Know the key message you wish to communicate. Typically this is the result that most advances the science.
Identify an iconic figure or image that communicates this message. Build the paper around this.
- Write a compelling story, not a report. Make it interesting for your target audience (typically your peers) to read.
- Go from the general to specific, introduce the reader to the topic and lead them to the specifics of the paper or report. Minimise widely known general points which the reader is almost certain to know. Get to the point quickly.
- The title, abstract and the first and last paragraphs are what most people read. These must clearly convey the key message and its novelty (how it advances the science).
- Be concise throughout. Make it easy for the reader to know what was done, understand the results and appreciate the key findings. Keep it simple. Less is more. Short sentences have a stronger impact. Long sentences dilute the message.
- Good writing simplifies the complex while being accurate. It threads facts and ideas into a new story.
The most important thing is to start! It is not true that one needs a solid block of hours or days to write a paper. Write piece by piece so as to keep it in your thoughts (see this advice). Do the easiest parts first and build up the paper. Usually, this means drafting the:
- Methods and (if any) Appendices,
- Tables and Figures,
- Results with the key points from each Table and Figure,
- Introduction, Discussion, and Abstract.
Title ‑ preferably the key message (this will also indicate what was done)
Abstract ‑ emphasise the key finding, context (where, when, how, what), and its implication(s).
Introduction ‑ summarise what is known, unknown and how this paper will fill a gap in knowledge. Only include a background that is necessary for the reader to know when understanding the methods, results and what the results mean. Tangential information is inconcise and confusing.
Methods ‑ details that allow the reader to know exactly what was done and to repeat study if needed. The where, when, how and with what, the work was done. Describe any special data analyses and data excluded.
Results ‑ the facts from the data. Do not discuss or cite other work. Methods and results are past tense (the work is history).
Discussion ‑ key findings (a subset of results) and what the results mean. How the results confirm, extend and advance current knowledge and thinking. Implications and recommendations. The last paragraph must be unique to this study.
Acknowledgements – remember who funded the work, who helped with practical work and provided helpful discussion. You must have peoples permission to acknowledge them by name. Not acknowledging help is also unethical.
Authorship should have been agreed in advance of the study and comply with the Vancouver Guidelines for authorship. There are people who think they merit authorship for partial contributions that would be more appropriately acknowledged. So referring to this standard at an early stage is prudent. You may be obliged to follow it by your institution. You must also give people involved the opportunity to become authors if they have helped and may have such an expectation. Sending them a draft that you want to submit for publication in the next few days is unfair to them; they should have been involved in the early stages of framing and writing the paper. As lead author, you are primarily responsible for leading the writing and coordinating the authors.
References ‑ ensure are accurate, current, limit to essentials, cite reviews for broad statements.
Tables ‑ best where numbers are important. Keep numbers to a reasonable number of decimal places. Normally whole values for % (they are already multiplied by 100); e.g., 20% not 20.12%. If something was measured to nearest cm then it should not be reported as 8.2 cm but 8 cm.
Figures ‑ graphs are best where comparisons are needed.
Keep simple, minimise colour and amount of text on axes. Ensure all text legible (black, large, perhaps bold) when reduced to a single column in the journal. Add error bars if possible.
Note that all place names (e.g., study sites, rivers, bays) mentioned in the text should be shown on maps.
95% Confidence Limits are best because they indicate significance at P < 0.05. Standard Error bars are second best as they account for sample size (and SE * 2 approximates 95% CL). Standard Deviation is not so informative as often its size depends on the mean.
Sub-headings can help structure a paper. Each paragraph should have its own topic, logical flow, start and end. The order of paragraphs must also follow a logical flow.
Appendices are a great place for supporting and supplementary graphs, tables and data that provide details of the key messages already presented in the main figures and tables in the paper. It is nice for users if the appendix is one file (if not more than 10 MB) and not many.
Data used should be published in tabular text or CSV (comma separated values) formats – see this paper (2014_best practice biodiversity data manage-28d4szx) for advice on best practice in biodiversity data management and publication.
Avoid sweeping general statements that are common knowledge.
Avoid circular and self-evident statements.
Make points in as few words as possible. Never repeat a word in a sentence.
Keep sentences short. Single message per sentence.
No double hedging, e.g., may possibly.
Never use different words for the same thing, or the same words for different things, unless you are trying to confuse the reader.
Read text aloud to check for punctuation and conciseness.
Do not repeat legends of Tables and Figures in the text (just say what you want the reader to notice and cite table or figure). Do not repeat facts in text, Tables and Figures.
Avoid repetition between Introduction (only introduces) and Discussion (only discusses results of this paper), and Results (the facts) and Discussion (what facts mean).
Avoid long words (use shorter), inventing new acronyms (use short words, e.g. name, not a code), technical terms (= jargon), and ambiguous use of ‘/’.
Voice: using the active voice, “I” or “we” is often more concise and clear than not. But do not overdo it.
Jargon excludes readers. Here is a useful free online that highlights the jargon in text, the De-Jargonizer. While some, widely used, technical terms provide a useful short-hand for key concepts, less widely known specialist terms, especially when the same words have different usage in common language, can only confuse readers. Analyses have shown that papers with less jargon are more highly cited.
Do not follow fashion. Just because some papers randomly use technical terms and proliferate acronyms is no reason to do the same. Use only essential technical terms that name a particular key concept or method that is central to the paper being written. Any non-central jargon can be omitted and spelt out in plan writing.
Commonly abused terms: migration when emigration, movement or range shift is more accurate. Migration is a behaviour where individual animals move to a location and back again. Like birds to nesting and feeding grounds, salmon and eels between rivers and the sea. Surprisingly, IUCN has confused definitions (which many of its participants ignore); it defines an ecosystem as a habitat, and habitat as an area. The term ecosystem, habitat, realm, and biomes are widely loosely used in the literature and entered the common language. See here for definitions in ecology.
Style and formatting
Punctuation: headings lack punctuation, but the figure and table legends are sentences and so end with a full-stop.
Legends are usually on top of Tables (we read down a table) and below Figures (we look up a figure).
Tables: columns of numbers should all be in the same units so it is easier for the reader to compare down a column than across a row. Also, numbers should be aligned so their decimal points are underneath each other, and justified to the right – this makes it much easier for the reader to scan the numbers to see which are very large and small.
Numbers in the text – use number with abbreviations of units, i.e., 8 m or eight metres, not 10 metres. Report all numbers >10 as a number (rather than word), and all numbers in series in the same way, e.g., average fish lengths were 2 cm, 12 cm, and 24 cm (not two centimetres, 12 cm, etc.). Consider units are different ‘words’; so it would be 12 km, not 12km.
Species names – the correct format is Homo sapiens or Homo sapiens, which can be abbreviated to H. sapiens after spelling in full the first time. If you’re going to discuss an organism in any detail, introduce it (e.g., “…the crab Carcinus maenas “). The names must be given in full at its first mention in a document, and it is recommended to include the names of the authority (person(s) who first described the species) and year of description. More details on using scientific names at the Zoological Code of Nomenclature FAQ.
Higher taxa names (Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families) are not put in italics. If the formal name is used it is capitalised (e.g. Mollusca, Crustacea) but not if informal (e.g. molluscs, crustaceans).
Taxon (plural taxa) is a broad term that refers to categories of an organism of any taxonomic level, not necessarily species. The first letter of Genus and higher taxonomic names is capitalised.
Capitals – place and person names are capitalised, not other words.
Commonly confused terms in ecology include: affect and effect, movement and migration, habitat and place, dependent and dependant, quadrat and quadrate and quadrant. datum and data (plural).
Spatial relationships need to distinguish ‘grain’ (smallest size or area of cell or pixel) from ‘extent’ (size of the area). It is common for ecologists and geographers to use ‘scale’ in opposite ways. Scale refers to the map ratio; 1:10,000 means 1 cm represents 100 m. It is a larger scale than 1:100,000 but the map may show a smaller area. ‘Large (broad, macro) scale’ in ecology usually means large extent, whereas strictly speaking a large scale has large grain (larger pixels and less detail). ‘Small (fine, micro) scale’ means fine spatial resolution and a small area. It is best to separate the concepts of area (extent, size) and grain (fine or broad spatial resolution).
Trends are when a series of data points align in a common direction on a graph. Single points above or below a trend are variation in the data.
Depth in the ocean is a negative number. Thus use terms deeper or shallower, not ‘greater than’; ‘greater than 500 m’ might mean between 0–499 m or -501 to -10,000 m ranges.
Abbreviations – of units are never pluralised, i.e. cm never cms. If MPA is Marine Protected Area then it is commonly pluralised as MPAs. Formerly an abbreviation, S.C.U.B.A. became SCUBA and is now considered a word, scuba.
et al. is an abbreviation of a Latin term (hence italics) with the dot referring to the missing letters (et alles).
“ / ” is ambiguous. Avoid using it. It is variously used to mean and, or, and/or, ratio, per, and “I do not know which word to use here”.
Junk words should be omitted. Emotive adjectives should be kept for special occasions. Without context, words like “vast”, “prolific”, “voracious” are often applied to introduced species, but tell the reader nothing because they could equally apply to native species. Saying “up to” a number is usually less helpful to the reader than giving the best estimate, average, median or range. Another recent fashion is to add the (junk word) “type” after habitat and ecosystem when a habitat is by definition already a type of habitat.
Need for self-critique
It is normal for us to more quickly see mistakes in the writing of others than our own. One way to overcome this is to ask colleagues to read your draft. Another is to set it aside for some days or weeks and return to it with a fresh mind. But first, you could check the key points above and see you have followed them where relevant.
Perhaps because of over-familiarity or fatigue with our draft, another truth is we often make the same mistakes in our own writing that we see in other peoples writing. That is why colleagues comments, co-authors help, and referees are so helpful in improving the quality of papers.
Crimes in writing: jargon, inconcise, novel abbreviations, not following familiar conventions without good reason, the key message(s) is not clear.
Submitting a paper to a journal
Most scholarly journals ask for confirmation that various ethical principles have been adhered to, such as laws and codes regarding the treatment of animals, declaration of conflicts of interest and funding sources, does not significantly overlap papers previously published or submitted elsewhere, that all the authors merit authorship and have approved the paper for submission, and persons named, or quoted as “personal communication”, and/or mentioned in the acknowledgements agreed to be so acknowledged. Even if the journal does not explicitly ask for such declarations in the letter, or by ticking boxes on their web page, they should be followed diligently. Not to do so is dishonest. To submit a document co-signed, co-authored or otherwise naming a person to suggest their approval of it but without their permission, is fraudulent. See Ethics for Authors.
If you are submitting a paper to a journal you may be asked to write a covering letter. The key reason some journals ask for this is to help the editor judge whether the paper should be sent out for peer review. Thus, the letter should first make it clear how the paper is central (not tangential) to the scope of the journal. A way to emphasise this is to cite previous recent papers in the journal on which your paper advances the science. The letter must also state the key message or finding of the paper, and how derived (e.g., experiments, data used), and finally why it is important (e.g., wide scope and generality regarding advancing theory or empirical knowledge, government policy, geographic or taxonomic applicability).
Publishing with objective charisma: breaking science’s paradox (having a more refreshing writing style)
Nature Masterclass in scientific writing (but it is expensive)
A journal publisher’s one-page guide to structuring a paper
Guidance from the University of Auckland on writing and presenting, skills for academic writing, and ‘English Language Enrichment’ (apologies if some of these links are not available to non-University of Auckland students). A UoA Professor provides her advice and tips at The Writers Diet. and her website with resources for writing better.
A free access guide to academic writing by John Morley called Academic Phrasebank. For graduates trying to explain their research results the sections on ‘cause effect relationships‘, being diplomatically ‘critical‘ of others work, and how to express more or less certainty, may be especially helpful.
You can also have your writing checked for grammar and spelling as you type using Grammarly and tools in Microsoft Word.
Standard styles and formats for abbreviations and units.
See this amusing video about ZOMBIE NOUNS or nominalisations
Woolston, C., 2020. Jargon Shuts Readers Out. Nature 579 (7798), 309-309.
Please add your own suggestions and links to online resources below