In the latest “How to…” post, TIR will be offering some suggestions for how to write a scientific report or manuscript. A longer and more detailed version is also available for download.
1. Assemble your material
First off, list all the data you have that are relevant to the paper/project. List all the experiments, determine how many independent experiments you have for each assay, and when they were done. This is where you will see the value of keeping a well-ordered lab book! Go back over your observations and be sure you’ve extracted every possible (well-supported) conclusion from your data. Then assemble the images/blots that best support those conclusions; note what alternatives you have and list them too.
2. Make your figures – the true graft
Once you have all your data assembled, you can then design your figures. I find it best to do this with pencil and paper (speed). Decide what order the figures go in. Make sure they tell a story, that it flows naturally, and that there are no (obvious) gaps. More details on assembling figures are in the long version for download.
*** This is by a distance the hardest and most time-consuming part of preparing a report/paper, but take the time to get it right! If you do then you will save a huge amount of time later on once the writing starts. Too many people are not careful enough at this stage and end up having to do endless revisions. ***
3. Figure legends – make sure the figures make sense
The key point with figure legends is that it should be possible for a reader to ignore the entire manuscript! With only the figures and figure legends to go on, they should be able to understand what you have done and (roughly) what you’re trying to demonstrate. The heading for each figure legend should summarise what the figure shows. Avoid interpretation! Then describe each panel. Remember to list the number of independent experiments, the number of replicates in each experiment, what statistics have been used, and define the length of scale bars. When you’re finished, go through each figure legend line by line to ensure it accurately describes what’s in the figure.
*** Now, and only now, do you begin on the manuscript. This is the real trick to the writing process – if you’ve taken the time to ensure that your story is tight before you write a single word, then doing the manuscript is easy! You are probably around 70% of the way to the finish line already. ***
4. Results – what was done
Results are easy – they are basically expanded versions of the figure legends. Key point – use bullet points only. Do NOT write in complete sentences at this stage. In this way you separate the scientific argument from the scientific English. Do not deceive yourself that writing the first draft out in full will save you time – it will have the opposite effect. Make sure every panel in every figure is cited in order. Keep interpretation to a minimum. Only supply interpretation if it is necessary in order to understand why the next experiment was conducted. Otherwise, stick to the facts. Use past tense.
5. Discussion – the interpretation of the results
(Everything in bullet points) This is where you say what you think your results mean. Place your results in the context of prior knowledge. Consider what new questions are raised by your data. If possible, build a working model from your data – this is a great way of suggesting future work. Keep speculation to a minimum though.
6. Introduction – the conceptual prop
(Everything in bullet points) Don’t write a review. The introduction only needs to supply the background information that is necessary to understand the results. Use present tense to describe published work. Sketch the background to your project – what is the goal?
7. Materials & Methods – signs to follow
Keep it precise, and detailed enough so that someone can repeat what you did. Use past tense. Avoid scientific jargon.
8. Supplementals – asides and leftovers
A repository for all the data that didn’t make it into the Results, but which would be good to publish. All the control experiments belong here, and validation of reagents. It’s the home for the boring but necessary work that doesn’t materially affect the thrust of your argument, but which is important to show.
9. Citations – credit where credit’s due
Provide a citation for every factual statement for which there’s no data (unless it can be assumed to be common knowledge). Cite primary literature instead of reviews. Put citations at the end of sentences only, not in the middle. Break up sentences into two parts if a citation seems to belong in the middle.
10. Start refining it
With the assistance of your co-authors and colleagues, determine whether your first draft works. This is where the bullet point structure becomes really handy, as it will let you easily shift around thoughts in the text. Update your figures and figure legends to match the changes in the text. Go through this until everyone is reasonably happy.
11. Write it out
Now, and only now, do you convert the bullet point structure into continuous text. With a well-structured argument, this is surprisingly easy – just a case of linking the bullet points together. Congratulations! You’ve finished the first draft. Now repeat steps 10-11 as many times as you can stand it.
12. Don’t forget the abstract!
It’s easy for the abstract to be an afterthought owing to its short length, but remember that this is the entry point to the paper. Try to succinctly summarise the aim, results, and main conclusion.
…and that’s it! The short version, at least. If the above seems useful to you and you’d like a more detailed account of the same ground, the Morriswood lab protocol is available for download HERE.
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9 thoughts on “Read all about it! (a short guide to writing scientific reports and manuscripts)”
I very well remember receiving this advice from you when I prepared to write my master’s thesis some years ago. Today I shared it (together with some other posts from this series) with the first ever master’s student that I get to work with and supervise myself! 😊
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That’s fantastic, thanks for sharing! Very good to hear that it’s reaching a second generation of readers. 🙂