As with any other skill, academic writing can be improved through practice and experience. Writing publishable research manuscripts does not come naturally to most scientific researchers, even those with a great deal of experience. However, because publication is so important to the success of research studies, and thus researchers, writing is often a skill that needs to be strengthened. The good news is information on how to write a manuscript for publication is widely available for those who want to improve their writing skills. We’ll go a step further and shortlist some key elements that often get overlooked when writing research manuscripts.
As implied by the section name, the Introduction provides the reader with information basic to understanding the study. The problem being addressed is described, a research gap in the existing literature is identified, and the aims of the study are stated. When writing a manuscript for publication, you should leave this section until last. Oftentimes the study you intended to write is not exactly the study you end up with, and it is important that this section is clearly aligned with your actual results.
Another common issue with the Introduction that may negatively affect a research manuscript’s publication is the lack of a clear statement of purpose1. The reader, or journal editor, does not want to search for the meaning of the study. Therefore, make sure that your aim is explicitly stated near the end of the Introduction.
Your Introduction may also be judged by what should not be in it. Do not include data or conclusions in your Introduction. In addition, opinions or value judgements do not belong in the Introduction, or in any part of your research manuscript. Consider asking a colleague or friend to read it, as it is sometimes difficult to see this in your own writing.
Effective use of tables and figures
Visual elements such as tables and figures can add a lot of value to a research study manuscript, but their usefulness is often overlooked. Tables and figures, if used effectively, clarify points you make in the text and increase its clarity and overall reader engagement.
What does the effective use of tables and figures mean? It means the visuals are simple and understandable on their own. The title, along with any footnotes, captions, and comments, are enough of an explanation for the reader1. Try taking the table or figure out of the manuscript and looking at it alone. Better yet, show it to a few colleagues. Can they understand what the figure or table shows without any explanation from you? If not, simplify and clarify. Ideally, tables and figures should complement your text and break it up to increase readability. You can make your manuscript more publishable by putting some thought and effort into the visuals that you use.
The Discussion section is also fraught with improvement opportunities for research writers. For research manuscript writers, a weak discussion section is a common cause of publication failure2. What makes a weak discussion? Sometimes it comes from not understanding the difference between speculation and evidence-based conclusions2. Everything you present must be based on evidence. If you’re going to speculate or assume, make that clear in your writing. Furthermore, your conclusions should be situated in the context of the existing literature and your results analyzed based on the results of previous studies. Do not overstate the meaning of your results1.
In addition, authors often miss a few elements in their Discussion section that should be included, such as study limitations and a global context or meaning for the results. How do the results of your study and what you learned affect the discipline? How can they be useful to practitioners or other researchers? In addition, to tie the study together, the aim that was stated in the Introduction needs to be explicitly addressed. Don’t hide anything from the reader.
Overall writing quality
Finally, the best thing you can do to improve your research manuscript is to make it easy for your reader to understand. Consider clarity to be your main goal when writing. If you can clearly convey to your readers what you did and what the research results were, you show that you understand the topic and this helps build trust. If someone can’t follow your thinking because the manuscript is poorly written or too wordy, your study will ultimately lack impact. Always keep the reader in mind and make your study simple to understand.
One good way to check the writing quality is to read the paper aloud to yourself and listen to the words. When you read the same sentences repeatedly, you may tend to read what you intended to write, not what you actually wrote. Another good suggestion is to get a colleague or friend to read the paper and provide feedback.