Writing a journal article – how hard can it be?

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Now writing for an academic audience has been a source of fear for me for a few years now. Writing the illusive peer reviewed scientific journal article seems like a rather massive challenge. And I confess writing to this level has never come easy! I was told on my undergraduate course that I needed to work on this area- I am too wordy and descriptive. So I went on a course this week. As you would expect the course did not write my article for me- they just affirmed my current practices and gave me a few tips I thought I would share.

  1. Before you even consider the key idea/message of your article choose a journal. Ideally one you know and if you don’t know it find out about it. This means a) find some previous articles of a similar style (RCT or survey or systematic review) ie confirm they publish the type of thing your going to write and 2) find out about the editor – what do they like, what have they said in previous editorials, what do the author guidelines say!? If your unsure that this journal is right for you- email the editor!
  2. Now the author guidelines may tell you a lot but should they not quite fill in all the gaps you can use those articles you found- how long are the titles? Is there a colon in the title? How long is the intro/methods/results/discussion in terms of words or paragraphs? What purpose do these paragraphs serve (intro/background/aims/summary etc).
  3. What do you want the main message of your article to be? What do you want the recommendation or lasting thought to be? This doesn’t have to be the title- but it could help you structure everything else to lead up to this most important point.
  4. What are the key words for your study or article? These would probably work well in a title- shuffle them around and see what you get. Take time – no need to decide now – come back to this a few times but make sure it matches the journal you are aiming for (see point 2 re how many words in a title).
  5. Decide who will be the authors and in what order. My suggestion is to talk it over with your supervisor – be open about it and others will probably advise you at this stage. Who is helping you out, with what. Can some fall under acknowledgements?
  6. Start writing out your article- either as a spider diagram, a mind map or some kind of diagram. In the past I have just written out bullet points on a word document with sub-points under them. Decide how many paragraphs you will have in your introduction (refer back to the number you found in those articles in point 2 and what the theme was of each). So lets say you will have three paragraphs, decide what each will do- the first will provide the background, the second the current evidence and the third the gap and where your study fits. Try to draw out the key words for your project into each of these paragraphs. Once you have the key words down, perhaps try to draft a few sentences.
  7. Do add references as you go along- use a reference manager. BUT check your journal guidelines. How many references are allowed/typically used (refer back to other articles). And what style?
  8. Review your sentences- make sure they form a cohesive argument. Try not to make more than one significant point in each paragraph or it will get confusing.
  9. Review the work you have done again.
  10. Ask for help. Ask someone else to re-read it and make suggestions.
  11. Review it again
  12. Write the abstract last- Or if you do choose to write the abstract first, come back and re-review the abstract after you have completed the bulk of the article. You may need to re-write it again now.

So, even with all these pointers it seems a bit easier said than done. I don’t know anyone who has not at some point struggled with writing. I think this is normal. And everyone is different. I have to force myself to sit and just get on with it. I have to give myself a good talking to and just do it, and accept that I will need to review and edit and rewrite it about a million times. This is just all part of the process for me.

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