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I'm halfway through my PhD in theoretical physics and so far, I have never written a paper on my own. At best I wrote short parts for an article published with my advisor. I am currently taking part in an international collaboration and we decided that I should try and write our paper. I spend about 2 weeks on it and barely reached 2.5 pages (two-column APS style). I sent my work to the advisor and he said that "it is not good". We only spoke shortly on a phone, so I expect him to give me some more feedback. However, he has given me feedback before and it hasn't been all that helpful. His main advice is for me to be more verbose which I just don't know how to do.

How can I learn to write scientific publications? Any tips? Training ideas? Sources I can follow? I just feel that in a quite short time I should become an "independent researcher" and that should include the ability to write a paper on my own. With the current pace, I definitely won't achieve that by the end of my PhD and that gives me a lot of anxiety.

I'm not an English native speaker. I'm not sure if that matters but wanted to clarify.

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  • Internalizing the IMRaD structure is a good first step.
    – anpami
    Jan 20 at 8:27
  • The sources are fine and I will go through them. I will also appreciate ideas for practising writing besides scientific publications. I feel I don't produce enough material to practise effectively. Jan 20 at 9:30
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    Could you elaborate a bit on how come the feedback your advisor gave you in the past was "not all that helpful"? Did you try to work through a part of your writing in some detail? Could you ask them to be more verbose? :)
    – penelope
    Jan 20 at 10:58
  • Most of the comments were about grammatical errors and inaccurate statements. These were definitely helpful. As for the part where I struggle right now, I mostly received directions like "write more on this" as a comment to a paragraph. I often think about how to write more on a specific topic and don't see how to do that. I will try to ask my advisor for more guidance on this. Jan 20 at 13:03

3 Answers 3

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To extend on what GEdgar correctly said - imitate (good) recent papers. I think that is, far and away, the most pragmatic and best way to get started writing scientific papers. The time to innovate will come, but it should probably not be when you are writing your first article and don't really know how to.

Specifically:

  1. Find one or two papers that are close to yours, not just in terms of topic but also (maybe even more importantly) in the applied research method and target community. Papers in the same journal / conference as where you are planning to submit are a good starting point.
  2. Read this paper. Don't just skim it, don't only look at the tables for specific results, or the method for specific steps. Really read it. Go over each section, paragraph, maybe even sentence and ask yourself why this paragraph or sentence needed to be there. Make notes. Try to reconstruct how the authors are building their argument, what they report, what they don't report, and in which order. This is an exercise that many writing classes use, and it's incredibly useful as a beginning writer.
  3. Set up your own paper draft in the very first iteration as a structural carbon copy of the paper you are imitating. Write headlines for all the sections and subsections the paper should need. Write detailed notes (maybe as TEX comments if you are using LaTeX) about the flow of your argument within in each section. Refer to the notes you made when analyzing the existing paper and don't be afraid to copy their structure and how they construct their story (but don't copy the words, obviously!). Make notes which figures and tables you are going to use where - if you already have them insert them, otherwise insert a placeholder or early version.
  4. At this point you should have a fairly complete mental image in your head how the paper will eventually look like, and what gets explained where. Now you can start to draft the text. Since you already started writing (but your advisor felt it was no good) you can of course recycle some of the text, but try to do it only when the text is almost exactly what you wanted to write in this place and improve the text you are writing so that it fits the notes / outline you wrote above. Start drafting a short part of the paper first (e.g., the introduction - I like writing papers in order of reading, but opinions on this differ) and send it to your advisor to review. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the paper.
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  • This is really excellent and clear advice! +1
    – astronat
    Jan 20 at 15:16
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Your advisor is the first line for this. Becoming an independent researcher is immensely more difficult without a good advisor to steer you.

Other common advice is: look at recent papers in your area, and imitate their style.

If there are other more senior (and English-speaking) members of your international collaboration, then of course they will comment on what you write and help you make it better.

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Before writing my first paper, I bought a book called "How to write a scientific paper". It was a great resource and helped me immensely in structuring the paper and other aspects. Maybe you don't even have to buy the book, but find one in your local library.

That being said, developing a nice and concise writing style will take lots of practice, and it is completely normal to have problems with it at first.

My university offers free scientific writing courses for PhD students, maybe yours does too? I have friends who took such a course and they completely recommended it for people struggling with writing.

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