Peer-Review-Cartoon2By Claire

I have spent the afternoon at a seminar titled, “Write that journal article in 7 days”, put together by the Research Skills and Training Centre at ANU and wanted to share some of the wisdom I’ve soaked in. The seminar was presented by Inger Mewburn, a.k.a. The Thesis Whisperer and hopefully will yield at least one journal article over the next few months (I have at least three that I really should be writing up now!).

The article writing process is spread out over seven days, with quite manageable chunks to do on each day.

(As a caveat to the “7 days” promise, you need to already have data etc ready to go and at least some preliminary ideas on what the article will be about)

The presentation can be viewed online via the Thesis Whisperer blogsite, but here is my interpretation of the process.

Day 1: “Choose your flavour”

On day one, you basically need to decide what type of paper you want to write, and where you want to submit it to. Is your paper going to be data driven? a methods paper? a review paper? Once you know the type of paper you want to write, you can decide where to send it. As a tip, the best way to decide is to look through the list of papers you’ve read and see where other papers in your field have been published. Then you need to decide on the length of paper you want to write. Are you going to try for a short, snappy, sexy Science paper? Or do you need something longer, where the word limit is much longer like Journal of Climate or Geology?

Day 2: “the tiny text” a.k.a the abstract

Personally, I tend to write my abstracts last, but I can see the value in writing it first. Your abstract is essentially a short version of your paper, so if you can work out exactly how your paper will be structured to write your abstract, then it will be much easier to see the direction of the whole paper.

Abstracts are quite formulaic, and tend to follow a specific set of key words. Check the journal you will be submitting to to see if they have abstract guidelines set out. Otherwise, read through papers from your field in the journal to get an idea of what’s expected in an abstract.

You can break an abstract down into a number of parts:

  • Aim: “This paper explores…”
  • Main argument: “In this paper we argue that/ we show…”
  • Method: “This study was conducted…”
  • What’s new?: “This paper contributes to the debate on…”

Of course you don’t need to use these exact words, and depending on the type of paper, they may not be appropriate in your case, but they make a good starting point. You can edit and refine these later on.

Day 3: “the spew draft”

This is the very first draft of your paper. It’s not supposed to be pretty and you probably wont want to show it to anyone. Basically you just need to get all your thoughts and ideas down on to paper. They don’t even need to be organised, that can come later.

I find it quite difficult to write journal articles because there is a perception that they need to be perfect to be accepted. Well, they do (or at least as close to perfect as you can get), but the first draft certainly doesn’t need to be! At this stage, you just need to overcome your uncertainty on the way to proceed and just write. Get everything down on to paper. This way you feel a sense of progress and you have something to work on later on. The hardest part of writing is starting. A really bad draft is better than no draft.

Inger recommended using the Pomodoro Technique as a way to get yourself to write. This basically involves setting aside 25 min chunks of time where you will just write. Choose a topic and write for 25 min without distractions. After this time is up, take a short break, then sit down for another 25 min. Complete four sets of 25 min of writing, then take a longer break. Go for a walk or check Facebook or whatever you need to do to reward yourself. Then sit down for another set of four 25 min writing sessions. Using this method, you’re going to get a whole lot written in a day and the bulk of your article in it’s first form will appear (You can even get smart phone apps (iphone or android) that organise your 25 min blocks for you!).

Day 4: “the scratch outline”

Here is where you start adding some structure to your draft. You need to work out a rough outline for how you want your paper to flow. You can either dot-point out your paper or draw up a mind map – whatever method you use to organise your thoughts.

I tend to organise an outline before I begin writing, but again, I can see the merit in doing this after having something on the paper. Sometimes you do find yourself stressing over the details of the outline, only to find that you’ve wasted the day with nothing but a perfect dot-point list to show for it.

Organising the structure of your paper after you have a “spew draft” gives you something to work on and gives you more direction for the more refined edits of your paper.

Day 5: “clean up the mess”

Take a step back from what you’ve put together so far and start being critical. Have you actually said what you wanted to? Does your data support the conclusions you’ve drawn? Am I backing up my arguments well enough? Do you need to add another paragraph to make your point more clearly? Can you combine two together?

Now you can start fiddling with sentences and making things more polished. At this stage, we’re still not too worried about word count, we just want to get something that is starting to resemble a journal article.

eps201018i1Day 6: “kill your darlings”

Ok, so we’re not actually killing anything. What this means is that you need to start deleting things. Now you need to think about your word count and structuring your article for submission. Be brutal. Can you say things more efficiently? Do you have extra words that you don’t really need?

Personally, this type of editing is my favourite part of the writing process. I love refining the work down in to something I can be proud of. But I do recognise that editing isn’t the easiest thing for some people and Inger had some great suggestions for ways to ease in to it.

Use the strike through in Word. Start by just crossing out things that you think can be deleted and start reading around them. You can go back and delete them later on. Try moving things into footnotes or an appendix. Once you’ve detached yourself from them you can delete them later.

Day 7: Co-Author Comments/Submission

Inger’s day 7 is actually all about rejection, but I think there are a few extra steps, particularly within Earth Sciences, that need to fit in before that.

In Earth Sciences, you will inevitably have co-authors and at some stage, they need to read over and comment on the paper – especially if you’re planning on putting their name on the top.

Now that you have a polished draft, send it out to your co-authors for comment. Here is where the whole “7 days” thing falls apart because getting co-author comments can be a lengthy process, but hey, at least you have a draft ready to go!

Once you have your co-authors’ comments and you’ve incorporated them into your new draft, you need to send it back out to the co-authors. Basically you need everyone on the paper to sign off to say they’re happy with the article and to have their name on the top.

Finally, after 6 days + co-author time, you’ll have a paper ready for submission!!

Now all I need to do is actually have a go myself!