The noted sportswriter “Red” Smith once noted that writing was easy: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Many view the writing of journal articles as being accomplished in much the same manner. However, following a few tips can make the experience easier and possibly even enjoyable.
“The first step toward creation of material for publication is to find your story,” says Sam Dagogo-Jack, MD, FRCP, a frequent author and currently an editor of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. “Journals are looking for new stories, but because innovation and fresh ideas are extremely rare, the second path is to find a new twist for an old story.”
It is good discipline for any author to sit down and craft a rough draft of the abstract. Most publications limit abstracts to 200 or 300 words. Committing the salient elements of your story to paper can help focus on what is important.
Also early in the process, the author or authors should decide which publication is their first choice for submission. A mismatch between the contents of the article and the focus or priorities of the journal can lead to rejection and frustration.
“The first step for authors is to become familiar with the content and format of the journal they are submitting to,” says Maggie Hayworth, group managing editor and associate director for the Endocrine Society. “Look around for the best fit — there are plenty of biomedical journals out there looking for good research.”
Study the journal’s table of contents for the last few issues. This highlights not only what kinds of topics
they are interested in, but also those that have been covered recently. The instructions to author’s page and a journal’s mission statement are other areas that give guidance on what kind of article is desired.
When actually sitting down to write the article, keep it concise and direct. At best, a person has five minutes to read a paper. So, don’t put in excess data, take out words that aren’t needed, and get to the point quickly
“Front Porch” to Your Research
Pay special attention to both the title and the abstract since these are the front porch through which your ideas enter the process from editor to reviewer to reader. They need to highlight the salient points that distinguish your work from those going before, and you have only a few seconds to capture the attention of the reader.
Before submission have others look it over closely. Even obvious things such as proofreading or not presenting the article in the proper format can bias editors and reviewers against your work. After all, if one doesn’t take care in the preparation of the paper, how can others trust the effort that went into the actual research?
“Especially for a new person who is not used to writing papers, the best and most important thing is to have others read it and comment,” says Stephen R. Hammes MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of Rochester in New York state. “Think of it as pre-review. I went to those who knew the field really well, and at least as important, those who I was confident would give it to me straight. These reviews can be very helpful because they almost always suggest things that I would never have thought of.”
Often there is only one person who actually does the writing. The first step for comments is usually the other researchers on the team. When there are seasoned researchers with publication experience available, this may be all the input needed. In other instances, the writer may want to expand the breadth of expertise used.
Ready for Submission?
For newer writers, one of the major questions that can be answered by mentors or others is: “Is it ready for submission?”
“I have junior researchers holding on to their publication because they think it isn’t good enough,” notes Hammes. “There is a very fine line here, and those who don’t publish a lot may not always see it. Hanging on too long may mean you end up shooting yourself in the foot, so if those you trust say go for it, listen carefully to what they have to say.”
One thing that even more experienced writers sometimes forget is that there is nothing personal if their work is rejected.
“Rejection should never be taken as a reflection on the person and a cause for discouragement,” says Dagogo-Jack. “Rosalyn Yalow and Solomon Berson’s paper on radioimmune assays received many negatives reviews and was published in a journal that wasn’t considered to be top-tier. The work reported in that article was the basis for Dr. Yalow’s Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1977.”
— Ullman, RN, MHA, is an Indiana-based freelance writer with nearly 30 years of experience. He wrote about adding a registered dietician to an endocrinology practice in the February issue.