Survival Skills for Scientific Writing

Webinar explains how members can improve their scientific writing skills for peer-reviewed journals

6 April 2010

The ability to write effective papers, articles, and reports is an essential part of an engineer's job, but the writing process can be intimidating to even experienced professionals. To help members improve their scientific writing skills for peer-reviewed journals, the IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) group recently presented a one-hour webinar, “A Survival Guide for Scientific Writing in the Academic and Professional Environments.” The webinar is archived online and can be viewed for free, along with a companion document of questions and answers from the audience.

“We wanted to offer a webinar on this theme because writing skills are pivotal for the success of any professional, be it an engineer, scientist, or medical doctor,” IEEE Member Megha Joshi says of the GOLD committee that helped coordinate the session.

Writing skills are the single best way to evaluate the capabilities of an engineer, according to the webinar’s speaker, IEEE Member Matthias Reumann, a postdoctoral Fellow at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Reumann is the author of several dozen published scientific papers. He says that assessing the quality of an engineer’s writing skills is even more important than giving job candidates standard tests or one-on-one interviews.

“Writing requires discipline, organization, thoroughness, understanding of the background and consequences, and planning,” Reumann says.

Reumann opened his presentation by quoting from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Why quote from a book on warfare? Because, Reumann explains, successful writing requires you not only to know yourself and your project but also your audience. The audience is the “enemy” in Sun Tzu’s quote, and according to Reumann, it includes editors, publishers, readers, and reviewers—people who will form an opinion about your manuscript. Understanding the audience’s needs is one of the keys to conquering the writing process.

For example, if you are writing an article for the only scientific journal in a particular field, then the audience probably already knows the key experiments and the history of the topic. Therefore, you can dive right into the subject and omit a lot of background information.

When writing papers that will be peer-reviewed, understand that the reviewers want to quickly know why your topic is important, what is novel about it, and how you contributed to the solution you are presenting.

But if The New York Times asks for an article on the same topic, you need to retain the basic information and explain it in layman’s terms.

Reumann compares the outline of an article to a human spine. Like a backbone, an outline holds the body of an article together, protects the structure and message of the topic, and maintains flexibility, he explains.

The failure of an outline can be similar to the failure of a human heart. "When you have cardiac disease the structure of your heart changes, so it is important for the structure of the heart to be kept intact so you don’t die from a heart attack,” Reumann says. “Similarly it’s critical for your article to have the right structure so it does not fall apart and die.”

The classic article structure includes an introduction followed by background, materials, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions, he says. He acknowledges that not all articles for peer-reviewed journals have to follow this rigid structure, but doing so improves your chances of being published. He says he recently turned in a paper in which he put the conclusions before the materials and methods, and the peer reviewers asked him to rewrite it to follow the structure they expected—a case of what can happen when you do not follow your audience’s expectations.

However you decide to structure your paper, you’ll help yourself by starting with an outline. Although you can vary from the outline as you write, the structure helps you stay focused as you complete your work.

Knowing yourself includes understanding your creative process, so you can survive the writing process. That means knowing what part of the day is your most creative, as well as setting up an environment that is best for you to write in.

Obsessing about the very first sentence can prevent you from moving beyond your outline. Reumann offers several techniques to help get the words flowing.

In the cluster method, write down all your ideas without putting them in order. “When you cluster, you will find that you get the impulse to start writing, so use that impulse,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you start at the beginning of your manuscript. Just get down what you're thinking about.”

It can help to look at your paper as a collection of statements. Start with one sentence about the problem you want to solve in your paper. Next, write a sentence about why you want to solve it. Make your case in a third statement. Then you’ll have “a clear and focused set of statements” that you can expand upon, Reumann says.

You also could try a technique called mind mapping, which transforms an outline of bulleted points into sentences, which in turn can quickly evolve into an entire paper.

Your first draft is 30 to 50 percent of the work, Reumann says. “Enjoy finishing it,” he adds. “It's an accomplishment.” But leave plenty of time for revisions. Let the first draft rest like a fine wine, he advises, and then go back to it.

Finally, read and re-read your manuscript. Look at it from different angles and from the point of view of your various audiences. Revise it, if necessary, and ask your peers for feedback before you turn it in.


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