I was thinking about putting together a paper writing guide for the lab. Just thinking formally about how I write a paper was a useful exercise. I have lots of ideas on how to deconstruct this process and I started to make a giant list, but one thing I found that sort of encapsulated much of the advice was building a narrative. Let me demonstrate. Below I’ve written a nonsensical summary of a paper.

Title: D+G is the mechanism for how A works.

Summary: Here’s some background on what we’re studying and why it’s important. This is the state of the field/what we know so far. What’s critical, unknown and the question we wanted to ask is A. We figured out the answer by doing clever experiment B and found C. We did multiple orthogonal experiments that confirm that C is indeed true. We think C being true means that the most likely explanation for what is going on biologically is D. There are some alternative explanations for what C implies if not D, but we ruled those out. If D is true, it would predict E and F. We tested E and F and found they are also true but the results are a little unexpected, suggesting that what’s really happening is D+G. D+G would predict that H is true. We tested H and it is indeed true. All our data point to D+G as the mechanism for how A works, finally answering this open question in the field.

My feeling is that many people when starting to write a paper for the first time, can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get stuck in the details when day to day, you’re thinking at the level of troubleshooting individual experiments. Writing a narrative of the paper will serve as the North star for your paper writing process.  The above is just a stupid example and can vary wildly. When starting a paper, you should know A, have key result C in hand and interpret it to have a proposed idea for D. In my opinion, you don’t really need much else to begin. When writing this narrative, it will become painfully obvious that if you want to make your argument, you’re missing some pieces. That will help you decide which key experiments to add. This is why you shouldn’t wait until you think you’re done collecting data to write a paper. You’ll also notice that I didn’t write the title until I finished the narrative (I never would have known what letters to include!). Again, this highlights the point that you don’t really know what your story is until you go through the iterative process of adding data to round out the narrative.

If you force yourself to build a narrative early and keep revising it, you should eventually get to the finish line on your paper.

Categories: Pro-tips