Getting published in high-impact scientific journals could be hard work, and may even seem an impossible task. But, in fact, it doesn’t have to be that unattainable, says scientific writing coach and editor, Dr Anna Clemens. Over the years, Dr Clemens has helped many scientists to reach their goal of getting published in renowned journals. Wanting to learn more, we talked to Dr Clemens who shared some tips and tricks on how to avoid commmon pitfalls and how to write more efficiently.
There is a spectrum of different parts that people find challenging and struggle with, Dr Clemens says. Typically, people that contact me are starting as an assistant professor, a junior professor, or starting a tenure track, and suddenly, they are on their own. During their PhD, or post doc, they typically had a mentor figure with whom they were able to publish articles, she says. But now, they are on their own, and also, they now have other people working for them - people whom they have to mentor. If you haven’t learned a system on how to write, in a course, or by some training, it is difficult, Dr Clemens says. Many people never get any writing training, it is often learning by doing. People figure out a way to write that works for them, but the same strategy doesn't necessarily work for their mentee. It is very difficult to get published, especially in high impact journals when you are on your own and don’t have a big name. This is a big challenge, and it is a critical time for scientists, Dr Clemens says.
Often people don’t really know what the problem is with their writing, Dr Clemens says. A typical situation could be that they are getting rejected by the journals that they are targeting, but they don’t know why. If you are a non-native English speaker, you tend to think that that the language is the problem, but I think most of the time, the main problem is the structure, and knowing how to structure a piece, Dr Clemens explains. People don’t think about the structure of let’s say an article. So, there will be lots of problems with inconsistency and the text being unclear. There could be problems related to the structure itself as well as to the story behind the structure. There could also be problems with the sentence structure and paragraph structure.
There is a process which I call the five step process for writing articles, Dr Clemens says. I think it’s important to think of it this way - that writing is a process. Probably, most people don’t think of it as a process, though, and they don’t have a plan for it, she says.
So, the process for writing articles consists of five steps. They are all around a backbone that I call the storytelling framework, Dr Clemens says. The storytelling framework is a framework that helps you structure the paper as a story. I really believe that if you try to tell a story in the paper, it helps you to make it a better paper, and the readers will find it easier to understand. Also, it helps you writing, because if you want to tell a story, then you are confined to the storytelling framework which means you will achieve consistency.
What we do is that we translate from drama, Dr Clemens says. The story in a drama contains some crucial elements. For example, in a classical story there are characters who are facing a problem - some challenge that they must overcome. That problem is what makes the story a story. The characters attempt to solve the challenge, and this results in some action scenes. Eventually the problem is solved and then we have the part that is called the resolution, Dr Clemens explains. At this point, the characters have solved the problem, and we get to see what happens to them now.
The drama-structure is translated to the scientific text, i.e., we just take the simplest structure of classic stories and apply it to the scientific writing process, Dr Clemens says.
So what are the five steps that constitute the writing-process and that will take you through writing a successful manuscript? Below they are summarized:
Step 1: Identify the story - the central message. This is about finding key story elements. Also, decide what journal to publish in.
Step 2: Write the results section. This is the “action part”. Communicate what the figures show, and build the argument. What are the different steps that you are going through when solving the problem that you have defined.
Step 3: Write the introduction. This is where you introduce the topic, i.e. where you introduce the problem.
Step 4: Write the Discussion section. Contextualize the findings and close the circle.
Step 5: Packaging. All the main sections are now in place. What remain are abstract, title and cover letters.
Listen to this interesting interview with Dr Clemens to learn more about the five-step process, and the key activities in each of the steps
Read the interview with Dr Deborah Rupert to learn about how work-related stress can be reduced and how burnout can be avoided.
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