a bit (even if it’s just to say “great!” at each juncture in which they’re asked for feedback).


Step 12.
Submit to journal (this is a whole post in itself), pat yourself on the back and collapse in a heap!!