Many scientists say they dislike writing, but I want to persuade you not to be one of them. Writing not only is the way to convince folks how important your work is, but it can be a key part of doing good science in the first place. Your work must be explainable in a concise and logical way … or else it may not be logical!

And writing can be fun, once you realize it’s another more-or-less scientific puzzle to solve: how to explain what you’re doing to a target audience (or audiences). What’s the one-sentence version of your work? The three-sentence version? How would these change for more general or more technical audiences?

I always ask trainees in my group to write a title and abstract of their project before they do their research. How is it possible to do this without results? I think it’s essential to try to appreciate the following before embarking on the research: (i) the context, importance, and novelty of what you’re doing; (ii) the ideal outcome/results/data – probably embodying your hypothesis – that provides a goal to shoot for.

Once it’s spelled out, it should be obvious how the pre-data abstract can be valuable.  Clearly, you need to appreciate the scientific context for what you’re doing, and you also need to know what others have done.  You need to think about these things in a skeptical way, study the literature, and not simply rely on what you’ve been told.

Your abstract may say, in effect: “A key question in my field is why a fundamental phenomenon occurs.  Previous attempts to answer the question were limited by knowledge or technique.” Make sure this is really true!

Writing an abstract ahead of research also helps you to visualize success, and the required data, in some detail.  Your abstract can go on to say,

“Our investigation overcomes prior limitations.  We set up such a well-controlled comparison, that our results are almost beyond question.  [Or maybe: After validating our approach by comparing it to established information, we apply it to the most glamorous system we could manage.]  Either way, we find out a couple of things that no one knew, or even suspected, before.  Our findings have important implications for the universe as a whole.”

When you fill in those details, the abstract needs to seem both feasible and convincing.  Revise your plans until it is. Conversely, think about your plans and make sure each element is contributing to the message of the abstract.

Once the abstract is written, go for a title.  What are the absolutely paramount elements that must be in there?  Your title should be hard-hitting and descriptive enough that folks will want to read the abstract and then hopefully the paper.  I don’t think it’s sufficient just to be catchy, provocative, or amusing.  Scientists may view themselves as too busy to take the time to figure out the meaning of an overly cryptic title.  Tell them what they need to know.

Now do your research.  But once a month, go back to your abstract.  Is it still providing the right guidance?  Was it on-target or too ambitious?  Revise it.

When you finish your research, your abstract should guide you in writing your paper.  Your introduction should elaborate the context given briefly in the abstract.  The figures should support the key points, with appropriate controls.  The conclusions should match what you say in the abstract.

Plenty of nuts-and-bolts writing advice is available. But I would add an ‘attitude’ suggestion: approach writing the way you would a scientific problem. The problem is to convince people of the importance of your work, to demonstrate the key elements of your findings in a way that no one could get the wrong message or miss the point, and to convey the rigor of your methods. Of course, since you also believe in reproducible science, you will make sure your full methods description, including supplemental information, will enable another young researcher to reproduce your findings in every detail possible.

OK, you’ve finished your paper, but you’re not done yet. Most people won’t read much more than your title and abstract – and look at the figures.  Scientists are busy, if you haven’t noticed!  So once your paper is finished, go back to that abstract: with the actual data and figures in mind, is the abstract fair and complete?  Make sure the abstract isn’t exaggerated. Imagine someone of a different level of scientific aggressiveness (gender?) re-writing your abstract – how would it read? Edit it one last time.

To put all this in context, you’ll spend months if not more than a year on a single piece of research. It’s worth the extra time and effort to write it up practically perfectly. And the process needn’t be a mystery. Take up writing as a craft, and you will be well-rewarded!