The writer's object is - or should be - to
hold the reader's attention (Barbara Tuchman)
Who am I to pretend to give advice on writing
to young researchers? After 10 years working with scientific
journals as Associate Editor (Bulletin de Minéralogie,
Geochimica et Cosmochimica
Acta, Chemical Geology), I
became Editor of Earth
and Planetary Science Letters (1993-2000) dealing with
~140 manuscripts per year and then Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Geophysical
Research – Solid Earth from 2001-2004 (650 manuscripts
per year). I have put this page on the web because I have the
impression that some things simply do not change. The kinds of
errors that I made as a PhD student and the types of problems
that I have had with reviewers and editors with my own
articles keep repeating themselves after 30 years – I find
myself making the same comments to junior and often to more
seasoned authors that drove me up the wall at 25 years of age.
As an Editor, and especially as a French Editor, it is a
terrible feeling to have to reject a manuscript by a junior
scientist because the ideas are not expressed clearly, when
other criteria indicate that the author is capable of making
important contributions. Some easily irritable reviewers will
readily reject a poorly written manuscript by a first-time
author, even when the manuscript may contain great ideas that
the author is simply not capable of expressing. Don’t forget
that a reviewer irritated by inexcusable faults or by a poor
organization will probably lose some of her/his initial
goodwill towards the science being presented.
If you are an experienced
writer, you can forget this first paragraph. I assume that you
now have all your results at hand and a full set of
- Pick up ALL the papers in
turn that you think are relevant to your story, even those
written by the guy who persists in not quoting your own
- Lift (copy) one, or maximum
two, sentences that you think encapsulate the content of
each paper and shamelessly paste them into an empty text
- Once you are done, move your
thefts around and organize them into a logical sequence of
ideas. If somewhere there is a break of logic it probably
means that you need to gather the papers into groups each
of them relevant to a particular argument. You will have
to organize the groups in a star-like fashion, in fact to
make a list of higher-level arguments.
- If this fails, it means that
either you are missing some critical papers or that you
are breaking the sacred rule of “one paper-one point”.
- If the citations do not
follow a chronological order, it probably means that you
left out some founding papers, which is a sign of
scholarly deficiency (mistaken by older people as
arrogance). A good thing is that you will probably have to
forget review papers and focus on original findings.
- If you are still left with
papers that do not belong anywhere, ask yourself if they
really are part of your story and try to leave them out.
- In both fairness and for
pleasant reading, rewrite all the lifted sentences into a
creamy coherent text.
- The seamless result of the
previous steps should be the context of your work and
allow you to discuss why you actually bothered to collect
all these new data.
- Add a couple of simple and
strong liminal sentences that will capture the essence of
- Wow, you now have a nice
introduction and you finally understood why you started
working on this project!
Leaving the introduction for later is
ill-advised policy, as it condones
the pernicious habit we all have to sidetrack endlessly.
Now, you are in business. Let us talk about
important technical points. Remember that you are writing to
be understood by the readers (and first by the reviewers), not
to impress them. You goal is to communicate, not to scare or
bore anybody away. Although I had initially listed a number of
typical problems for manuscripts written by young – and less
young – French authors, most of these points actually appear
in manuscripts written by scientists of all walks of life
regardless of their country of origin:
we already alluded to: one paper, one point! One idea, one
article. Don’t write an article containing a number of
different overlapping or parallel ideas. If you have two
ideas, write two articles and do not write your magnum opus that
no one will understand. Papers of the type Part 1, 2, 3,
etc. are very unpopular and perceived as arrogant because
they are based on the assumption
that all of the parts will be accepted in the format
decided by the author (in defense, an author purportedly
said, ‘why not, Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies, didn’t
yourself in the position of the potential reader of your
paper and ask yourself two questions: is it worth my
time to read this paper, and what will I get out of it?
Most readers of your papers (who themselves represent a
tiny fraction of the scientific community) will perhaps
read the abstract and conclusions, look at a couple of
figures (without reading the captions) and check whether
they have been cited. All of this takes about 45
seconds. If you want to be read by more than the five
colleagues around the world who work on exactly the same
topic as you, make it short and make it readable to a
broad readership. Chances that readers will reach the
end of your paper are better when the text is short.
is often a scapegoat: 4 times out of 5, an
incomprehensible sentence in English will not translate in
your own language because the very basic formulation of
the idea is wrong, not the words. In other words, don’t
blame the language. If you feel that you can’t find the
proper word to express your idea, try: (1) leave this word
out and see whether the sentence reads well anyway, and
(2) use an alternate word with almost the same meaning and
use a thesaurus, the writer’s best friend, to zoom
on the right term.
up after yourself! Spell-checkers and grammar-checkers
are part of all word processors (even LaTeX). There is nothing that
ticks off a reviewer more than dealing with a large number
of errors when a single check can catch. Not using a
spell-checker and a grammar-checker
is essentially the same as dropping candy wrappers on the
street and expecting someone to pick them up for you.
it may look prestigious to be general in the title, but
turgid headlines tend to make people shrug. Avoid ‘A model of the world: example of my
backyard’. Don’t write an article entitled ‘A global model
for the seismicity of the Earth: example of the Santa
Monica event’, but rather ‘The moment tensor of the Santa
Monica earthquake’. Avoid two-part titles that are
separated by a colon, they are pompous.
Napoléon Bonaparte and not Bonaparte
Napoléon. Even in French, one says ‘pré-nom’ for first name,
but nobody listens: North American telephone books are
full of Dr Philippe, Pr Jean-Paul, and Mrs Georgette,
etc., who confused the ‘first name’ (prénom)
and the ‘last name’ (nom de famille).
Putting the last name in capital letters is perturbing,
tacky, and a waste of time.
provides a summary of the paper. It needs to be concise,
because if it is not, the reader will become discouraged
and will move to the next article in the journal. The
abstract needs to be informative: writing ‘a theory has
been presented and the implications discussed’ is simply a
waste of time for everyone involved. Get straight to the
introduces the paper: ask the correct scientific question,
discuss the current state of the problem in the
literature, and explain the reason why you have the key to
the problem that others do not.
section describes the data, quickly reviews expected
regularities and highlights oddities. Use a reasonable
number of plots to show how the new results fit with
existing knowledge and what makes them distinctive. The
section provides a context for comparing the new results
with literature data. Save trees, though! As Al Hofmann
correctly points out, writing that ‘87Sr/86Sr
ratios in samples 5 to 9 vary from 0.702985 to 0.703117,
whereas, quite to the contrary, they do vary from 0.703017
to 0.703315 in samples 1 to 4’, which most normal people
can get from the table, is a total waste of space and time
and immensely boring. Telling that Ba increases from
sample 1 to 10 while Rb
decreases in sample 8 to 15 is boring.
Results and Discussion
sections are rigorously distinct. The reader must have all
of the available data by the beginning of the discussion.
Don’t pull out new results or data out of your sleeve in
the middle of the discussion to support an idea. A layered
cake of results and discussions is one of the surest ways
of having your paper rejected.
style (Part I): go for the linear progression, and not for
the crime story line. Avoid building suspense, because if
you succeed in hiding your arguments for too long, the
white knight will arrive a few seconds too late to rescue
the prospective mother of his children from the villain.
Your paper will pass away before the end, and your story
will fall into undeserved oblivion. The first sentence in
a paragraph always describes the motivation of the
paragraph – don’t take the reader down a hidden
path. It’s better to be understood in 30 seconds than to
lose the reader after 15 minutes of struggle.
style (Part II): use sub-headers with moderation, they
each betray a break of logic. The ideal article could have
none. My high-school teachers enjoyed the sight of a full
table of contents, but a segmented structure rarely serves
a strong scientific discussion. Rather that breaking your work into separate
pieces, try to streamline the sequence of ideas.
Show causal or temporal relationships by rephrasing
consecutive sentences to this effect. Empty words like
‘indeed’ or ‘in fact’ do not connect anything, certainly
not adjacent ideas, and look like meaningless objects
casually dumped in the crack between two unrelated
paragraph! Avoid woolly style, with no memorable
beginning, no foreseeable end, and endless sidetracking.
Follow the thread of your idea in the most possible linear
way. Although a new step in the development of an idea
calls for a new paragraph, you should work hard to keep
the transition smooth.
two steps forward, one step backward, is great for
communicating feelings, but is no help for scientific
ideas. If you develop your idea in the first part of a
sentence, do not ruin it in the second part. Such a trick
signals that you are afraid of being forthright and will
certainly leave the reader confused about what you really
meant to say and how confident you are about your story.
If a confrontation between ideas is really needed, leave
the reader on the idea that you think you should support.
Compare the impression left by ‘I like beer, but I really
need to watch my waistline’ versus ‘I know I shouldn't,
but I could really use a cold beer now’ and make up your
mind about which message you wish to send around!
think that if you explain things clearly, that you will be
considered mentally retarded. Obviously you do not want to
take the reader for an idiot, but take the time to clearly
and simply state your ideas, without embellishments,
without insinuations, and without pontificating. The worst
thing that could happen to you is that you will be
very common related problem is whether potential readers
should be assumed to be on top of the literature, even in
their own field. I was taken aback many times by reviewers
who considered that their ignorance of papers published 5,
10, or 25 years ago was essentially none of their
responsibility. Although such an attitude is morally and
intellectually flawed, I recommend that you act
defensively and do not hesitate repeating --with due
referencing-- what you think is common knowledge. Of
course, doing this for trendy concepts will be perceived
as a lack of taste.
is rarely a virtue: demonstrating that a problem is
complex (i.e., more
than one degree of freedom) is the best way to chase away
a reader and in any event is not sufficient reason to
write a paper. Find a thread (a simple idea) that allows
you to unravel the problem so that the author, the
reviewer, and the reader remain interested. Occam’s razor
(principle of parsimony), though, makes good cocktail
conversation but has no scientific merit.
use smart innuendos if you are not 100% sure that the
reader will get them. If you are on shaky grounds, be
pedestrian. The archetypical example of this kind of
behavior is summarizing a particular theory by simply
adding the term ‘classic’. The notion of the ‘classical
dynamo theory’ is translated by the average reader as ‘I
will not waste my time explaining the trivial details of
the dynamo that this stupid reader should know; by the
way, I don’t remember what the original references are’.
This is very, very unprofessional and editorially risky.
use empty words (e.g. done, performed, carried out, etc.)
and instead use words that have meaning: ‘The Sr isotope compositions of these
samples have been measured’ should be preferred to ‘The
measurement of Sr isotope
compositions has been performed on these samples’.
use insults, even unintentional ones: when a reviewer
comes across ‘it is obvious that’ or ‘it is clear that’ at
the beginning of a complicated statement, he/she will be
made to feel like an idiot. Expect this reviewer to make
you pay for your condescending attitude and lack of
using personal pronouns ‘I’ or ‘we’ when there is no
actual action carried out by the author. ‘We mixed the
residual solutions in a 10 ml beaker’ is OK, but ‘We can
see that the points form a linear array’ is at best is a
little absurd, and at worst an insult (see point 18). The
solution is simple; just cross-out
‘We can see that …’! Use you spell checker to hound the
unnecessary problems related to debatable meaning:
‘quantitatively’ for ‘completely’, ‘to evidence’ for ‘to
attest to’, ‘complimentary’ for ‘complementary’, ‘paper’
for ‘article’. Also avoid ‘and/or’ and split infinitives (e.g., to boldly
section is an essential (and required) part of a paper: it
represents what remains after the dust of the discussion
has settled. No new ideas can be introduced in the
should be dignified and include the reviewers, all the
reviewers, who have spent time on your work, even if you
did not really appreciate their comments.
- References. Dropping a significant article from
your reference list to minimize its importance with
respect to your own manuscript is a sure strategy for
triggering a hostile reaction from the reviewers. Good
Editors pick the reviewers among the most competent
scientists in the field, but most of them unfortunately
come with a strong ego. Be a scholar, if only to minimize
trouble. Otherwise, the first paper where an idea is
introduced should always be cited and a recent review
article can also be useful. The absence of old references
can indicate a lack of perspective, but having too many
citations of old papers is pedantic.
- Fonts. Do not use more than two fonts for the
text and avoid non-proportional fonts (Geneva, Courrier)
as they are difficult to read in the form of long
paragraphs. Use serif fonts (with embellishments, as Time)
for the text, and sanserif fonts (Helvetica, Arial) for
headings and titles. Be stingy on bold, underlined, and
italic style: the human brain does not handle well too
many levels of coding. Right justification is pretty but
makes the paragraph bulky and unpleasant to read (the eye
looses its marks). Hyphenate your text. Never forget to
produce a double-spaced manuscript with wide margins,
which will let the reviewer scribble annotations when he
or she takes the manuscript on the plane. Pre-formatting a
manuscript in the journal print style anticipates
acceptance and boasts perfection: this will, most of the
time, irritate both the Editor and the reviewers.
- Figures. Limit
their number, but a text with no figures is usually
unattractive. Remember that figures are often the only
component that people check when they ‘read’ a paper. You
will easily find web sites to help you prepare terrific
illustrations. Limit the number of symbols and colors (5
of each is a good maximum). Use sanserif fonts (Helvetica,
Arial) for labels and your figures will have more muscle.
Likewise, limit the number of font sizes. It is good
policy before submitting a manuscript to print the figures
reduced to the size expected from the particular journal
and check their readability.
- Manuscript revisions. Good words break no bones.
When a reviewer indicates that he (she) has not understood
something that appears obvious to you, seriously consider
the possibility that he is sincere. Don’t try to reprimand
the reviewer for an assumed ineptness, but instead work on
better expressing your ideas (and test them out on your
non-specialist colleagues). When an English-speaking
reviewer takes time to correct your errors in English,
don’t just ignore the suggestions, as you won’t get a
second chance to benefit from this help.
Now, please don’t check my own papers in too
much detail and do not ask how often my own manuscripts get
rejected for breaking these ground rules. I am making progress
but it is not perfection yet!
(Thanks to James Scoates
for the original translation and to Al Hofmann for useful
comments. French version: http://perso.ens-lyon.fr/francis.albarede/conseils.php)