Ten tips for revising your first draft (paper writing for PhD students, pt 15)

Previously in this series on how to write a scientific paper: Zen and the art of revising and, if you didn’t read this yet, how (and why) to write a crappy first draft

“Don’t use big words. They mean so little.” -Oscar Wilde

When editing and revising your paper’s first draft, my suggestion is to do two passes: first, a pass that focuses on the broader issues of structure and content, and then a second pass that focuses on the nitty-gritty, sentence-level details. In this post, I will present ten tips for revising your draft that can be used as a checklist for the first pass; this list contains issues that I frequently come across when working with students and revising papers.

If you have read this series this far, you won’t be surprised to see that most of the issues have to do with clarity and focus.

  1. Check that the abstract follows the hourglass structure: broad context, narrower context, the research question, your result, implications of your result on your (sub)field, its broader implications. Also, do make sure that your abstract is as jargon-free as possible: only use words that most readers can understand.
  2. Check that your paper is focused. Choose the point of the paper and its key conclusion before you begin writing, stick to your choice, and write the paper so that the reader gets the point already in the abstract and in the introduction. Leave  out results that are not required for supporting the key conclusion, or safely tuck them away in the supplementary information document. When editing, if you feel that your paper loses its focus at some point, take a step back and do a major rewrite.
  3. Check that there is a clear question and a clear answer. A good paper states and then solves a problem; your results are meaningful only if they solve a meaningful problem. Remember that your paper is neither an account of your work nor a lab diary; it should be a story of an important problem and its solution. Emphasise the problem, both in the Introduction where it should really stand out, and in the Results section and the Discussion. Make it clear to the reader how each result contributes to solving the problem, and what the implications of solving the problem are.
  4. Check that the figures tell your story. If you just glance through the figures and skim their captions, do you get the point of the paper and its take-home message? If not, go back and revise—after all, skimming is what most of your readers do.
  5. Check that the reader can replicate your results. Verify that your Methods section (and the supplementary sections if any) contains everything that the reader needs to know. Also check that you provide links to your code and your data if it can be released without violating anyone’s privacy.
  6. Check that you end the paper with something worth remembering. This means something concrete. “More research is needed” is a platitude and a vague one at that; better, go for something like “because of the results of this paper, we are now in a position to tackle problem X with method Y, bringing us closer to the ultimate goal of Z”. This is far more concrete and memorable. Endings have power; do not waste this power.
  7. Check that you provide enough background information: your reader does not know what you know. Assuming that your reader knows much more than you and therefore omitting background information is a very common problem with students. A typical example would be a Methods section that directly launches into what you have done without first telling why. Although it is evident to you that to get from A to B you need to do X, this is probably far less obvious to the reader. If you only tell the reader that you did X, she is confused. Why did you do X? Never assume that the reader knows your motivation, or the details of every method you used, or why your research question is important. Tell her.
    Many students seem to think that they know little while everyone else knows a lot—therefore they shouldn’t explain things that everyone probably already knows. It is only later in their careers when they realise that no-one really knows that much! Besides, there will be readers from adjacent (sub)fields and readers who are just learning the tricks of the trade. Use a colleague who works on something slightly different than you as a test reader—ask her which parts of the text are hard to follow, and revise accordingly.
  8. Make sure that you take the reader’s hand and lead her through the text with signposts. Or, in other words, check that your writing is not confusing. Writing is, in part, psychology, and it aims to modify your reader’s state of mind and to influence what your reader thinks. Feel empathy for your readers and try to get inside their heads, assuming that they know nothing or very little. Your empathy should be reflected at the level of sentences and paragraphs: present familiar things first before moving to new concepts, use leading sentences, glue your sentences together with expressions that guide the reader. Use subheadings. Gently lead the reader from result to result, from paragraph to paragraph, and from sentence to sentence. Never leave it to the reader to connect the dots— always connect them for her. Err on the side of caution: papers where things have been over-explained are rare (if they exist at all), but papers that are all too difficult to follow are frustratingly common.
  9. Check that you are consistent with nomenclature and notation. Because you have been immersed all too long in the world of your paper, this problem may be hard to spot for you—using an outside reader as a guinea pig is recommended. Problems with notation are easier to detect; problems with naming things are more difficult. Often, while doing research and while conceptualising the paper, there is a number of concepts floating around, and the very same things can have many names in your thinking. Writers of fiction are allowed to use synonyms for variation, but science should be precise: in the final version of your paper, everything should be called by one name only. While it may be evident to you that the thing you call the weight matrix is the same as the thing that was called the correlation matrix in the previous paragraph, your reader quickly gets confused. Never refer to the same thing with multiple terms.
  10. If you feel that it is impossible to get some part of your text just right, this is often a sign, a message from you to you. When you are stuck with a paragraph that just won’t yield, stop trying to force it. Instead, ask yourself: why is this so difficult? Search your feelings. What would make the paragraph easy to write, what are you missing? Often, you will notice that you are not faced with a writing problem at all—rather, you miss some important piece of understanding. Perhaps your result is not clear after all, or you have not thought enough about some tricky issue and that is why you cannot express it in words. So take a time out, and look for understanding first; the words will come more easily when you have found it.

New to this series? It begins here: Why can writing a paper be such a pain?

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