Tips for writing your manuscript

writingYou have done your research and have publication worthy data. You are ready to tell the world about your discovery. You sit in front of the computer to begin writing your manuscript but you’re stuck before you start. Sound familiar?

Manuscript writing can be a daunting task. Creating a blueprint and breaking down the manuscript into several parts can help make the process easier. Following these guidelines will help make manuscript writing a little more enjoyable.

1. Outline

An outline is a brief (listed) version of your entire manuscript. The purpose of an outline is to establish the sequence of the paper. The outline will help you make logical connections between each figure as you write your manuscript. It also serves as a reminder for any points you may have missed. The outline keeps you focused and organized.

When you write your outline keep it to one page or less. Make a list of points to be included in the introduction section including the problem, rationale, and hypothesis. Then, make a list of all the figures in the order in which they will appear in the manuscript. List the key figures that you will describe in your results section. Finally, list the main interpretation points that will go in the discussion section. Each point should be keywords or short sentences.

The outline is now ready; you have ended the staring contest with your computer screen and can proceed to write about your wonderful discovery!

2. Figures and Figure legends

Figures are the most important part of a manuscript. Make your figures the way they are going to be published, in other words “publication quality.” During the course of your research, it is possible that you made your figures in different formats, fonts, and colors. Follow standard formatting rules if you are not sure to which journal your manuscript is going to be submitted. For example, keep all lettering in the figures consistent in Arial or Helvetica font. Always maintain high-resolution (600dpi) versions of your images. Always follow the specific rules set by the journal in which you wish to publish.

Each figure (or panel of figures) is accompanied by a figure legend. The figure legend is a clear and succinct description of the figure. In the figure legend include a title, a short description of the method used, brief results, and description of any symbols that appear in the figure.

The sequence of the figures is the way you want your story to unfold. The outline will help you organize the figures. Once you have completed the figures, the remaining sections in the manuscript should flow smoothly.

Additional tip

Make your figures and write the legends/methods as you gather your data. It will help you prepare your posters, talks, and papers in less time.

3. Materials and Methods

This is the easiest section to write and certainly a great confidence booster! However, it is an important section since it enables reviewers to understand your data and for others to replicate your method. The materials and methods section contains details of experimental protocol, reagents, equipment, specific conditions, sample size, statistical methods, special software, and any animal or clinical approvals obtained, all written in past tense. Always check your notebook, raw data, and/or lab protocol to make sure the details are accurate. While it is important to keep this section descriptive, small details such as centrifugation times, may be omitted. Include citations if you are following a popular protocol.

4. Results

This part covers what do your data say, not, what your data mean. Present only key results that follow the sequence of your figures, in a logical manner. You can make subsections within this section to emphasize key results. State the rationales behind specific experiments and describe any samples and controls used that are not described in earlier sections (e.g., generation of new mouse strains, or cell lines). Describe the observations and any statistical differences. The results should draw attention to specific evidence that supports your hypothesis. Make reference to the appropriate figures while you write. Do not interpret your data yet; that goes in the discussion section unless the journal calls for combining these two sections.

5. Discussion

This is where you interpret your data and explain the relevance of your study. Reiterate the problem and the hypothesis. Explain what your data mean and the relationship between multiple sets of data. Pay attention to language—what do your data suggest, indicate, or demonstrate? Draw references to any existing or unpublished literature that supports your theory. Explain any data inconsistencies and surprises. Finally, explain the impact of your study and scope for future research.

The most difficult sections of your paper are now complete. While many like to start the paper with the introduction, I am in the school of people who write it last! The reasons being a) I have the outline to direct me in case I get lost and b) It is nice to get the difficult portions out of the way.

6. Introduction

What was the motivation to carry out your study? Discuss what is known and what is unknown in the field. Review and cite relevant literature. What is your hypothesis? State the problem and explain the rationale for your study. What questions do you expect to answer?

7. Abstract

The abstract is a standalone summary of your entire paper. It should give a clear picture of the basis of the study, key results, and implications in a single paragraph.

8. Acknowledgments

Mention the names of supportive people, resources, and funding.

9. Title

State your discovery in a brief and interesting sentence.

With this you have successfully completed the first draft of your manuscript! After this, the manuscript will undergo several rounds of editing, rephrasing, and reformatting based on the inputs from your mentor and colleagues (and reviewers). However, the difficult part is done and the motivation to graduate/get funded/get a job should help you survive the rest of the ordeal!

Happy Writing!

About the Author:

Harini completed her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from Rowan University (formerly UMDNJ), New Jersey, under the guidance of Gary Goldberg. She is now a postdoctoral fellow in Todd Miller’s laboratory at Stony Brook University, New York. Harini is interested in understanding the role of tyrosine kinases and receptors in cancer growth and metastasis. She can be contacted at
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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