Methods Discussion Group 1: Manuscript Writing

The Applied Research Methods Discussion Group met last Friday to discuss this month’s topic of choice – Manuscript Writing. The discussion carried on beyond the time limit with topics including organizing literature into a Background section, journal targeting, the importance of titles and cover letters, and finally, abstracts.

The first part of the paper, the Background section, is the product of hours spent reading dozens of papers.  The purpose of understanding the literature is to fairly summarize its ‘weight’ – generally, are articles saying x or y? But keeping track of 30+ papers with new ones constantly coming in is a challenge. The group shared their best tips for organizing literature. For instance, create an ongoing Evernote, Excel or Word document to make notes about papers as you read them.  At the end, the little blurbs about each paper can jolt your memory and provide little write-ups to include in the paper. Regardless of the number of papers reviewed, it is natural to feel like you might have missed papers on the topic.  Subscribing to RSS feeds or journal alerts can help to keep up to date on developments in your field.  Ideally, you have not missed the most seminal paper ever on the topic, but remember we all have to stop reading a certain point.

We also discussed challenges related to working with interdisciplinary teams and the necessity of tailoring writing to specific journals.  Ultimately, not all disciplines’ journals are like ours.  Within typical epidemiology/health sciences journals, it may be better to write  generically rather then targeting specific journals.  Adjusting the length, a few sentences in the Background/Discussion, and formatting should be enough to submit to multiple journals.  However,there are differences to bear in mind if targeting a journal outside of epidemiology (or working with colleagues in fields such as Economics). For example, the background is often more then twice the length,  the theoretical foundations for the research are described in more detail and the paper is structured differently overall. In these cases, some minor readjustments will not be enough, and targeting while writing more helpful.

After the paper is carefully completed and the journal is finally chosen, some editors have made up their minds by the end of your title or  cover letter. The title should be succinct yet detailed enough to keep their interest. A general template is ‘General: Specific.’ For example: ‘Cat food: the role of tuna in a nutritious diet’ or ‘Obesity prevalence: differences across socio-economic status.’  Humorous titles may or may not be okay; our group was split on this issue. It may take a certain status (or a certain talent) to get away with it. If the editor has not stopped by the end of the title, s/he will at least read your cover letter. This letter’s importance is often under-appreciated.  In addition to summarizing the main findings, personalize the letter to indicate why you have chosen the specific journal.  For example, citing previously published articles that suggest the need for your work from the same journal can help your case.

At last, you have succeeded in drawing the editor to your abstract.  The abstract is likely the last thing the editor will read before deciding to send the paper for review. We had a debate about writing the abstract before or after the rest of the paper.  Beginner writers often write the abstract last but people with more experience in the group suggested writing it first.  Articulating research in ~250 words means  the purpose, findings and importance are clear.  From there, fill in the rest of the paper .  However abstract writing may also be more iterative.  I am personally convinced that the clarity of  the research increases right up until your paper is complete (‘NOW I understand what my research was about’). This clarity is essential for abstract writing.

While we covered practical aspects of writing papers and real-time challenges that go beyond the typical structure of Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion, more resources are available here:

Stanford Online Writing Course

Clinical Epidemiology Writing Tips

BMJ Writing E-Book

We hope to see you next time when the discussion will centre on power calculations! October 28, 12:30pm, Purvis Hall Room 25.