As written previously, here’s the second post about writing scientific articles. So the objective is to have people read, remember and cite our work. What makes an article a good articles?
When scrolling through the new articles of the day, or through the results of a search engine, we see only the titles of the papers. If the title is boring, unattractive, or if it doesn’t explain what you have accomplished, we will have a hard time clicking on it. The title has to lure the readers inside the paper, the same way carnivorous plants lure insects in their traps. Once inside, as opposite to plants traps, the readers are still free to go, so we need to write it right to keep them inside. But they have to get in, so spend some time on the title, brainstorm with your colleagues, take a walk, a ride, whatever: find a good title!
First and last sentence
The first and last sentence of the article are the most important. The first says in which area the article is and connects it to our everyday life. The last says what you have accomplished and state which implications your work will have for science and for the rest of the world. Writing them right is extremely important. It just so happen that one of the teacher found my first sentence beautiful (I’m not picking this adjective up, that’s what he wrote), so here you go
Every cell in our body, whose typical size is 10 micron, contains DNA which, if stretched, would be approximately two meters long.
The sentence is very simple, short, yet states the problem very clearly: the DNA cannot fit in our cells if not compacted in some way. Body, cells, length, they are all things people understand, or feel connected to.
If after these two sentences the reader is still there, then probably the abstract is the next chewed thing.
The abstract has to contain your whole article in short. State the problem, why do we care about it, how you solved the problem or a part of it, the consequences for the world and future works. It is kind of shrank, but that’s how people want it. If the results are clearly stated, then they may cite you without even reading the rest of the paper (this is not a good practice but, alas, so it happens). So in general you may write the abstract for people who only read it, skipping all the rest (except first and last sentence). So don’t refer to figures or equation: the abstract should be self-contained.
All the rest
After the first sentence, make things more and more specific, but let all the technicalities outside the introduction. Explain here the 3 letters acronyms you will use later, except if sure everyone knows them (for example DNA or, maybe, LHC).
You can use a friendly style when writing, but do NOT write a diary, like: the first day we found this and that, and that he came along saying this, so we changed the method, etc. No one care about it. If you want to write a diary, use MacJournal or OrgMode or whatever suits you. Do not waste journal space.
How to structure the article
How much introduction (I), how much calculations and results (R), how much discussion (D)? Well, something like in the picture below. And what about the methods and the algorithms we are so proud of? They may just go in the Appendix, or, if space is an issue, a complementary materials pdf. If someone is really interested about your work, they will look it up, don’t worry.
All the article should follow the basic principles of storytelling, which is create a tension inside the reader so that he want to finish the article, is curious about the end. Every writer, from Andersen to Bulgakov, knows that. You tell something to the reader, but not all, you make him curious, let him experience some tension, and, at the end, but only at the end, you give him what he wants. That’s a long story made short, because story telling needs years to be mastered and books to be learned. If you want to know more about it, you can begin here: writing a good story is very similar to writing a good article or delivering a great presentation, because inside every scientist there once was a kid who once heard Snow-white, Hansel and Gretel, etc. (I’m not kidding!).
Spend some time on keywords, because this is how your article is going to pop-up when searching for its contents. Keywords are word which are relevant to the paper and are not in the title (they are already indexed, so don’t repeat yourself). Try to think what would you search if you wanted to find your article. Monitor the article in your field to see what the others used as keywords. And use this neat trick if there is a paper very similar to yours, already published and very good: if you think those who read that paper should also read yours, copy some keywords of that paper: when searching for them, both will pop up; and if you listened to what I said and therefore have a title sexy enough, people will read your paper too!
Well, this was basically what I learned from the course. If it happens that you will have the opportunity to follow it, just do it! The webpages of the write it right course is at, rare enough, http://write-it-right.org/.