Advice on how to write a paper (EGU 2019)

This year’s panel on the series “How to Write (and Publish) a Paper in Hydrology” consisted of Christine Stumpp (BOKU Vienna) and Thorsten Wagener (University of Bristol). During the session they shared some of their personal insight on the paper writing process.

Here are some of the advices they kindly shared:

Christine Stumpp approached the paper writing process by introducing three stages (i.e. pre-writing, writing, and publishing). Each of these stages were broken down into different components with their particular points that require attention.

  1. The pre-writing phase
  • Starts with determining the aim of the manuscript. Make sure to early on develop a clear objective and/or hypothesis, and a clear take home message.
  • Ask yourself (and others): is this something new? To answer this, make sure you are familiar with literature, and identify a clear knowledge gap.
  • Also ask yourself: do I have supporting data/facts to support my take home message.
  • Then develop a first-order story line, outlining the general topic and key figures and tables.
  1. The writing phase

– Now it’s time to work on the content and storyline of the paper. Do not write all the text yet, but start with outlining the headers and sub-headers. Fill in the sections with bullet points.

– When the outline is done, you can start writing. When writing, you have to be specific, use short sentences, and avoid redundancies.

-It is not necessary to start with a specific part of the paper; it’s fine to start writing where it seems easiest to get started. This will depend on individual writing approaches.

– This will evolve into a first draft, which will probably require adjusting parts of the text and storyline, and can be used to improve the language.

– Now it is time to fine-tune. Pay particular attention to a good title and abstract!

  1. The publishing phase

– For the journal selection, think of which audiences are reached by particular journals and make your choice accordingly. Higher impact journals can be useful, but are not always the best choice. A lower-impact journal that is widely read by researchers in your specific field may be more suitable than a higher-impact journal that would miss your target audience.

– Common reasons to get rejected immediately include submitting to a journal that is not a good fit for your research, and presenting but not discussing results in the paper.

– Before submitting the paper, make sure you follow the author instructions. Provide a clear and informative cover letter; do not simply copy and paste bits of your Abstract/Intoduction. This helps the editors select appropriate reviewers.

– When you receive the reviewer comments, don’t be offended, but see it as an opportunity for improvement. The reviewers want to improve your work.

– When the journal makes a final decision, hopefully it is time to celebrate, but in case your paper is rejected, do not get discouraged (this happens to all of us!).

Thorsten Wagener highlighted that a good paper tells an interesting, relevant, and robust scientific story. He follows the following steps when writing:

  1. Write down the main Take-Home-Message (THM);
  2. Write down a title that is as general as your THM allows;
  3. Outline the whole paper by writing down one mini-THM for each paragraph (this will become the first sentence of each paragraph);
  4. Add details (incl. supporting statements, references) to each paragraph using bullet points (not full text);
  5. Mirror the contents of your introduction and your discussion sections as it will help readers follow your paper; and
  6. Sketch your figures first (even before you have all results). There should be one clear take-home-message per figure.

Then write down the paper in short and active sentences (e.g. ‘We found…’) using the minimum amount of text needed to tell your scientific story. Don’t use vague intensifiers like “very”; use specific words.

Encourage reproducible research practices by putting parameters in your paper and submitting supplementary material (data, etc.) along with your article.

You can download the presentations of Thorsten (here) and Christine (here).

Previous editions of the “How to write a scientific paper in hydrology” can be viewed on the YHS website:

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