Monday 21 January 2008

guidelines on writing a paper: my synopsis

the last couple of weeks I have been floaded with meetings and one of the reoccuring things was: writing papers. So I jotted this post together to have a short document for future use.

Please add things I might have overlooked.

Based on two sources:
Writing a paper – by George M Hall – third edition (referenced with pages in this post)
San Francisco Edit:

Readers must be able to

  • Assess the observations you made
  • Repeat the experiment if they wish;
  • Determine whether the conclusions drawn are justified by the data.

Some pointers:

  • Search a peer review journal with best reputation in publishing for your domain. Journals of societies have a larger circulation. Is the journal referenced a lot?
  • Use active verbs and clear subjects (not ‘several’ but ‘three’, not ‘somewhere’ but ‘in the Maritime region of Canada
  • Make every sentence useful, no blabla
  • Explain abbreviations before including them
  • Help the editor by using the format (style sheet) journals prescribe
  • Write the first draft without hesitation, editing comes afterwards
  • Guidelines on figures and tables:

Step 1: references – always start with the literature/research that is already out there

The references are the backbone of your paper. They provide the scientific background that justifies the research you have undertaken and the methods you have used. They provide the context in which your research should be interpreted.

References should be limited to relevant ones with clear scientific interest (too many references shows insecurity of the author)

Whenever you find a reference, archive them in a clear bibliographical way (use Zotero for instance)

The Vancouver format is preferred for scientific references:

Journal article:

Surnames and initials of authors. Full title of paper. Title of journal Year of publication; Volume number: First and last page numbers of article.

Example: de Waard I., Writeress G. Best practices in building mobile courses. eLearning Magazine 2100;55:123-234.

Book or monograph

Surname and initials of authors. Full title of book. Number of edition. Town of publication: Publisher, Year of publication.

Example: de Waard I. Putting humour into eLearning. 3rd edition. Antwerp: Epo, 2010.

Chapter in multi-author book

Chapter author (surnames and initials). Chapter title. Book authors or editors (surnames and initials). Book title. Town of publication: Publisher, Year of publication. First and last pages.

Step 2: make an outline

This is the blue print of your paper.

Summary (from San Francisco edit: )

  • Develop a central message of the manuscript
  • Define the materials and methods
  • Summarize the question(s) and problem(s)
  • Define the principal findings and results
  • Describe the conclusions and implications
  • Organize and group related ideas together
  • Identify the references that pertain to each key point
  • Develop the introduction

The basic structure of a paper: IMRaD (p1)

Introduction: what question was asked?
Methods: how was it studied?
Results: what was found?
Discussion: what do the findings mean.

2.1 Introduction:

One sentence says it all and engages the reader. Not more than one paragraph to explicit the first sentence. Keep it short, arresting and clear, usually between 300 – 500 words.

(From San Francisco Edit: )

  • Begin the Introduction by providing a concise background account of the problem studied.
  • State the objective of the investigation. Your research objective is the most important part of the introduction.
  • Establish the significance of your work: Why was there a need to conduct the study?
  • Introduce the reader to the pertinent literature. Do not give a full history of the topic. Only quote previous work having direct bearing on the present problem.
  • Clearly state your hypothesis, the variables investigated, and concisely summarize the methods used.
  • Define any abbreviations or specialized terms.
  • Provide a concise discussion of the results and findings of other studies so the reader understands the big picture.
  • Describe some of the major findings presented in your manuscript and explain how they contribute to the larger field of research.
  • State the principal conclusions derived from your results.
  • Identify any questions left unanswered and any new questions generated by your study.

Other points to consider when writing your Introduction:

  • Be aware of who will be reading your manuscript and make sure the Introduction is directed to that audience
  • Move from general to specific: from the problem in the real world to the literature to your research
  • Write in the present tense except for what you did or found, which should be in thepast tense
  • Be concise

Or plain and simple: what is the elevator pitch

2.2 Methods:

“This section should describe, in logical sequence, how your study was designed and carried out and how you analyzed your data. “ (p16) A clear method should be described before starting a study.
“If your research aims to answer a question, you should state exactly what hypothesis was tested” (p16) Always state clearly the a priori hypotheses (p17)

When you use statistics, give the exact tests used to analyses the data statistically.

A good methods section can answer these questions (p21)

  • Does the text describe what question was being asked, what was being tested, and how trustworthy the measurements of the variable under consideration would be?
  • Were these trustworthy measurements recorded, analyzed, and interpreted correctly?
  • Would a suitably qualified reader be able to repeat the experiment in the same way?

How the study was carried out (p18)

  • Describe how the participants were recruited and chosen
  • Give reasons for excluding participants
  • Consider mentioning ethical features
  • Give accurate details of materials used
  • Give exact data
  • Give the exact use of all the instruments involved

2.3 Results

The introduction has defined the questions and the methods the means of getting the answers. Decide during the design stage of your study how the results will be presented. (p34)

Results should not be interpreted, just delivered.

Follow these rules:

  • The text should tell the story
  • The strongest results should be mentioned first
  • The text should complement figures or tables
  • The figure will show the highlights
  • Provide a heading for each table or figure
  • The statistics should support the statements
  • Use the past tense when you refer to your results (the present tense everywhere else)

2.4 Discussion

(should not take more than a third of the total size of the paper)

Try not to repeat what you have already stated in the intro to your paper.

Decide which of the references with an important message seem to have involved the strongest methods and make them the centerpiece of your historical review.

Summary (p41)

  • Three ways to start your piece: mini-seminar, main finding, or what’s different.
  • Summarise relavant important previous work
  • Put your results in context
  • Mention doubts, weaknesses, and confounders
  • Three ways of ending: problem solved, more research is needed, or uncertainty remains.

From San Francisco Edit:

  • Organize the Discussion from the specific to the general: your findings to the literature, to theory, to practice.
  • Use the same key terms, the same verb tense (present tense), and the same point of view that you used when posing the questions in the Introduction.
  • Begin by re-stating the hypothesis you were testing and answering the questions posed in the introduction.
  • Support the answers with the results. Explain how your results relate to expectations and to the literature, clearly stating why they are acceptable and how they are consistent or fit in with previously published knowledge on the topic.
  • Address all the results relating to the questions, regardless of whether or not the findings were statistically significant.
  • Describe the patterns, principles, and relationships shown by each major finding/result and put them in perspective. The sequencing of providing this information is important; first state the answer, then the relevant results, then cite the work of others. If necessary, point the reader to a figure or table to enhance the “story”.
  • Defend your answers, if necessary, by explaining both why your answer is satisfactory and why others are not. Only by giving both sides to the argument can you make your explanation convincing.
  • Discuss and evaluate conflicting explanations of the results. This is the sign of a good discussion.
  • Discuss any unexpected findings. When discussing an unexpected finding, begin the paragraph with the finding and then describe it.
  • Identify potential limitations and weaknesses and comment on the relative importance of these to your interpretation of the results and how they may affect the validity of the findings. When identifying limitations and weaknesses, avoid using an apologetic tone.
  • Summarize concisely the principal implications of the findings, regardless of statistical significance.
  • Provide recommendations (no more than two) for further research. Do not offer suggestions which could have been easily addressed within the study, as this shows there has been inadequate examination and interpretation of the data.
  • Explain how the results and conclusions of this study are important and how they influence our knowledge or understanding of the problem being examined.
  • In your writing of the Discussion, discuss everything, but be concise, brief, and specific.

Step 3. come up with a titaliting Title (p43)

  • Concise and precise
  • Informative and descriptive
  • Not misleading or unrepresentative
  • Words appropriate for classification
  • Interesting, not dull

Step 4. write a clear and interesting Abstract

Start preparing the paper by writing the abstract if you do not have a clear outline of the paper or leave the abstract till last if you already have a clear idea and you want to make sure the abstract completely covers the paper.

  • Check the maximum number of words ,(mostly between 200 – 300)
  • Keep it simple and comprehensive (p46)
  • Check for consistency: the abstract should reflect the paper and describe your message succinctly and accurately. Do the objectives described in the abstract match those in the paper?
  • State your hypothesis or method used in the first sentence.
  • Omit background information, literature review, and detailed description of methods. ( )
  • Remove extra words and phrases
  • Revise the paragraph so that the abstract conveys only the essential information.

Step 5 add Authors

First the person who wrote the paper, second and third authors: significant contributors, last one is mostly the heavy weight and guarantor. (can vary).


  1. That's a helpful collection of tips, thanks.

    A great resource for clear writing: "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr.

  2. Thank you for the great tip on clear writing!

    I have ordered it and looking forward to implement those style tips.