In this column, we present a set of helpful hints for writing and formatting your manuscript, based on issues that we commonly see in submissions. While following these tips will not guarantee acceptance, taking each into account will make your next manuscript more appealing to editors and reviewers.
- Know the journal.
Each journal has its own mission and scope, usually found on the journal website as part of the instructions for authors. In the era of electronic submissions, with new journals sprouting up constantly, there is a tendency for authors to just work their way down a list of titles, without tailoring their manuscript to the submission guidelines for each individual journal. Few things are more annoying to a journal editor. You are expected to know the scope of each journal to which you submit a manuscript. This will ultimately save you time, and the inevitable rejection letter, if you recognize that your physics manuscript probably does not fit the scope of a plant biology journal.
- Know the submission and formatting guidelines.
Each journal has specific rules for how a submitted manuscript should be formatted and what materials must be included in each submission. Many journals also have more than one article type, with different formats for each (see, for example the formats for Reports and Benchmarks in the BioTechniques Guide for Authors). Ignoring these guidelines decreases the likelihood that editors will take your manuscript seriously.
- Write with an active voice.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The truth is, writing in a more active voice is a learned skill. But does it really matter all that much in a manuscript? Let’s take a look:
Example 1: Passive voice.
“Here we have demonstrated through a variety of experiments that when three additional amplification cycles are added to the existing protocol, the final product yield can often times be increased.”
Example 2: Active voice.
“Here we show through a variety of experiments that adding three additional amplification cycles to the existing protocol often increases the final product yield.”
As you can see, the use of an active voice produces a sentence that is easier to understand and increases its overall impact.
- Avoid “wordiness”.
We can further revise the above sentence by eliminating vague wording (for example, “a variety of experiments”) to give it a more authoritative tone.
Example 3: Condensed
“Here we show that adding three amplification cycles increases final product yield.”
The more concise wording is more likely to hold the reader’s attention.
- Practice quality control.
We understand that everyone makes mistakes. A few typos will not doom your submission, but a manuscript riddled with grammatical errors or formatting issues is unlikely to inspire good will from editors and reviewers. Proofread the entire manuscript carefully, and enlist outside help from someone who is not an author on the paper, if possible. The more familiar you are with the text, the more likely you are to miss an error. It is also important to check for accuracy and consistency when using specialized terminology or abbreviations, particularly if different co-authors are writing different parts of the manuscript.
- Create a true cover letter.
The cover letter is an important part of your submission, since it will often be the first item seen by the journal editor. This letter should provide a straightforward 1–2 sentence overview of your study and its key findings. The statement should not be copied directly from the Abstract. Rather, it should be shorter and less formal, much like an Author’s Summary statement. You should also explain how your manuscript fits the mission and scope of the journal.
- Know your references.
References in the Introduction section are tremendously important when it comes to placing your work in the context of the field. As we mentioned above, there are many more journals available today than a decade ago; thus, thorough literature searches and proper article citation are essential for readers to understand where a particular study fits into the sea of other work. In addition, a thorough literature search will enhance your understanding of the current state of the field and help you write a more detailed and impactful cover letter.
- Format figures and captions correctly.
When it comes to figures and captions, all journals have specific formatting guidelines for authors. Most of these are very instructive and should be followed prior to submission. While it is easy for an author to ignore these guidelines, particularly if resubmitting a rejected manuscript to a different journal, this only adds time to the review process when your manuscript is sent back due to formatting issues.
- Ask the editor.
Editors and reviewers are not always right—sometimes they do make mistakes. Decision letters may include revision requests that are not clear. This does not mean you should spend the next week trying to figure out what a request means or whether or not that additional experiment is truly required. A much easier solution is to contact the editor directly to ask what is needed and why. We are more than happy to explain the decision and clarify the amount of additional work that is necessary for acceptance. In my experience, this is often the best way to reduce the time it takes for your resubmission to be accepted.
- Rebut decisions effectively.
Rebuttals are sometimes necessary, but they need to be presented in a respectful way. Sending a short email saying, “You are wrong, reconsider the decision”, will not prompt an editor to reverse that decision, which careful consideration by two or three journal editors and several reviewers, in most instances. To successfully rebut any decision, you need to address the key points of concern raised within the decision letter as meticulously as you would address an editor’s or reviewer’s concerns in a revision letter. Do not send a revised manuscript at this stage; it will not even be looked at if the major concerns raised in the rejection letter are not addressed. In addition, even if your rebuttal is successful, the editors will often require specific revisions before you are allowed to resubmit your manuscript.
Next week we will wrap up our special Manuscript Tips series with columns on constructing and organizing a strong Discussion section and correct preparation of Figures and References.
BioTechniques Special Series: Manuscript Tips