By Nicole Lim
Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations
One group of scientists from the Karolinska Institutet has a long-standing bet to sneak Bob Dylan lyrics into their publications. But that tactic doesn’t make it onto Cancer Research UK Science Communications Advisor Dr Kathy Weston’s list of top writing tips for researchers hoping to get their papers published. She was in town recently for the inaugural LKCMedicine science writing workshop.
The course, which ran from 30 September to 1 October, focused on maximising a manuscript’s impact. Going through the publishing process, the course helped participants identify when work is ready for publication, create a coherent narrative, match writing techniques to different sections of the manuscript as well as be aware of journals’ submission requirements and how to interact with editors and reviewers.
In 2006, more than 1.3 million papers were published in 23,750 journals. “There is so much information out there, no one can afford to pore over a paper for hours. You’ve got to get your main message across quickly and clearly,” said Dr Weston.
But writing a coherent and simple narrative without using the jargon that comes with the territory can be challenging.
“Writing in lay language takes up lots of time and words! Time is usually a concern for us as we like to get articles out fast,” said Assistant Professor of Metabolic Medicine Yusuf Ali, who attended the course. “But we have to consciously practise moving away from esoteric lingo to clear and concise prose.”
Dr Weston put it this way. “Write papers as if you are explaining your discovery to an old school friend. You can’t just tell them your results, you have to tell a story, give them background information which you may take for granted.”
A well-written paper isn’t just more likely to get published. It is also more likely to have a bigger impact. Workshop participant Nanyang Assistant Professor Luo Dahai, who also attended the workshop, said, “To increase the impact of your work, you must put great effort into writing your paper well.”
So what will participants do differently now? For Asst Prof Ali, one of the biggest takeaways is avoiding subjective language. “I have to stop using the word ‘interestingly’ as a bridge between sentences,” he said.
He added, “Also be fair by not giving anyone your first (or even second) draft; include power sentences, but don’t overdo it; and read papers beyond your field to draw eclectic inspiration.”
For Asst Prof Luo, the biggest takeaway is that publication is not just down to an individual. “The scientific writing and publishing process is a dynamic exchange of ideas and opinions between you, the editors and reviewers,” he said.
One other aspect the course focused on was how to give constructive feedback to colleagues who want an opinion before submitting their work to a journal.
Asst Prof Luo said, “Lack of background information and little knowledge of the latest developments in that field make me feel less able to give critical feedback to colleagues. Being friends can also make it difficult to give not-so-nice comments.”
Working on better ways to give comments to colleagues, Asst Prof Ali adheres to these tenets. “I try not to make - or take - comments personally. I try to suggest rather than demand changes and identify specific areas for improvement rather than give vague hints.”
“Oh, and I won’t use a red pen!” he added.
Top writing tips
To boost your chances of getting your manuscript accepted, Dr Weston has this advice:
(1) Write so it's impossible to be misunderstood
(2) Beware of fancy words – complex concepts need simple language
(3) Always remember you have an audience, and tailor your writing to suit them
(4) Write your abstract and title last, and spend time on them – they're the hook to
catch your readers
(5) If you can't read it out loud, it's not worth writing down
The writing workshop may have been her first collaboration with LKCMedicine, but Dr Weston is no stranger to Singapore. She’s the niece of Singapore World War II hero Lim Bo Seng and many of her family, including her brother still live in Singapore.