You may have some really good research, but if you can't articulate it well it's not going to go very far, and you want to do it justice.
As I see it there are more or less four parts to writing.
- accuracy, and
- the argument.
The structure of the writing will depend largely on it's purpose. A common practice is to build up the writing from a skeleton of the points you want to make. Start with headings, then put in sub-headings. Think about what you need to say in each section and add the key points that fit. Then start to build the arguments in. Structure provides discipline and this can help to ensure you include the salient points and leave out unimportant information. The structure can also assist in letting your writing flow.
When someone else reads your work it should feel like it flows. Flow is not just about sentence structure but about how your work tells a coherent story. Flow is about a progressive argument without too many tangents. Support the statements you are making, but be succinct. Reading out aloud and having others read your work will assist with this. And be prepared to re-write, and re-write your work. Writing is a skill, that like many sports, takes deliberate practice to get better at.
Importantly your writing must be accurate. Eliminate all the technical errors you can (punctuation and spelling) but also ensure you cite references accurately. Always take care that what you claim your reference supports is actually the true. It also helps to write clear and concise sentences, it makes it easier for the reader. There are lots of tips on how to do this - here is a good resource from The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
There is almost always a purpose to writing and in scientific writing you are often testing an idea or finding an answer to to a question. It's important that everything you write is going towards supporting that question or answer. I recommend students (well everyone) make a statement about what the question they are asking is. Then keep checking back to that question. Ask yourself; "Is what I am writing now, related to that question?" If you have strayed too far, it may time to delete the sentence and get back on track. This research question you have, along with the structured skeleton at the start should keep you on track. Discipline may be required to ensure this is so. The arguments you make should be supported by evidence, generally peer reviewed articles when writing in the scientific domain, but there are lots of courses of evidence too. Alternative explanations you offer should also be supported with evidence. So two points to remember here; make sure everything is directed towards the question/answer (don't distract yourself), and support everything you say.
Importantly I think you should write in a way that is true to yourself. That doesn't mean you don't need to develop and improve your writing, but if it feels incredibly awkward or not like you when you read your work aloud... it's probably not your style and it will be at higher risk of errors and reading poorly in parts. Indeed others have suggested we should stop writing like it has been in the past, it should be easy to read - here are some suggestions on how to do just that.
One particular approach that many find useful is the TEXAS approach to paragraph construction.
The TEXAS acronym for body paragraph structure:
As a rough guide, each sentence of the paragraph would serve the purpose stated by the acronym. Of course you need to make it flow and tell an appropriate story, in context of the larger piece of writing, but some may find it a useful starting point.
The Literature Review
The literature review is perhaps a misnomer because, in most cases, the literature review exists in order to identify what's unknown in a given area and thus justify a subsequent research question and study. Occasionally it acts as a stand-alone piece to inform readers of the current understanding within an area and provide practical recommendations. To do either of those, it must provide the reader with an understanding of the current literature, as well as its limitations. Identifying limitations, or critiquing the literature requires synthesis of findings and ideas, appraisals of research methodology, and perhaps insights from other fields - this is where the skill of the literature review exists. Literature reviews can be narrative, in which the writer generally offers broad ideas in a research field that is not typically well developed, typically strung together through logical argument, or systematic. Systematic reviews require a methodology, akin to other research, in which the information that informs the review is typically found through set search criteria (see below). If there is sufficient literature in an area, then a meta-analytical approach may be taken in which data from literature that meets the search criteria is combined and re-analysed statistically. There are a number of different meta-analytical approaches, beyond the scope of what is presented here. Different literature review types serve different purposes, with pros and cons of all approaches, but generally, narrative reviews offer the least authoritative level of evidence, and meta-analytical approaches the highest. As with most scientific writing, it is useful to state a purpose/research question early in the literature review, and keep the review focused on that purpose.
For more detailed information about writing papers from Hopkins, see How to Write a Literature Review. Canada's University of Toronto covers the whole area well (not just literature reviews) with their website: Writing in the Health Sciences: a comprehensive guide. The University of Southern Maine has an online tutorial on writing literature reviews worth a look too.
Creating an appropriate search criteria is important for any systematic review. Read more on University of Michigan's Systematic Review research guide.
When writing introductory sections to manuscripts, and approach that is often utilised is to create a different purpose for the 3-5 paragraphs that may constitiute the Introduction. For instance:
- 1st paragraph: What do we know about a topic
- 2nd paragraph:: What don't we know about a topic
- 3rd paragraph:Why is it important to know more about a topic
- 4th paragraph: What this particular paper (research article) aim to do in terms of filling a gap in knowledge about a topic
- 1st paragraph: What do we know about a topic
Manuscript methods sections
Don't think there is a wrong or right way to write methods, there isn't. Different journals will require different things, and different studies will require different methods. So whatever you do, think about the context of what you are writing, and if it doesn't make sense, change it so that it does. Having said that, here are some suggestions that are commonly adopted within methods sections in typical exercise science papers.
- Participant numbers
- Demographic info
- Recruitment method
- Inclusion/exclusion criteria
- Global design statements
- Overview of what took place and why
- Participant pre-test preparation statements
- Time of day/season statements for assessments
- What happened when to the participant - detail (not measures, more intervention, timing of measures etc)
- Intervention details
- Detail of how measures were taken - equipment used.
- What actual measures were recorded.
- When data was averaged/sampled.
- Data cleaning procedures
- Statistical analysis
Other manuscript tips
When writing about any research, but in particular an RCT, make sure you follow the CONSORT statement.
As for the abstract, there are some helpful templates for abstract writing.
Columbia University perhaps offers the best guide on writing a scientific research article through explaining the general format as well as some general tips on terms and things to look out for in your writing.
For more detailed information about writing papers from Hopkins, see How to Write a Research Paper.
Although written for political science students, MIT has a guide on "how to write a paper" with many useful tips employable to all fields of study.
- Complete a literature review related to your area of research (generally before you start your actual research project to help construct the ideas and justification of your particular project)
- After completing your research project write your project up as a academic paper for submission (real or not) to an academic journal. It's a good idea to start structuring it in a way that meets the publication requirements of a suitable journal/outlet (see Getting published for more.
- Columbia University perhaps offers the best guide on writing a scientific research article through explaining the general format as well as some general tips on terms and things to look out for in your writing.
- The University of Toronto has an excellent set of resources for advice on academic writing
- Monash University has a short simple resource for Engineering students, but useful for everyone on Improving your scientific writing style
- Elements of Style by Strunk. The BEST resource on writing style - read it 10 times and then read it a few more. This online version is the original published in 1918. There is also an updated paper version authored by Strunk and White.
- Hopkin's Writing Post Data (slideshow) is all about writing a thesis, journal article, and lay report.
- How to organise your thesis by John Chinneck
- The wikiversity writing portal provices useful information.
Often its a good idea to use an electronic bibliographic tool/reference manager to keep your references and annotations. Examples include Endnote and Refworks. If you annotate directly into a tool such as this it is often easy to search for certain words and quickly format your references in a document. But this doesnt apply to formatting online documents (at present at least) and is not ideal for sharing annotations. So you may also want to consider using tools such as delicious, an electronic document, a wiki or even pen and paper.