Congratulations, you’ve secured research funding and performed your experiments. Now we have to let everybody else know. Here’s how to write that all-important scientific manuscript, working with your grant application as a starting point. (You worked really hard on writing that application!) Your funders want to see their money at work – it’s important to publish those results. And the publications will help secure your next grants.
First comes Results, then comes Methods…
Don’t write in the order that you did the work, necessarily. We all know you have to set up your experiments first and then collect Results, and that’s the way the story usually flows when we’re reading a manuscript. But, when you’re writing the manuscript, start with the Results section.
Now you have Results!
In the grant application, you presented preliminary data and expected results. Check those first to see whether the preliminary data are relevant to include in the manuscript. Then fill in the other important data that line up with your expected Results, adding in any new sections as needed.
I like to format my figures and graphs first, and then use those images to help to fill out the Results text. Describe what you see, noting any important features, especially ones that warrant discussion later on. You may now realize that there are some results that need to be presented in more detail (plot the data another way; do a subanalysis), and some others that can be omitted from the manuscript.
Did you actually do what you said you would?
Chances are that the experiments you actually conducted were at least slightly different from what was in your grant application. You’ll need to add in those sections or details for the new experiments that weren’t proposed in your application.
Maybe you made a nice diagram of your experimental setup for the grant application (wink; if you’re working with Meg, I know you did) – if the diagram still applies here, use it in the manuscript! (As long as the diagram adds something or simplifies the amount of text you need, because you’re potentially using up 1 figure allotted by the journal format.)
Also, you may not have written the details of the experiments in the grant application in quite enough detail for another researcher to replicate the experiments. Time to add those details into the manuscript. Use your grant application as a starting point and think of it as the framework around which to build out a full Methods section for the manuscript.
Aka, the Discussion. Help the reader understand why they should care about the data you just showed them. You probably setup some of these points in the Significance and Innovation sections of your grant application. Now that you have Results, go back to your significance statements and see if you think they still apply. Are there unexpected (hopefully exciting) Results that add to the potential ‘So what?’ here? And don’t forget the Limitations, we all have them, including our experiments.
You know which papers are the canon for your field of work – cite them. You know which papers are potentially conflicting with your new data, or are disputed in the field – cite them as needed, and I would argue not to pick a fight on paper; you never know who your peer reviewer is going to be at the journal or if that researcher will be reviewing your next grant application (in which you cite this manuscript). Also, look back at the comments you received on your grant application to see if there were any related papers or researchers mentioned that may be wise to cite in your manuscript.
And finally, the beginning.
Now that you know where you ended up with Results and why they’re important (Discussion), you can write the Introduction. The goal is to write it in a way that properly frames the problem to solve or the need for these experiments and sets up the logical flow of the story from Introduction -> Methods -> Results -> Discussion.
The Snapshot and the Takeaway
When the body of the manuscript is written, you can write the abstract. You should put in a few key details of Results here, but generally the Abstract should be a good summary of the whole paper, including a brief setup of why this work is needed. Make sure you have your key takeaways from the manuscript in the abstract, in case a reader is just skimming the article.
The Big Picture
As scientists, we can all get so focused on the details of the work that we don’t pay as much attention to the big picture. Put your manuscript down for a few days, then go back and reread your manuscript from start to finish. Better yet, have somebody else with a fresh set of eyes read it.
It should feel like you’re walking your readers through the topics logically so they don’t have to work hard to understand why they should keep reading. Having read many thousands [tens of thousands?] of journal articles, I know the very real feeling of scratching my head or zoning out and having to re-read a section multiple times because the manuscript wasn’t clearly laid out. You don’t want to do that to your readers. For more tips on writing scientific or medical publications, check out Agnella’s work at aimbiomedical.com.