How To Start Writing Your Scientific Paper: Tips For Non-English Speakers.

I used to struggle in English. And that is understandable because I am not a native speaker of the English language. I could read very well and understand but speaking and writing? That was a nightmare! I was so afraid to make mistakes, I avoided debates, avoided making friends with those who were good English Speakers, in case they found out about my poor speaking skills. That was until year 12. I had a wonderful English teacher, Mrs Topagur (May she rest in peace), who was very patient with those of us poor English speakers and writers. And she encouraged and pushed gently so that we could master the skills of speaking and writing in English. I was not a good write of creative stories. I did pretty bad at those. But I was good at science so writing scientific report was something I found myself getting a little good at. Not perfect but getting better. I scored a B in my year 12 English examinations.

Then I went to university and completed medical school. I decided I wanted to learn more about medical science research so I spent a year doing research on the cardiovascular effects of betel nut chewing. Some of this work have been published in medical science journals. And that is where it became clear to me that writing reports (I had to write a dissertation for my medical science research degree) was an important skill to develop as physicians and scientists so that we can communicate to peers and to the global medical community via medical journals.

Initially I struggled to write journal papers. I knew papers had to have introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusions – the general layout. But how do I actually structure and start the writing process. It took me over 20 years of writing and until this year that I developed a structure or what I call “The Anatomy of a journal paper”.

In this structure, I go step-by-step, developing the skeleton, the layout of the paper and over the course of 2-3 months, (sometimes more) I fit in the muscles and tissue to the paper. And slowly I see the paper taking shape. I have found this to be easy and so much easier for me because I had to do this so that my mind is structured to see how the paper will look. Or what the key messages in the paper are. I had to learn all this over the last 20 years, by doing many mistakes, trial and errors. And I know that other non-English speakers – students or others, who are struggling to write journal papers will find my approach easy. Because it’s coming from a non-English Speaker and I understand how hard it is to start the process of writing, how to structure sentences to build paragraphs, ensuring the paragraphs are connected and there is a smooth flow right to the conclusion.

Tip number 1: What are the key messages of the paper?

This is the first step. On a blank piece of paper (or MS Word) write in bullet points what the key messages of the paper are. Ask yourself, what does this paper add to the body of knowledge that you are writing about? What key points will the reader of your paper get from reading the article? And write clear definitive sentences what the messages are.

In this process, do no write long descriptive sentences. Just bullet points. Short sharp straight to the point statements stating what your paper is contributing to the body of knowledge. Usually my papers have 2 or 3 key messages. I think 5 is too many and you may find yourself writing a very long paper. If you conducted a research that has 5 new findings or points that you want to write about, I suggest breaking the the publication into 2 papers – so that the paper 1 can have 2 key messages and paper 2 can have 3 key messages. But if the 5 key messages are linked, then go ahead and write your paper with 5 key messages. But you would need to refine and keep your word count within the limits of the journal you are submitting to.

So remember, the 1st step in writing a journal paper, and I am speaking to non-English speakers here, is decide what your paper is about, what key messages your paper has. And write these messages as statements on a blank paper or on MS Word and save it in your PC or folder. You will need it to guide your entire writing process to stay focused.

As an example, my paper on betel nut chewing and its cardiovascular effects had 3 key messages:

  1. Betel nut chewing increases the heart rate.
  2. Betel nut chewing can cause a heart attack.
  3. Betel chewing causes the blood pressure to fall in some people while the blood pressure rises in others.

So just 3 key messages on my betel nut paper. So that the paper is focused in the discussion and conclusion. And you present only the results that give or show the message you have for your readers.

In my next post, I will write about Tip number 2: How to begin writing starting with the conclusions.


About rodney itaki

Medical doctor and public health specialist from Papua New Guinea.
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