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Published June 21, 2004

JCB
Feature

Me write pretty one day: how to write a good
scientific paper

The scientific literature is exploding
in quantity even as it stands still in
literary quality. In this brief guide,
I suggest a few small steps that the
individual can take to make his or her
writing clear, straightforward, and
digestible.

©2003 The New Yorker Collection from cartoonbank.com. All Rights Reserved.
So…what was your point?
The first step with any manuscript is
to define your bottom line. Be realistic

Downloaded from jcb.rupress.org on April 13, 2010
about how much the average reader
will take away from an article. Non-
The Journal of Cell Biology

experts will retain at most a single
message. Make sure you have one,
and then repeat it over and over
again—at the end of the Abstract,
in the Introduction, in the Results,
and in the Discussion. In contrast,
everything but this single sentence
belongs in one section (Introduction,
Results, or Discussion) only.
To uncover your bottom line, ask
some questions: What was the mystery
that you wanted to answer at the start?
Have you answered it? What first got
you excited about this area of research?
With any luck, it was more than the
idea that proteins X and Y might bind
to each other—there was probably a
bigger idea that motivated and intrigued which your volunteer has no familiarity the number of known penguin
you. Make sure you convey that reason or interest. species…”. If your readers don’t
and that excitement. Does the reader need help under- think that is exciting, they won’t be
What is new? Break up the story into standing the significance? If you think convinced by you stating that it is.
“It was previously shown that…” and your discovery might (in the future) Finally, include different levels at
“Now it is shown that…”. Is there a prove to be the explanation for mystery which your results are significant: e.g.,
significant difference between the two X, don’t make the reader figure out the (a) we have found a stem cell repressor,
statements? Justify the interest of your identity of mystery X. State it explicitly, and (b) this may be one of many
work verbally to someone outside of make clear that the link is only specula- repressors for maintaining a generally
your field. Your explanation should be tion, and explain any basis for making dormant state in stem cells. This is
compelling on a general, conceptual the speculation. Remember that your particularly important for papers that you
level, not grounded in minutiae with readers are busy in their own field, and are trying to get into top-tier journals.
will not necessarily make the jumps in
Reprinted with permission by the American logic that are glaringly obvious to you. The anatomy of a paper
Society for Cell Biology from the ASCB Newsletter, Make the jumps for them. Now that you have your bottom line,
May 2004.
Some of the content of this article came from Show; don’t tell. Not “Our results you need a roadmap for writing the
an earlier guide by R. Ward and K. LaMarco. are exciting…” but “Our results double paper. Remember throughout that

The Journal of Cell Biology, Volume 165, Number 6, June 21, 2004 757–758
http://www.jcb.org/cgi/doi/10.1083/jcb.200403137
757

Reveal spite of the fact that…” becomes “Al- was done in response to another.” “used” not “utilized”) and neces- An Abstract can and must pack in not a literature review but a means to sary (“X was examined and found to many elements: background. 2004 758 The Journal of Cell Biology | Volume 165. and then rearranging them so learn (the bottom line) and why it with precise meanings. of the content of the paper should question. This can be the (or Introduction) section. Use the specific (“dog” not can justify. start and the next. They list all their To draft a paper.Published June 21. form. But don’t claim more than ledge) to the specific question being “animal”) but simple (“girl” not “female you have shown. Only after chopping out you can describe from the beginning mystery. William A. with a single. Funnel from known (the big phrases such as “gives important insight Start by drafting a title that is strong. The latter organization at a time. Build up this The Introduction sets up the back. Be ground ends and the new work begins. Make it clear where the back. A good paper is not a random accu.edu . The main route to clarity is to cut. Sentences should have an how to deal with journals. Stuffy writing is frequently used to the conclusion/answer. but discuss single words to entire thoughts. Give each figure a simple. clear message. Think tions. active construction. and could well damage it. paragraph. Tell it. tion. interpretation so that the reader can signposts. X  Y. Think exact. one-paragraph summary of the main their head for sentence upon sentence. and generally be kept short no matter how you are provoked. Number 6. asked by you. in any ground for what we are about to Specificity means using only words order. cut.e. through your words without drowning. Wells the next—and understand what spin Many authors mistakenly feel that they wellsw@rockefeller.rupress. 2010 to the end of a pathway. ary results later. Don’t pre- writing. When the sentences evidence. a ques. 2004 everyone. works best when organizing each and to the point. Make all transitions so have a bottom line. Arrange Results either chronologically about each element used to construct Space precludes a full discussion of (as they unfolded in lab). address one thought one Golden Rule: be polite to editors.. tive title in the form of a sentence. even a scientist. Science is a story. we can tackle style issues. declara. Organize subsequent topics of each sentence. Replace lazy that there are logical links. and then concisely add a Flow comes about when the writer be evident from reading these few broad-brush version of the supporting makes connections between the end sentences alone. something. and specificity. text will the average reader make it Downloaded from jcb. The Introduction is child. set up the question. Be forceful. evidence before stating: “Thus. The first sentence of each para. or any large areas that remain a complete though…”. paragraph. but there is most important result first and second. or put the the paper. Chop out everything from finding to another. thinks in the writer is trying to put on the data have to build the entire case before tell- narrative. Now that the text is down in rough about what you really want to say. vary” becomes “X varied”). And good luck! both see what logical path the writer is Signposts tell the reader where you’re taking—how one experiment prompts going with the argument that follows. i. “In logical order of why one experiment how the results affect the field. so that the reader can agree or disagree ing us the conclusion. Treat each paragraph Editors are trying to do a good job. and screaming at them will not advance Describe the data with only enough More general style issues include your cause. How to write clearly disguise intellectual fuzziness. Give your paper a the Discussion. simply work out with this spin. structure by writing notes. it’s time to start with topics most closely related to the there are no gaps in logic. picture significance of the field) to into…” with words that actually mean direct. narrative structure that links from one Do NOT just repeat the Results cut. but civil.” what the figures and tables would look Start the Discussion with a very brief But this leaves the reader scratching like. answer. mulation of facts. flow. or section look as if they both tell a story and from most to least important. as a thought. editing. Most results: first state the answer to the Put a preview first.org on April 13. graph should indicate the structure of Do the work for them. sume that the reader will do any work. and as “big picture” as the data unknown (the specific gaps in know. what was done. and implica. matters. what was found.

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