The second talk in the series “Becoming a Faculty Member” was as informative as the first. Professor Ron Taylor talked to a group of graduate students and postdocs about how to write an effective research paper, something that he and his lab have a lot of experience with.
The hardest part of writing is figuring out where to start. Professor Taylor suggested that writers start with the abstract, which will provide a general overview of what the paper will be about. He did mention that your ideas will probably change as you start writing the paper, but you can always adjust the abstract later. After developing the abstract, the next and most important aspect of writing is looking at the collected data. Professor Taylor suggested actually having the data physically in front of you, so that you can move it around and arrange it into a coherent story. Sometimes more experiments may need to be done before the story is complete. Do you have controls? Is everything labeled correctly? Do the results fit well with what the abstract says? Looking at the data in advance will allow the writer to determine how the paper should develop and what remains to be done.
The next important aspect of writing a paper is determining why other researchers would care about what you are writing. You will want to present your work in a way that interests others in the field and addresses an issue that they find compelling.
Professor Taylor also stressed the importance of remembering basic writing skills, such as making sure each paragraph has a topic sentence. You should correct spelling and grammar before sending the paper off to be read by your advisor—sometimes having a colleague read through the paper in advance can help.
A final consideration when writing a paper is deciding where you ultimately want to submit it. This may change the layout and content of the paper. Some scholars pick journals based on impact factor, while others may submit to a smaller journal, hoping that the paper will be published faster. As Professor Taylor noted, however, it is often worth taking a risk and submitting to a more prestigious journal because, “If you don’t play, you can’t win, and sometimes you can win.”
Overall, Professor Taylor offered a number of helpful pointers to aspiring graduate student and postdoc writers.
by Britney Tappen