How I write academic papers

If there is one thing I have done plenty during my years of academic research in mathematical biology, ecology, genetics, and environmental sciences, it has been writing academic papers. As of September 2018, one year after having switched career from academia to industry, I have first-authored more than 30 papers in peer-reviewed journals. Three a year, give or take, and many others as a co-author. Some of them have been published in quite popular journals. Others, I could have spent my time enjoying the great outdoors instead of writing. 

For the vast majority of those papers, I got the idea behind the work, did the analyses, wrote the article, and dealt with revisions – all challenging tasks, especially the last one. We submit the paper along with our dreams of appreciation and the answer is: meh. Not novel; too long; who cares. Maybe I took too many papers and responsibilities on my shoulders, but it was aligned with my personality. And along the way, I learned a thing or two about writing papers. There are many useful resources out there on how to write an academic article, so I will focus on some points that have not been discussed as much as how to properly format citations. 

  1. Fewer goals are better than more goals, and concise is better than verbose. Many times I made the mistake of wasting the reader's attention by writing details that were interesting for just one person: myself – which is the same person who had spent weeks getting into rabbit holes that nobody had dared to explore before. Ask yourself: what is the most relevant result you want the reader to be aware of, among the many meandering analyses that mostly led nowhere? Skip the sensitivity analysis that took ten days to code, five days to run, and ten minutes to see that there was nothing there. Focus on the most relevant result. There is always another day for the less useful and that day is not today. I had to re-learn this lesson quite a few times.
  2. Use as little jargon as possible, and use simple words. Aside from the very little impact of much of the work we do in academia, often motivated by our research obsessions, fights over minuscule turfs, writing one more paper to beef up our CV or getting one more grant to keep the lab running, using jargon very much limits the use of our findings and insights outside of our tiny academic circle.
  3. Re-use, in spirit, paragraphs that have been already used in other papers or that were cut before publication. This point might be controversial, but a paper is not a novel, as its primary goal is to describe and teach, not entertain, and a solid paragraph that has already been used is better than a weaker one that has never been used. Don't copy, but look close. Then, being efficient is a virtue, being clear is a worthwhile aspiration, and complicating our life is a vice.
  4. Write, edit, write again, let it simmer, re-organize, be brave and cut that sentence that never seems to sound right. Writing is messy; at least, it's always been messy for me. You write a paragraph you think is brilliant and when you re-read it after a week, you ask yourself whether it is possible to write that unintelligible paragraph while sober. Like Michelangelo apocryphally said, perhaps the final draft is hidden within the gory mess of the first draft. Dig hard, let it sit, look at the creation, get some distance, dig again. The paper is never ready, but it comes the time when you should abandon it and move on. It's going to come back anyway.
  5. Introduction: 6-800 words – big picture, specific problem, how you solved it, big picture again. Cliché, but it works. Materials and Methods: no more than 1000 words – detailed where it matters and concise elsewhere. Results: maximum of 4 sub-sections, 200 words at most. Discussion: 800 to 1500 words – punch-section of 300 words, 300 words for each of the Results sub-section. These have been useful guidelines. The rest goes to Supplementary Material, but only if we strongly believe it helps us get the paper accepted. At first approximation, nobody ever downloaded any of my 20-page long Supplementary Materials.  
  6. Don't be afraid of being frustrated or disappointed or of wasting time writing, then deleting, then re-organizing. My theory of periods says that sometimes things work flawlessly and sometimes they don't work at all. The reason is often unknown and sometimes unknowable. Embrace the frustration, push through the disappointment, believe it will work out at the end. If it is not your first paper, you have already done it. If it is your first paper, many other people thought they couldn't, and then they did it.
  7. Writing a paper is a process within the process of writing many papers. Some reviews are less intelligible than abstract art; some are downright mean; some help us improve our work. And it is very human to think we have never been appreciated enough. As individuals, we can do very little to make the peer-review system fairer, but we can always focus on the process of writing that paper within the more extensive, writing-many-papers career-wide process.
  8. Read brilliant articles, save the sections you like the most, ask yourself why you like them, use the structure, words, flow in your papers. 

900 words, a bit more than needed for a concise Introduction.