Who has time for practice? Mostly no one, not when it comes to manuscript writing anyway. But in case that time comes up, or you have a student needing help, or a colleague needing a little advice, here are some quick manuscript skill-building exercises.
These tools will help you think deeper about your research publication and make it more accessible to a broader audience.
At the end of this article, you’ll also find a list of writing and publication resources for your next paper.
10 easy manuscript writing exercises to build your skills
1. Practice turning titles and abstracts into Tweets
Why would being able to tweet a research paper’s title or abstract be so important? First, it is one channel of promoting science to the rest of the world. Second, tweets come with certain writing constraints. Not only is there a character limit, but there’s a tone and a purpose, and a different type of audience. Tweeting (or practice tweeting) some of the most difficult topics builds those writing muscles.
Doing this exercise is simple. Search random publication titles and abstracts, and then come up with a very short tweetlike paraphrase of the material that is also very approachable. If you want to really challenge yourself, keep the character length to Twitter’s old constraints of 140 characters or less.
Have fun with this exercise by using emojis, slang, and modern text message-style abbreviations (for example, DIY, ICYMI, WRT).
When it comes time to draft your own title and abstract, you’re going to be much better at conveying your information in a very straightforward manner.
2. Practice turning abstracts into TLDR summaries
TLDR means Too Long, Didn’t Read. These summaries pop up at the end of long posts as a quick takeaway from the long paragraph posted just above.
To do this exercise, just browse recent publication abstracts. Read over them, and make your own short TLDR sentences. Try not to write more than 2-3 sentences for your TLDR summary.
Rather than doing a mini paragraph, you can fashion your TLDRs into quick bullet points.
Reviewing abstracts and then simplifying them into TLDR summaries will improve reading comprehension and critical thinking.
Once you’re ready to start writing your own abstract, you will have had plenty of practice summarizing complex information in an easy to understand way.
3. Practice bulleting out key takeaways from abstracts, results and conclusions
As you review papers, look at each section and develop a hypothetical “takeaway” section. For each section’s takeaway, bullet the most pertinent information the researcher was trying to convey.
As you do this exercise, make sure you simplify the information you’re bulleting.
This exercise helps you become a better technical translator, especially for the methods and results sections. When you write your own paper and approach those challenging sections, your translation skills will help readers at varied research levels comprehend your work.
4. Practice being able to predict what the paper is really about based on its title
A characteristic of a good title is being able to predict what the content will be about. Seeing other papers that do this will help you as you approach your own title.
Browse publication titles. Predict what you think the paper will really be about, and then briefly read the abstract, and discussion sections. Were you right? If you were, tuck that title away noting why it worked well. If you weren’t right, rewrite the title so that it would help a reader make a more accurate prediction about the paper’s content.
5. Review abstracts for their own readability
Before you start working on your own abstract, it might help to critically read others, especially for readability.
As you look at other abstracts mark down:
- What areas cause you to stumble
- What sentences you had to reread
- What caused confusion
- What places you lost interest
- What sentences felt muddled
- What sentences were the easiest to understand
- What sentences helped you make predictions
- What sentences help you determine whether this paper will be helpful or not
Look at what was done well, and what wasn’t. If you want to be a real overachiever, practice rewriting those abstracts so that they convey the research objective, methods used, results and findings in a clear, easy to understand way.
6. Browse titles, and abstracts for ones that best inform you, and ones that are too complicated
Once you’re ready to think about your own title and abstract, take a look online at some recent examples. Write down which titles and abstracts were helpful, informative and allowed you to understand what the paper was about. Determine what about these examples made you feel this way.
As you go through these examples, take note of the ones that were not helpful, or were not informative, or didn’t helped you predict the content. Why were these unhelpful? What would you do differently?
The same could be applied to all sections of a paper. During your review, look at the methods section and results section. Which ones really stood out to you? What characteristics made those good examples to follow?
These exercises will allow you to think more critically about your own work as you begin planning and editing your drafts.
7. Practice finding the “what’s in it for me” of each paper’s section
For research publications, the “what’s in it for me” concept refers to the value your audience intends to get from your paper. Why is this important to them? What will your reader gain? Usually the value comes from clearly solving a problem, answering a question or highlighting a method in an easy to follow manner.
How you deliver information in your research paper should help the reader find that value. So if you’re really struggling to find a good what’s in it for me for your paper, look up other examples of researchers who really did it well. For each section, including the abstract and title, ask yourself what you got out of it. Why was it important? How did this researcher position his or her work to really define the value for you?
8. Practice turning titles and abstracts into appropriate questions
When people do literary research, it starts with a question. Titles and abstracts that help a person find what they’re looking for will naturally be seen more. So this is another exercise that helps you think about how to make your own work straightforward.
Just browse articles online. Look at the title, and brainstorm a list of questions it could answer. Do the same with the abstracts. For those papers that gave you a decent sized list, think about what the writer of that paper did to really help connect with a predicted question. Perhaps they had a decent amount of keywords. Perhaps it had to do with the structure of their title and abstract. Maybe their title and abstract was easier to understand.
9. Practice rewriting titles according to the Enago Academy Formula
Enago Academy is an organization that helps researchers with the publication process. Their website has many resources to help with writing, editing and publishing.
In their article “4 Important Tips on Writing a Research Paper Title,” they suggest a helpful formula for title creation:
Formula: [Result]: A [method] study of [topic] among [sample]
Example from Enago Academy: “Meditation makes nurses perform better: a qualitative study of mindfulness meditation among German nursing students”
This is an extremely helpful formula. Of course, writing-formulas have the danger of not fitting a specific situation very well, or sounding robotic.
Therefore, a good exercise, as you approach your own title, is to browse other research paper titles. Practice rewriting the title according to this formula (you may need the abstract for that part).
As you practice enough, you should come to a point where you feel you can take some liberties with the formula. This enables you to tailor the formula specifically to your own title when the time comes.
10. Practice determining a paper’s findings and impact
Papers with very opaque writing styles can unintentionally bury the overall research impact. To train yourself to write in a more straightforward fashion, this exercise can be extremely helpful.
Review recent papers, and see how well you can determine the paper’s findings and impact. Was it apparent? Did it show up right in the abstract as well? If it was clear, what did this researcher do that made him or her successful? If it wasn’t, pay attention to what made the findings harder to uncover.
Writing tools and resources for researchers
Your own institution
Some institutions already have editors on staff who focus on “plain-English” writing. Plain-English writing, in this context, refers to writing technical information in a very easy to understand way.
Experts at your institution who offer this resource can assist you with simplifying your work and making it more interpretable.
Enago Academy is an organization dedicated to helping researchers with the publication process. Their website offers extensive resources to help you as you write your manuscript. Browse their website for:
- Grammar guides
- Guides to promoting your research
- Podcast episodes
- Publication checklists
- Q & A forum
- Industry news
- Author’s hub
The Hemmingway editor is a free online program that analyzes a block of text and offers simpler alternatives. It notes sentences that are harder to read and it tracks the readability level along with some other writing features.
This is a great tool to help you look at your research paper with an objective lens. However, this editor is more suited for general written material. One of the drawbacks for science writers is that the Hemmingway editor points passive sentences – which is necessary in science.
Another drawback to the Hemmingway editor is becoming too dependent. It’s a helpful quick check, but don’t use it as your sole judge of writing quality. Your instincts on certain things will be more important. And true feedback from different levels of research readers is by far the best.
NCBI offers several articles on their website dedicated to research writing. Here are a few:
- Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review
- How to Write a Scientific Article
- Tips for writing a case report for the novice author
- Successful Scientific Writing and Publishing: A Step-by-Step Approach
- How to Write Articles that Get Published
- How to write an original research paper (and get it published)
- NCBI Style Guide
- How to write a good abstract for a scientific paper or conference presentation
- How to Write a Scientific Abstract
- Writing the title and abstract for a research paper: Being concise, precise, and meticulous is the key
- Structured AbstractsNCBI articles
Most top tier journals have searchable writing resources. They also post their guidelines for publications.
Scientific manuscript editing servicesThere are a number of editing services available for scientific editing. Even if this service is not right for you, oftentimes their websites will have numerous resources to help with writing and editing your manuscript. Here are some available editing services:
- American Manuscript Editors
- PNAS Language Editing Services
- Springer Nature Research Editing
- Wiley Editing Services
- Enago Editing Services
- Editage Academic Editing Service
- Falcon Scientific Editing
- The Science Editorium
- Journal Ready USA
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