Common Mistakes in Manuscript Writing and How to Avoid Them
- 699 Downloads
Manuscript writing is a crucial step for presentation of research. In fact, a readable and well-composed manuscript may be the difference between getting your work published or not. It takes time and dedication to master the art of writing. However, with discipline and some straight-forward tools for writing, it may not be that complicated. This chapter aims to provide such tools. Furthermore, this chapter presents common mistakes in manuscript writing that may negatively affect the chances of publication and how you can avoid making such mistakes.
Conducting a study of high quality is challenging and requires both effort and discipline. It is a process that may take years. However, when the day finally arrives, the day when you have the results, you are of course eager to make them official and let them impact current practice and evidence-based medicine.
There is just one thing; the manuscript needs to be written. Considering all the work and time you have invested in conducting the study, you will likely feel ambitious about presenting your work in the best possible way and to get it published in a high-impact journal . On the other hand, many researchers feel that final drafting of the manuscript, before crossing the finish line, feels more or less like climbing a mountain. Writing is something that may not come natural for some researchers and clinicians. However, with discipline and some straight-forward tools for writing, it may not be that complicated. And, when you start to master the art, you might find that it was not as hard as you thought from the beginning. And, in the end, you may even find writing a manuscript fun.
The main key for success is to be dedicated to your work. If you really want to become a successful researcher, you need to be passionate about your research topic and be prepared to invest time and effort in your work. A high motivation and an ability to put your goals in front of you can help you defeat even the hardest struggles. To be dedicated also means that you are willing to learn and are able to acknowledge your shortcomings. Many researchers before you have experienced exactly the same struggle that you might be feeling. You should therefore view every challenge as an opportunity to learn from these experienced researchers. It is time to create new ground. You are now in a position of writing the manuscripts which will form the textbooks used by your future colleagues. Mentors that can share experiences and tips about how to prepare a manuscript are a highly valuable asset when aiming to develop a good skill for writing. Nevertheless, it is up to you whether you have an open mind and use this opportunity wisely.
55.2 Common Mistakes
The manuscript is too comprehensive. A manuscript should be short and concise. This is an area where a too high motivation to publish the manuscript actually may be your downfall. Considering all your effort in conducting the study, it is understandable if you would like to present every aspect of it, including all the data, all previous topic-related literature and discuss all possible findings of your study. In other words, you might be tempted to write everything you know. However, ask yourself—what was really the main purpose and hypothesis of this study? What is new and what are the most important findings of this study? The production rate of research articles today is extremely high, and to include too many results in a single article may cause the most important results to drown in text and data. Moreover, an excessive length of the manuscript may entail that fewer individuals will take time to sit down and read and reflect over the findings. Therefore, choose your focus points and stick to them. Sometimes less is more. In fact, most articles are too long. Most articles repeat information that is already well known, and this is hardly ever necessary. It has been said that “…a manuscript should be as long as necessary, but as short as possible…” and this is true. A manuscript should never be so long that it is boring to read.
There is no clear line of argument. An article should be enjoyable to read. The flow of your writing is crucial for this purpose. You need to decide for yourself before writing what your line of argument is and arrange your argument(s) in a logical flow. Logical flow will increase the readability of the manuscript and the chances of getting it published.
Unnecessary repetitions and statements. The vast number of published articles entails that you could theoretically repeat tangentially related results and well-established facts to an eternity. Again, aim to have your manuscript focused and concise. There is no need to repeat your own findings or findings from topic-related literature all over again. Sometimes it is necessary to assume that the reader should already be aware of some basic knowledge of the area and instead leave room for the readers who are interested to make a deepened review of the literature themselves. Thus, use the opportunity to refer to other studies wisely so that the reader could find further information if wanted, without presenting the results of each study in the reference list in detail.
Instructions to authors. A practical key is to read and follow “Instructions to authors”. The time it takes to read them is always well invested. Way too often, it is obvious that authors have not read the instructions. Another mistake, which is very annoying to editors, is to resubmit a manuscript that has been rejected by another journal without answering the raised comments, changing the format, or bothering to look at the different instructions for the particular journal you have now chosen. Fact Box 55.1 summarizes common mistakes in manuscript writing.
Fact Box 55.1: Common Mistakes in Manuscript Writing
• The manuscript is too long and intends to cover a too wide range of topics
• There is no clear line of argument and the text is not organized in a logical flow
• Similar findings and statements are getting repeated over and over again
• The manuscript goes into details of basic knowledge instead of using the opportunity to refer to studies where the reader independently could find more information if necessary
• The authors have not taken the time for reading the journal guidelines thoroughly
• Not answering reviewers’ comments in case of resubmission to a different journal
Each manuscript is comprised of several essential sections that are worth a thorough review in order to present each section in the best possible way [2, 5]. Systematically writing each section of the manuscript usually facilitates writing since it allows the author to feel how the manuscript successively takes form under constant critical review. Therefore, let’s give some focus on each one of these sections.
The title should capture the reader’s interest immediately. The title should be as short as possible and give the reader an idea of the study and the main results. A common mistake is that the title is too neutral and only mirrors the area of investigation. Instead, let the title speak. Let it be loud and clear and shout out a direct finding of your study. The title should be a statement and never a question.
In general, the abstract follows the same main structure for all journals; however, there may be some slightly different subheadings and word limits between journals. An abstract should include the study purpose, a brief presentation of the methodology, the main results, and a conclusion. Remember, the reader must be able to understand which material and methods have been applied in order to understand the results that are presented in the abstract. This means that details of the methodology can be limited in the abstract, but the full description should be included in the main text of the manuscript. The abstract also functions as an opportunity to raise interest in the study. Therefore, take some time to formulate the conclusion as direct as possible and, preferably, somewhat controversial. The ultimate goal of the abstract is to make the reader curious to find out more about how you have reached your conclusion and wanting to read the full-text article. Preferably, the conclusion of the abstract should be the same as in the text. Many clinical journals ask for level of evidence. This information should then be added at the end of the abstract if required.
As the word implies, the introduction should introduce the reader to the topic of the study. However, some authors write a far too comprehensive introduction that may, paradoxically, instead assuage the interest of the study before even reaching the results. Another common mistake is to start discussing results in the introduction. The introduction should be used to raise some interesting discussion topics and highlight relevant questions regarding the topic. These questions will then be answered and discussed in the discussion section. The introduction should end by turning focus toward your study. A clear purpose and a hypothesis for your study should be stated at this point. These are essential elements that the reader will bear in mind when reading all the following sections of your manuscript. A good rule of thumb is that the introduction should be no more than one manuscript page in length.
55.2.4 Materials and Methods
You have probably heard it before, but it is worth repeating: The methods should be so well described that the reader should be able to repeat your study like a recipe from a cookbook without trouble. This means that the methods section should be detailed, clear, and honest. The text should have a good flow and a readable language. Instead of trying to create a literary masterpiece of the methods section, keep it simple and precise. The most important aspects to focus on are the inclusion and the exclusion criteria, the description of the intervention or the experiment, and a clear presentation of the outcome measurements. Consider using flow diagrams or tables to illustrate your test setup. There is a number of reporting guidelines published that can help you structure your methods section depending on the type of study. Examples of such guidelines are the CONSORT  and the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) statement . The statistical analysis should be described under a separate subheading, where all calculations should be clearly reported. This may include power, sample size, sensitivity analysis, and drop-out analysis. In fact, sample size calculation is always necessary in order to ensure that the statistical power is adequate. Statistics are really a separate science in itself and do therefore not hesitate to ask for professional help in order to ensure that the statistical analysis is correctly presented. Two common mistakes are to leave out information about the sample size calculation and the IRB approval. It can hardly be stated enough that (almost) all studies need an IRB approval.
Now you have reached the part where you finally are allowed to present the results of your study. The most important thing of this section is that the results are presented objectively. Preferably, you have prepared a thorough study protocol before conducting your trial where you already have prepared an outline for your results section. There should be no subjective influence in the result section whatsoever; save that for the discussion part. Take time to “get to know the data” and to decide how you best present it. There is no need to present all the findings in the text; choose the most important one(s) to present in detail in the text. The text is in turn complemented by tables and figures in order to display all data. Aim for writing a short results section where the results are not duplicated in text and in tables or figures. A good rule of thumb is that the results section should not be longer than one manuscript page.
The way you start the discussion is important. In a few initial sentences, you should preferably summarize the most important findings of your study, which function as a foundation for the rest of your discussion. The discussion should be written based on your results, and these should be compared and contrasted with previous research, not the other way around.
Thus, the discussion is not a forum for a general discussion and presentation of other studies. Primarily ask yourself: What did your study show? Thereafter, discuss these findings in relation to previous findings. Is likely that your results are true? What supports your findings compared with other studies and what findings of your study might be contradicted based on previous research? Also, focus on the clinical relevance of your findings in the discussion. This is especially important if you have conducted preclinical research and are aiming for a clinically oriented journal. Finally, all researchers know that no study is perfect. There are always limitations and confounding factors that could influence a result of a study. To be honest and humble about such, potential factors increase the trustworthiness of a study. Furthermore, an understanding of limitations of a study will generate new ideas for future studies and encourage honest research. Therefore, think through your study limitations, and clearly present and discuss them at the end of the section. All too often, limitations are not as well reported as they should be.
The conclusion should be based on statistically significant findings from your study and nothing else. There is room for some slight speculation; however, such speculations should mainly be included in the discussion and never in the conclusion. The conclusion should be a brief, true, and concrete statement of the evidence that your study has contributed to and nothing else. In certain journals, there is also room for a brief comment of the clinical relevance of your study, especially if you have conducted an experimental study. A common mistake is that the conclusion is an extended discussion. Fact Box 55.2 summarizes the general manuscript outline.
Fact Box 55.2: A General Outline of a Manuscript and the Contents of Each Section
Raise some interesting discussion topics and highlight relevant questions regarding the topic. State a clear purpose and a hypothesis. Keep it short, approximately one manuscript page
Materials and methods
The reader should be able to repeat your study by reading this section. Keep it simple and precise. Consider it a cookbook
Present the results objectively. Focus on presenting the details for the most important findings; present data in table and figures to minimize the length of this section
Start by summarizing the most important findings. Compare and contrast your results with previous research
Should be a brief, true, and concrete statement of the evidence that your study has contributed to. It is not an extended discussion
One of the easiest and most straight-forward aspects of preparing a manuscript should be to get the references correct. Nevertheless, this is an area that is all too often defective among submitted manuscripts. The most common explanation for this is probably that the authors simply have not been thorough when reading the journal guidelines before writing the reference section of the manuscript. The most common mistakes are that the references are either in an incorrect format or that they are not up to date. Each journal has specific guidelines for how to prepare the references regarding the order and the format. Read the guidelines carefully—this is always well-invested time—and get to know your reference system so that you can adjust the references accordingly. To avoid submitting a manuscript with references that are not up to date, update your references just before submitting your manuscript to the journal. This is also logical, as you might have started the study a couple years back and much could have happened during this time. Taken together, the two common mistakes are format errors and the use of non-updated references.
55.2.9 Figures and Tables
Again, this is an area where all journals have different preferences of how these should be submitted and where in the manuscript they should be located. Thus, the primary way to avoid mistakes is to read the guidelines of the journal. Another aspect to consider is that both tables and figures should be designed in a way that makes them understandable, independently of the rest of the article. It is important that figures and tables are accompanied by descriptive legends that are self-explanatory. Every figure should be able to be read as “stand-alone.” This includes, for example, a presentation of abbreviations and key ideas. When used correctly, tables and figures are valuable methods for presenting large volume of data, to visualize the results and to keep the result text section short. Avoiding repetition is an important part of tables and figures. They should give the details of the results, but not repeat them. Another mistake is the figure quality; figures should be drawn by professional medical artists and not by amateurs.
To write a manuscript is a process that takes time and effort.
Aim for a short and concise manuscript, with a clear line of argument.
Read the journal guidelines thoroughly and follow them in detail.
Mentors that can share experiences and tips about how to prepare a manuscript are a highly valuable asset when aiming to develop a good skill for writing.