The Sceptical Chymist | ACS: Writing tips from Whitesides

Published in Chemistry

It always takes me awhile to get my bearings at an ACS meeting…figuring out how to catch the shuttle bus to the convention center…finding where to pick up registration materials…searching for that ubiquitous Starbucks for some much-needed caffeine…deciding which one of five interesting symposia to attend… navigating the massive convention center…going back and forth between symposia that seem about a mile apart, only to find the order of the talks have been switched …and so on!

Today was no exception, but I did manage to drop in on one quite interesting symposium given by the Division of Chemical Information. Kicked off by the very entertaining George Whitesides from the chemistry department at Harvard, the symposium was entitled “The nuts and bolts of scholarly publishing”.

As an editor, I would have to say that Professor Whitesides has the writing process down pat (you might even say, down to a science), as he described his views on how to successfully write a research paper. He began by reminding the audience of the mantra that all good journalists know: if you fail to capture the readers’ attention in the first 2-3 sentences, you might as well forget about them reading the rest of your paper. The Introduction should state the principle result, the motivation, importance, and context in reference to prior work (which as Professor Whitesides astutely pointed out, is not only the ethical thing to do, but also a really good idea since the previous work was probably done by the referees reading the paper!). In the Results and Discussion, the principle result should be described first and in as brief of terms as possible (this is not the place to recount the long history of personal struggles in the lab!). Finally, the Conclusion should not be a reiteration of the abstract, but the place to compare the work to previous results, describe the significance of the new work, the benefits and limitations, as well as an opportunity to inject personal opinions. In addition, a good title and interesting and informative figures are absolutely crucial.

Overall, it was an engaging and instructive talk, reminding scientists of the integral role writing plays in research. After all, if you never write up your research and no one ever reads it, it might as well have never been done!

Allison Doerr (Assistant Editor, Nature Methods)

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