How do you get started writing your first paper?

Gepubliceerd op 1 december 2023 om 12:00

Every beginning is difficult, they often say. That is certainly true when it comes to writing your very first paper as a PhD student. After all, where on earth are you supposed to start?

First read, then write

Before you can start to write your paper, you must first obtain knowledge about the topic. At the beginning of your PhD project, you will therefore do an awful lot of reading. It is useful to immediately note down the interesting things you come across while reading. The moment you start writing, you can take out these notes to turn the chunks of relevant information into a nice introduction of your paper. So always write down briefly in your own words what you have read and add from which literature source this information came: the reference.

Use a reference manager

It is practical to immediately save these references as well. Several reference managers are available for this purpose, such as RefWorks, EndNote, Mendeley or Zotero. These allow you to save, categorize and use all your references whenever you need them. They can also print out your reference list in any format you want. This comes in handy when you have to submit a paper multiple times, because scientific journals often use different reference styles (for example APA, AMA or Vancouver style). With a reference manager, you can update all your citations and your reference list to a different format with one simple click of a button. Although it is always wise to check that it has indeed been done correctly.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Before you start, look carefully at the structure of other scientific articles. Preferably to articles that have done similar research to what you are doing. Check what information they report and what headings they use. A good start to your first paper is to try to fill in these headings for your own research. That will already get you a long way!

Author guidelines

Should you already know to which journal you want to submit your paper, then check out the (general) author guidelines given by the journal. The main headings are usually introduction, method, results and discussion, but sometimes they use different terminology or they want a general conclusion as well. The readers audience of a journal could also influence the content of your paper. You don’t have to explain in detail what psychosis is in your introduction to readers of a psychosis journal, but it might be beneficial to do so for readers of a general medical journal.

The introduction

The introduction to a paper generally takes the form of a funnel: you go from broad to increasingly narrow, until you arrive at your research question. When writing, you can also reason the other way around. By first writing down what your exact research question is, you can ask yourself what a reader needs to know in order to understand why you want to research this question. That information should become clear from your introduction.

The method

When you start writing, you have often already done a lot of preparatory work. You have had meetings with your supervising team and you know what kind of research you are going to do. Therefore, the research design, the target group and the inclusion and exclusion criteria are often known when you start writing. The basis for your method is actually already there, by simply writing down everything you are going to do.

Don’t be afraid to send your concept

Especially with your first paper, you don't have to write the whole article all at once. It is common that you write the introduction and method first, so your supervising team can review them before you start your data analysis. Don't be too insecure and don't wait too long to send your first draft to your promotion team. The feedback you will get from them will help you move forward again. It is safe to assume that you will need several rounds of feedback, because academic writing is absolutely a skill that needs to be developed.

Above all, remember: first drafts really don't need to be perfect, first drafts just need to be written!


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