Might checklists improve your manuscript?

I started off as an editor, editing manuscripts to house style, as well as copy editing them to some degree to hopefully improve their readability. Each time I saw a document I would have to check for different aspects of style or language. Often this was not the most exciting thing to do, especially when I had seen the document previously. To ensure that crucial steps were not missed we had a series of checklists that could be used enabling you to tick of each task as it was done.

These checklists were not prescriptive with hundreds of elements, rather they had a few elements (typically up to 10) with the emphasis on steps that were often missed or left incomplete. For example when proof reading a manuscript the checklist items included:

  1. Check that all references are mentioned in the text
  2. Check that all tables and figures are referenced appropriately in the text
  3. Double check the title for typos

The title was included on the list because it is often difficult to spot a typo when you know what should be there, it is a short piece of text and it is often very large.

This use of checklists is discussed extremely well in The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right and I highly recommend that you read it.

Don’t aim to write scientifically, aim to write well

When we write something we are often trying to convey who we are, or more specifically who we want to be perceived to be, to the writer. This means that we will alter the tone of our writing according to the audience, an email to a friend will be different from a job application letter. When writing a scientific manuscript it is, therefore, often the case that people write it in a manner they perceive to be ‘scientific’.

What is scientific writing?

When I say scientific writing I mean writing with many technical words intended to convey the idea that you know what you are talking about. These technical words will often be jargon and in some cases might be better conveyed using ‘everyday’ language. This will limit the audience of your work to others who understand the jargon that you are using, as well as potentially making the manuscript more difficult to read.

How can scientific writing be avoided?

Once you have written your manuscript you should get other people to review it, at least one of whom should be reviewing the language used. This should be someone you trust as the feedback might not be what you expect from your ‘perfect’ draft. When you ask this person to review the manuscript you should specifically ask them to keep an eye out for overly ‘scientific’ language.

A second thing that you can do is to read the draft out loud once you have written it. By reading out loud, even if it seems odd, you can identify any issues with ‘pacing’ or where jargon might interfere with the ‘flow’ of the manuscript.

A word of caution

Do not remove scientific words if they are necessary, you should not dumb down just to improve readability. This is a tightrope that you will have to walk, but hopefully by asking others for their opinions this will help navigate the issue.

What are the next steps after the first draft is written?

Once you have produced your first draft and your co-authors have reviewed it, your aim should be to address the comments and get the manuscript submitted to your chosen journal as soon as possible. How you manage this will depend upon the comments you receive.

If they are minimal

  • Make the suggested changes, or ignore comments if you have a reason to do so and can explain it to the person who made the comment
  • Ensure the manuscript is in the style requested by the journal
  • Confirm that all authors are happy to submit
  • Submit to the journal

If there are major or conflicting comments

This will necessitate the development of a second draft and a further round of review. If the comments are conflicting then it is often best to have a teleconference to discuss them and ensure that everyone is in agreement before making any changes. If agreement cannot be reached then the lead author (or the guarantor for the manuscript) should decide what to do.

Depending on the comments on the next draft the cycle will then continue. However, it is important to remember that the manuscript is being written to be published and you should not have innumerable review rounds, demanding perfection if this is at the cost of submitting.

What should be considered when writing a first draft?

By the time you get to writing a first draft of a manuscript I would expect the following steps to have already been completed:

  • Author list confirmed
  • Data fully analysed and data for the manuscript selected
  • Target journal selected
  • Target journal author guidelines read and any appropriate guidelines (e.g. word counts, required sections) noted down, preferably on a cover page to the manuscript
  • Outline written and content agreed/commented on by all authors
  • Extended outline written and agreed/commented on by all authors

If an extended outline exists…

If an extended outline has already been written then the jump to a full first draft should be fairly easy. The bulleted text will be made into complete sentences and linking text added. At this stage further logical gaps in the “story” might be identified and highlight the need for additional introductory text or research. However, this should be fairly minor as these issues will hopefully be identified at the extended outline stage.

If an extended outline does not exist…

I would suggest that if one does not exist then it is beneficial to put one together before writing the manuscript in prose, even if you are not sending it to co-authors for review. This will make the writing of the first draft much easier and should enable the logical flow of the manuscript to be worked out as discussed in my previous blog post.

Remember to write to journal guidelines at this stage to avoid unnecessary editing later on.

Why write an outline?

I, like many other people I expect, have previously tried to write a novel. I attempted it as part of NaNoWriMo, in which people endeavor to write a 50,000 word ‘novel’ during the month of November. I sadly failed in this attempt and looking back I can see two reasons why I failed. Firstly, although I liked the idea I was sadly not that dedicated to spending all my spare time writing and so only managed about 25,000 words. Secondly, I ‘pantsed’ rather than planned – that is I thought that the great novel would flow fully formed without any real forethought or planning. The resultant work was a complete mess, with what amounted to three discrete short stories linked by events, none of which were that good. This experience has shown me the value of planning or outlining at least some aspects of a novel before starting and in future this is what I will be doing.

Why is this relevant to writing about science?

I feel that the same can be true when writing about science, although often to a lesser degree, as the planning and research for conducting experiments should hopefully lend an idea of structure. Nonetheless, whilst it is often easy to list of the key points in the narrative of the research, these can be lost or forgotten when writing a prose document resulting in a loss of coherence.

I would, therefore, suggest writing an outline when starting to work on a document. This should contain the key points for each section and detail any data to be included. This outline will enable you to see if the manuscript makes sense and if there are any gaps, either data gaps or gaps in reasoning, before more words are in place and the manuscript is more difficult to revise. The outline will also allow all proposed authors a chance to input into the manuscript at an early stage and make suggestions that could potentially strengthen the final piece of work.

How much detail should be included in an outline?

The first outline should not be overly detailed as this allows for the best discussion about the proposed structure and makes people more likely to offer input. I would suggest that key statements are included, without over much detail, in the introduction and discussion sections and more detail in the methods and discussion section as these are fixed and will enable people to make more informed comments on the discussion section.

Could an example be given?

If I were to be writing a manuscript on the epidemiology of type 2 diabetes in the South Asian population of the UK, the first outline for the introduction might look something like this:

  • Type 2 diabetes is a major public health issue and the incidence is increasing
  • Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in South Asian individuals
  • It has been suggested that there are differences between South Asian and White people in the presentation and outcomes of type 2 diabetes
  • For example lower BMI cut-offs have been suggested for overweight and obesity in South Asian individuals
  • The South Asian population is not in fact a single entity, but rather made up of a number of different sub-populations
  • This database study investigates the clinical characteristics at diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for people from these sub-populations

This (fictional) example hopefully highlights the broad nature of statements made and it can be seen how these build up to the research question, showing why the issue is important. Once all authors have agreed upon the first outline, the points can be expanded upon and fully referenced.

If the message is incorrect, then the document fails…

I have just started perusing The Craft of Editing  by Michael Alley, which is subtitled A guide for managers, scientists, and engineers. Right near the start three different types of editing are highlighted, editing for content, editing for style and editing for form. However, the most important thing emphasized at this point is that whilst a lot of time might be spent discussing editing for style or form, these are relatively unimportant compared with editing for content.

Editing for content is defined as ensuring that the information included is correct, complete, appropriate for the audience, appropriate for the purpose and acceptable for distribution. This is generally managed by a different person to the other types of review as it will often require knowledge of the topic being discussed.

This is extremely important as we might have a beautifully written piece with no grammatical or spelling errors that is completely wrong for its intended use, and does not convey the correct key message, or even worse contains incorrect information and misleads rather than educates. This is very well put in the book where it states:

 If the message is incorrect, then the document fails, no matter how well the message is communicated or what form it is in.

I think this is something we all need to remember as we try to write or edit scientific literature.

In case you want to read this book it can be found on Amazon here: The Craft of Editing: A Guide for Managers, Scientists, and Engineers

Why selecting the correct journal is important.

When I was doing research in Chemistry I thought that the work I was doing was highly important and sure to get published in the highest tier journals. However, now that I have been advising on journal selection for a while I can see that I, like many people, was most probably deluded. The work I was doing definitely added to the scientific body of knowledge but was not of world-changing importance. However, the potential impact of the work is not the only consideration when selecting a journal to submit a manuscript to. The main considerations are listed below:

What is the quality/impact of the work being reported?

This will allow you to select a journal with an appropriate impact level, however, other considerations will modify this.

What is the intended audience for the manuscript?

It is important that your peers working in the same area as you get to see your work and this can partly be managed by selecting a journal that is read by them

Where are your ideal audience located?

Different journals have different footprints and this may influence your decisions. A journal widely read in the West might be less popular in Asia.

Which journals have published similar work before?

If a journal is publishing on a particular topic it is more likely to want to publish again on that topic. There is the exception of reviews, where if a similar review has been published they are less likely to want to publish yours for fear of being repetitive.

What are the submission to publication lead times?

Do you need to publish rapidly or can you wait 6 months to have a citation?

What is the rejection rate?

This is often related to how the journal is rated in a particular field, with more people submitting and being rejected from high-tier journals. A low rejection rate might increase teh chance of acceptance.

Do the journal offer other advantages, for example open access or are they online only?

Open access can be very beneficial as your work will be available for a greater number of people to read. Online only journals are not constrained by physical size so can accept more articles.

Having selected a journal it is then essential to read the author guidelines to ensure that the journal will accept your type of submission, for example some journals will not accept unsolicited review articles. Furthermore, the word count and other requirements (e.g. number of figures or references) may mean that your manuscript is unsuitable.

It is important to research and think about journal choice, and by considering all of these points and your manuscript in a critical manner I feel you can increase your chance of being accepted for publication.

What are the four types or reviewing?

In my thinking there are four main types of reviewing:

  • General review for story flow and sense
  • Copy edit
  • Proofread
  • Data check

Each of these is done for a specific reason and aims to potentially identify different issues with a piece of writing. However, they should not be thought of as exclusive activities. We might copy edit to some degree whilst undertaking a general review, or data check whilst proofreading. Nonetheless, it should be noted that if you are asked to do one type of review you should not undertake another without ensuring that the author of the piece is happy for you to do so. It can be distracting, as well as dispiriting, if lots of minor grammatical and spelling errors are pointed out when someone is expecting you to highlight major issues with story.

General review

This will check that the ‘story’ flows well and that everything makes sense. At this stage you will be ensuring that each argument builds upon a previous one and links to it, without anything being missed or detours being taken. To do this it is important that the objective of the piece of writing has been communicated to the reviewer as well as any issues that the author might be aware of that they want the reviewer to concentrate on. In order to provide the most useful review an understanding of what is being discussed is needed.

Copy edit

This is performed to check that sentences flow well and the most appropriate language is used to make it easy to both read and understand. This might include trimming the piece to make it more streamlined.

Proofread

This should check that spelling and grammar are correct and that the document makes sense. It can also be a final check before publishing to ensure that typeset text is correct and that layout is appropriate.

Data check

This is exactly what you might think and should ensure that all references are appropriate and any data from analyses and study reports have been input correctly

Whilst writing this I was listening to Hyperdub 10.3.