Career Advice

Tips for Writing a Scientific Manuscript

Deanna Montgomery

I sat down at my desk to begin work on my second paper as the first author. Immediately, I felt overwhelmed. Where do I even start? It took me only a moment to realize that I had felt this way before. To combat this helplessness, I had kept a detailed list of tasks, in roughly chronological order, when I wrote my first academic manuscript. I retrieved the pink index card from my top desk drawer and immediately felt my anxiety levels drop.

Whether you’ve done it many times before or this is your first go-round, preparing a manuscript for submission can be a daunting task. My hope is that this article will be for you what that pink index card was for me—a guide for getting words on paper.

It is worth acknowledging here that there are many ways to go about this process, depending both on the content of the paper and the style of the writer. The method laid out here is simply one chemist-and-writer’s opinion, described both as broadly and concretely as possible, in hopes that it may be of use to both first-time and seasoned manuscript authors.

Seven Steps To Follow When Writing Your Manuscript

Step 1: Find your story and select an appropriate journal.
You may or may not have a journal in mind when you begin a project. The project itself may or may not go in the direction you initially expected. The project’s narrative may or may not seem clear to you after some or all of the data has been collected. For these reasons and more, this first step may well prove to be an iterative process. I suggest first selecting the data, experiments, or compounds that work together to tell a complete and interesting story. Then carefully consider who would care most about that story and choose your submission outlet appropriately.

In practice, the journal where you choose to submit your paper may change for many reasons, but I still recommend having one in mind when you begin crafting your paper. Considering your audience is crucial for any form of communication, and scientific manuscripts are no exception. How you choose to tell the story (how much background is needed, which results are emphasized, what order the information is presented in, etc.) should depend on your audience. How you tell the story and who you tell it to should influence each other.

Considering your audience is crucial for any form of communication, and scientific manuscripts are no exception.

Step 2: Read the author guidelines for your chosen journal.
Once you’ve chosen a journal, take a look at their requirements for publication, especially if you have never submitted a manuscript there before. This can be an arduous process, but starting here may save you a great deal of time and effort later on. Although the same information will probably be present in every set of author guidelines within your subfield, the organization of that information can vary widely. For example, Results, Discussion, and Conclusions can range from one to three sections each, depending on the outlet. As much as possible, avoid spending time working on things that you know won’t make the final cut.

Step 3: Write the Methods section.
Once you’ve outlined the paper (which may even be easier after you have familiarized yourself with the author guidelines mentioned above in Step 2), I recommend that you start with writing up the experimental methods. Conceptually, this is often one of the easiest sections to write, because it describes the details of what you and your co-authors have already done, which should be very familiar to you.

Writing the Methods section may also reveal gaps that require more time or further experiments to fill. For example, you may be missing characterization data for a novel compound. Particularly for synthetic work, where you must include characterization data for many compounds and intermediates, Methods can also be one of the longest and most tedious sections for you to write. Getting it out of the way at the beginning of the writing process can clear the way for focusing on the bulk of the paper.

Step 4: Write the Introduction.
The Introduction is unique in that it is possibly the section of the paper that stands alone the best. It is also the only one you may be able to write fully before the last of the experimental work is done. For this reason, you have the most flexibility with the timing for writing this section.

I recommend drafting the Introduction before the bulk of the paper, especially for a new project. The process can help you shore up gaps in your knowledge by forcing you to review the relevant literature. This background may inform conclusions you wish to discuss later in the paper.

However, be careful not to fall into the trap of making this section a comprehensive overview of anything remotely related to your subject. The manuscript’s narrative ought to guide your Introduction’s content. Refer back to the story that you outlined in Step 1 to decide what to cover.

For me, the Introduction is also one of the least intimidating sections to write, because I have often conducted much of the relevant literature review during the course of the project. I find that writing the Introduction early in the process helps to frame the rest of the paper. Additionally, completing both the Methods and Introduction sections—two concrete and manageable tasks—at the beginning can make the task of writing the rest of the paper seem less daunting.

Step 5: Write the Results, then the Discussion and Conclusions.
Writing these sections is a big step that represents the bulk of the paper. Be sure to double-check the author guidelines for the journal where you plan to submit, so you can see exactly what you need to include in each of these sections. Often, writing about the results of your work (what actually happened) leads naturally into your discussion (what the results mean).

I suggest starting with figures, tables, and schemes, because you may have already compiled drafts of them during Step 1. Once you have organized these items into a logical flow, fill in the corresponding text to complete the narrative in a logical way.

Step 6: Assemble the sections, then write the Abstract.
Finally, there comes the time to assemble all of the pieces. Read over the combined manuscript to ensure that there is a proper flow between the sections. Fill in any gaps, and add any missing transitions. Once a draft of the manuscript is complete, write a strong abstract that adequately describes what the paper covers and why it is important and novel.

Step 7: Check the logistical details.
Revisit the author guidelines yet again. Be sure to complete any additional sections (Supplementary Information, Author Contributions, Conflict of Interest, etc.) required by the journal where you plan to submit.

Complete Your Manuscript With the Correct Mindset

At this point, although you’re well on your way, the process is far from over. Your first draft will not be your final draft. You still need to consider many further steps, including corresponding with co-authors and editors, writing a cover letter, navigating online submission portals, and responding to reviewer comments.

My hope, however, is that this article has given you a map for writing a manuscript and combatting writer’s block. Whether you follow my organizational structure for writing a manuscript or your own, consider dividing the writing process into manageable pieces and celebrating the small victory of having completed each one. In my experience, this makes the process much less anxiety-inducing. Happy writing!