Hi! In order to write an outstanding paper, the first thing is you have to have outstanding data. But even the best researchers don't only have great data, a lot of their stuff is going to be “just good”. But you still want to make the paper as good as it possibly can be, given what the data are. So I am going to talk about how to write the best possible paper, given the data are what they are. First lesson:
Lesson #1: Be realistic about how good the data really are. You yourself are probably standing too close to it to make a good judgement, so ask you supervisor or a more senior colleague what they think. Presentations at congresses are great opportunities to get feedback. If people aren't giving you much feedback, then you did not ask for it clearly enough, you did not explain your study well, or they didn't like it and don't want to be unkind. You must find out which it is.
Because it takes years of experience and many published papers to get the hang of it, the second lesson is:
Lesson #2: Present the data first at a meeting (as a poster or orally) before you write the paper. This will also force you to write an outstanding abstract, which is the first step to writing an outstanding paper. Obviously you can start writing the full paper while you are preparing for the meeting, but don't finalize it until you have received some feedback.
Lesson #3: Remember, the most important thing with a science paper are the data. Start by deciding on which data to show and in what format. Select tables and figures, perhaps three of each, as the “skeleton” of your paper.
Next you have to decide where you would like to submit. If you have truly outstanding data you will probably aim for a general medical or science journal – this will not happen very often. But in that case you will have to write for a wide audience and that means explaining the disease this refers to and why you did what you did and what it means in the wider context. By contrast, if your data are good but not quite good enough for the top general journals then you could consider the top rheumatology journals (ARD being #1) and then you should not start the paper with a long discourse of what RA is or how SLE is treated or whatever. Then you can go straight to the matter at hand.
Lesson #4: decide where you are going to submit before you start writing.
Submitting to a high-ranked journal is a good strategy but you have to prepare yourself for disappointment: the acceptance rate will be 15% at best.
Lessen #5: Don't get discouraged!
Nowadays there are all kinds of guidelines on how to format the paper correctly. All journals indicate these on their home pages. Yes you should follow these but remember that in the end the paper will be read by a human being so you also have to make it a good story.
Lesson #6: Write in good, normal English sentences, not too casually but also not too bureaucratically. If English is not your language you do need to ask someone for help with this. Compare your draft to articles published in the journal you are aiming for.
Lesson #7: Pay special attention to the abstract, and the tables and the figures. Reviewers are shown the abstract when asked whether they are willing to do the review or not, so if the abstract sounds interesting and good you are more likely to get better reviewers looking at it (and a faster turnaround). And even once the reviewer has agreed and has received the full paper they will probably still begin by reading the abstract, then look at the tables and figures, and then read the full text of the paper.
Finally, if you work in a small field it is quite likely that the reviewers will have publications in that same field. Please make sure to be as generous as you can be in citing other scientists with work that is relevant, in the Introduction or Discussion sections of your paper.
Lesson #8: “Flattery will get you everywhere.” – Professor Hal Holman, Stanford University
Disclosure of Interest R. van Vollenhoven Grant/research support from: AbbVie, BMS, GSK, Pfizer, Roche, UCB, Consultant for: AbbVie, Biotest, BMS, Crescendo, GSK, Janssen, Lilly, Merck, Pfizer, Roche, UCB, Vertex