What is it like to write and publish a paper? Is it a difficult process? Is it rewarding? What are the challenges? What should I do differently next time? We asked students from our paper-writing courses, most of them first-time authors, how the paper writing process went for them and what advice they could offer. Here, they share the main lessons they learned so that you too can benefit from their experiences.
Over the past 13+ years, we’ve supported several thousand researchers face-to-face with getting journal papers written and published. They took part in our intensive course “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals”, where we work with participants on drafting their own research paper, discuss, and exercise all the steps for paper planning, preparation, writing, editing, submission and peer-review. During the course, we provide them with writing guidelines, techniques and suggestions for the best way to publish their research and then they begin drafting manuscript sections. After the course, they all go back to their offices and complete their paper on their own.
We often get lovely messages from former students informing us that they’ve submitted or published their papers. We often wonder how their journey of getting the paper finished and accepted to a journal went. We know, of course, that behind every paper is a personal story. The authors each have their individual experiences when writing a paper or when submitting it to a journal.
We thought it would be worth having a closer look at the personal experiences some of our former students had when writing and publishing papers. We can all learn a lot from each other this way! So we asked a few previous students who took the course some time ago to send us their short stories about the papers they worked on during our course. We want to give you the possibility to share the lessons they learned in the course so that you can use some of their tips when you write your own papers.
We asked and they delivered their personal publishing stories, their biggest struggles and the biggest lessons they learned along the way. We are so grateful to our wonderful course participants for responding to this call and sharing their experiences and advice with us. So let’s hand it over to them:
1. Alexa: “Reach out and ask for help!”
Alexa is a former PhD student in phage ecology, who successfully completed her PhD and has already published two papers with a third one currently under review.
The main problem with paper writing for Alexa was “to follow the red-line”. She said she sometimes had so many ideas and experiments in mind that she had difficulty focusing and choosing which one to write about in a particular paper. She used the simple “Post-it method” to write down all her potential paper ideas on stickies and arrange them on her office wall to get a better overview of what would fit together and what wouldn’t.
A key take away for her was learning to reach out and ask for help with drafting a paper. This includes asking for support with writing the text, formatting figures, or communicating with the journal. “Don’t be too shy to ask, look for somebody who can help you here! The feedback from my co-author and colleagues helped to clarify ideas that were crucial to improving the draft before submission.”
Alexa also had good advice for the peer-review process. She said: “The submission process to the journal was exactly as it was described in your course and as I also checked everything with my supervisor before submitting the manuscript, it helped me to feel more confident.” Her first paper received a ‘major revision’ critique after peer-review, but the reviewer comments “were really polite and useful to improving my ideas and fixing some issues with our methods.” After resubmitting it was accepted only one day later!
Despite feeling a bit lost at the beginning, Alexa realised that “the whole process gets easier every time. My second paper was already accepted with just minor revisions!” She’s now looking forward to the review response for her third paper.
Have a look at Alexa’s first paper “The North Sea goes viral: Occurrence and distribution of North Sea bacteriophages” which was published in 2018 in Marine Genomics.
2. Sinziana-Maria: “Writing gets easier every time you do it!”
Sinziana-Maria is a PhD student dealing with cooperative (de-)centralised traffic management. Since taking our course, she’s had two publications, a conference paper and a book contribution. Her biggest challenge was “managing to sit down to start writing”, but “once you are in that mindset, it’s easier to maintain. It’s like running a marathon, you just keep running.”
It took her a while to learn to see the reviewers’ comments as constructive and not as a personal attack on herself or her work. Instead, she now considers it as feedback that can be implemented or not. “Keep in mind, it is your work, so don’t deviate from it too much. The reviewers mean it well and are trying to help you publish the best version of your work. Therefore, addressing the issues they raise will increase your chances to get published.”
Her main lesson: “Writing papers gets easier every single time you do it. You find your footing, your style, your structure and then writing will become second nature.” Sinziana-Maria’s work can be found on Research Gate.
3. Manuel: “Keep it short and simple!”
Manuel works as an archaeologist in Oslo. He participated in our course as an experienced writer and published his latest paper last year. It was the first paper where he was the responsible lead author and dealt with all aspects of writing and peer-review.
In his words: “The writing process itself was a bit challenging, as writing with co-authors always includes sending the manuscript back and forth, which requires additional time to come ahead. The advantage of having co-authors is that you already get feedback during the writing process. I benefitted in particular from the great advice of one co-author who is very skilled at publishing.”
With regards to the writing process itself, Manuel applied the “keep it short and simple” or KISS approach that we teach in our writing courses. Together with the co-authors, he followed the classical IMRAD paper format and wrote it section by section. Their motto was let’s not get stuck in details and not make things too complicated. Their submission and peer-review went seamlessly and the paper came back after a few weeks with a request for minor revisions only.
Manuel learned two lessons in the process: (1) Publish with an experienced and actively involved co-author as a mentor. (2) Take time to clearly formulate the research goals and the gaps that your paper addresses. “Why am I actually writing this paper? Which questions do I want to answer? After I made that clear for myself – the rest of the writing went so much easier.”
Have a look at Manuel’s latest paper on Archaeological Prospection with Motorised Multichannel Ground-Penetrating Radar Arrays on Snow-Covered Areas in Norway published 2019 in Remote Sensing.
4. Hannah: “This is good enough to be published!”
Hannah is a PhD student working with agricultural management and water quality in small agricultural catchments in Norway. She just submitted her first paper to a journal.
For her, writing the paper was more enjoyable than analysing the data, but she regrets her own lack of patience in this process. She had to draft many manuscript versions until the paper was ready. Her biggest challenge: “You also have to accept the idea that the paper has to be finished at a point and say that this is good enough to be published now.” Too easily you get dragged into endless improvements of the paper, but at some stage you need to realise that you are ready for submission. While waiting for the reviewers’ comments she has started writing her next paper.
5. Albina: “Writing is a skill that can be learned!”
Albina is a PhD student in the field of regional correlation and seismic stratigraphy of the Triassic in the Greater Barents Sea Basin. She is in the process of finishing her first paper for her PhD at the moment. She hasn’t submitted it yet, but will very soon to the Journal Basin Research.
The main lesson she learned along the way was that “I hadn’t realised before that writing is a skill that you have to learn, like speaking another language, playing sports or any other skill.” Once she discovered it things became easier, and because she had a supervisor to support her, it helped her tremendously in coming ahead with the paper.
Like many non-native English speakers, she also struggled with writing the paper in English, but realised that also this is a process that you can learn and that you grow with every page you produce. Realising that other PhD students felt similar about the challenge of paper writing was helpful too. When she could exchange with peers she saw that she was not alone. “As with all kinds of skills, you have to work and improve, and sooner or later, with help from your supervisors and courses like yours, you might succeed.”
6. Brenda: ”Know the rules when you enter a room full of strangers!”
Brenda, a PhD student in work sciences described her writing and publishing experience with this nice story:
“Publishing my first article was by far the greatest challenge of my PhD and the greatest learning experience. In retrospect, I would compare it to attending an event where you aim to tell a room full of strangers a story that fascinates them. My story is my paper, the strangers are the readers, the room is the journal, and the host of the event is the editor.
I had a good story, but did not know the people, their previous narratives, their interests, their ‘code of communication’. I was scared to enter the room, so I first studied the room and the people in it from the outside, reading articles previously published in my target journal. Then, I entered, and submitted the first draft of my article, and realised the people in the room were not fascinated. They didn’t think my story really fit into their conversations.
Fortunately for me, the host (the editor) was interested in what I had to say, and helped me navigate the room. He translated the – sometimes rude and rather inappropriate sounding – comments of the reviewers and gave me advice for how to tailor my story to fit. Furthermore, I got support from my supervisors and colleagues from the sidelines who cheered me on to continue adapting and re-telling my story. In the end, I managed to integrate my story into the conversation in the room and interested the audience enough to get published.
The process took two years (which is unusually long) but it paid off and was also an indispensable learning experience. So, in sum, I think it is indispensable to learn the ground rules in ‘how to get published’ courses or books, but is equally crucial to just start doing it: submit an article, improve in the review process or after rejections and to let your supervisors and colleagues motivate and help you. Don’t give up!”
7. Yannick: “Give your paper to colleagues to read!”
Yannick is a PhD student and works with service network design in transportation research. He reported that the biggest challenge he faced during the paper writing process was going through numerous iterations of revising the paper until it was ready for submission. This can feel frustrating and “I was not really keen on giving my paper to others for proof-reading. After learning how to plan the writing process and how to leverage multiple revisions in the paper writing course, I was more open to giving my first journal paper or parts of it to colleagues at earlier stages of the writing process. Although facing criticism of others can be stressful, it felt like both the paper and I were much better prepared for the peer-review process that followed. Afterwards I was more confident in responding to the issues raised by reviewers.”
Yannick has started writing his second journal paper and is now much more willing to ask co-authors and colleagues for comments on an early version of his paper. He knows this will give him more time to focus on other parts and speed up the overall process.
Have a look at Yannick’s latest paper on Service network design with mixed autonomous fleets published in 2019 in Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review.
8. Heidrun: “A short paper is better than a long one!”
Heidrun is Associate Professor in Historical Studies. Her paper that she worked on during our course was recently published and she felt she “spent less time writing this article than I usually do, because I was more focused on how to write the different parts of the article, in a more logical way.”
Earlier reviewer comments on her papers often mentioned a lack of coherence in her writing and the inclusion of some irrelevant information. She realised now that although she would love to include some interesting observations, data or interpretations in her paper, if the material doesn’t fit the article’s objective, the reader will not find it interesting either: “So, a clear objective and a clear coherence between the different parts of the article helped me a lot. Simple but logical.”
Heidrun reported that she also learned not to take reviewers’ comments too personally. They feel very personal, but at the end you need to see them as what they truly are: “helpful advice to write and improve the manuscript.” But publishing is not only about struggling with oneself, it is also about receiving recognition for your hard work: “It’s an acknowledgement that gives you confidence that your work can be useful for other researchers.”
Her main recommendation: “Keep it simple. A clear objective, a good structure and cut out all irrelevant information. A short paper is better than one that’s too long!”
Have a look at Heidrun’s latest paper on “The bear Cave of Velfjord” – an archaeological and faunal historical survey published 2019 in Vitark: Acta archaeologica Nidrosiensia.
9. Marion: “Don’t give up so quickly!”
Marion is a PhD student working on phytoplankton and told us the story of her first paper. The writing process felt very hard as she had to learn many concepts and theories to be able to write up the paper. When she had her final manuscript version ready, she went on a conference, met someone from her field who she didn’t know before and they discussed her paper. The conversation brought up so many good ideas that she rewrote the paper. It caused a submission delay but she felt the comments were so essential and helpful, she even offered the new scientific acquaintance co-authorship on the paper. He accepted. So, she had improved her paper and made a new contact.
Equipped with this improved manuscript version she submitted to three high-impact journals one after another. From all three she received rejection letters. You can imagine that her motivation reached an absolute low at this point. It would be understandable if she had dropped the entire paper. But she didn’t! Finally, on her fourth attempt, she got published in the journal Ecology. Although the extra revision rounds cost a lot of time she said: “I was very happy that the paper got accepted, finally, at least my extra effort was worth it.” She did not give up despite being dismissed from the first journals. Her second paper went straight to review and she awaits the editor’s decision.
Getting in touch with former students of our paper-writing course was exciting! The lessons that you can learn from their writing and publishing experiences are:
- Ask for help and embrace comments from your colleagues. You don’t need to see writing a paper as a lonely exercise, you can ask your colleagues, advisors, supervisors or just other experienced authors for their support. It will make the process easier for you.
- Paper writing is a skill that has to be trained. There are no natural born authors so don’t expect yourself to know how paper writing works. Writing is a learning process in which you can getter better and better the more you do it.
- Keep it short and simple. Your research might be very complex and include many aspects that are difficult to understand. Writing about your research means communicating to others what you did and what you found. Communication is often far more successful if we focus on a few main points. Developing a clear goal and addressing it correctly is essential.
- Know your audience. You write the paper for other researchers in your field, not for yourself. Try to find out who benefits most from your work and how can you best describe to them what you did. Use their language to make yourself understood.
- Don’t look for perfection. You may think of your research as the perfect process to come up with the answer to a problem. It is not always like this. You may think you have to wait submitting until you are absolutely sure that nothing is wrong or could be misunderstood. But then you will endlessly delay your paper. If your research was done with scholarly quality then try to submit it to a journal and participate in the global knowledge exchange on your topic.
- Peer-review is not a personal attack on you. It is part of an important quality-control process in science. Learn to see reviewers’ comments as a means to help you publish a better paper.
- Don’t give up. There are many reasons why your paper might not be successful at the first journal you submit to. Try to improve it and resubmit somewhere else. If you think your paper is worth publishing then you just need to find the right audience and the right journal.
It was amazing for us to see how these former course participants followed up on what they learned in the course. We are really proud that they were successful in writing and publishing their papers. The experiences they made and particularly the lessons they shared are of great value! If you want to get started with writing papers yourself have a look at our Expert Guide 5 Strategies to Avoid Initial Paper Rejection which will help you to get around the biggest hurdles and help you pass peer-review.
- Expert guide “5 strategies to avoid initial paper rejection”
- Smart Academics Blog #5: How to get started with writing papers?
- Smart Academics Blog #32: How not to react when you receive review reports.
- Smart Academics Blog #34: 7 features of a good response to reviewers.
- Smart Academics Blog #36: 5 tips to get a paper accepted this year.
- Smart Academics Blog #86: How training the writing muscle became my early-morning ritual
- Smart Academics Blog #92: How reading motivates my writing
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