Scientific writing - our tips and tricks

Lara Wagenecker

Lara Wagenecker

Author at futuredoctor

Reading time: 16 Minuten
Last updated: 21 March 2024

📖 Table of contents

Whether it's a term paper, thesis, dissertation or doctoral thesis - it's hard to avoid writing academic texts during your studies. The approach, the structure of the work, the literature research and the correct use of academic language can all cause difficulties. The most important guideline when writing university assignments and papers is of course always that of your own university, examiners or supervisors. However, as this often relates primarily to formalities such as text layout and a little extra input can never hurt, we have summarised a few helpful tips below to get you started and guide you through the topic!

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The right approach

Roughly speaking, the writing process of an academic paper can be divided into the following areas: the Planningthat Collecting ideas, collected data and materialsthat Sorting the materialsthat Formulation of the plan drawn up and the Revise what you have written. Of course, these steps are not strictly linear, but are repeated over and over again. However, there are aids for each of these steps, which we will look at in more detail.

Depending on the type of work you are currently working on, the Planning Firstly, a discussion with the supervisor, where it is determined as precisely as possible what the requirements for the work are (content, scope, style, etc.) and what level of supervision is planned during the writing process. Based on this, a rough time frame can then be set and an overview of the content can be created with the help of clear questions.

Afterwards the Collection of materials which, among other things, consists of literature research, collating any data that may have been collected and, if necessary, networking with researchers on related topics. It is important here to read and understand as much literature as possible and to categorise it qualitatively. In addition, a correct interpretation and understanding of the respective context must take place. 

This is followed by the Sorting the collected materials. While you can incorporate the findings of your literature research from introduction to conclusion in your paper, laboratory notes and the like belong in the methodology section and data collection and results of experiments in the "Results" section. You should pay particular attention to a logical sequence of argumentation.   

Once you have planned which content you want to list where, you can use the Formulating the plan. It is also important to observe a few content and language rules here. However, don't dwell too much on style, grammar and spelling, but concentrate on a coherent structure and sequence.

The last step is always the Revising the draft text are. The text is checked for completeness of content, linguistic clarity and correctness, grammar, spelling and formalities such as footnotes and citations.

As mentioned at the beginning, the individual steps can be repeated again and again and sometimes even run in parallel, but you can use them as a common thread in the writing process if you have difficulties finding your way and use them to determine your current status and the next steps. To do this, always ask yourself which of the phases mentioned you are currently in and consider whether there may still be deficits in previous steps.

Formulating the question - the 5-paragraph method

The 5-paragraph method according to Karl Henryk Flyum can be used to help you formulate your research question. This is a kind of writing exercise that can not only initiate the flow of writing, but at the end of which you will already have created a basic framework for the introduction and other parts of the paper.

It consists of the following five tasks, each of which should be completed in continuous text consisting of complete sentences and should all take at least 5-10 minutes:

As 1. Exercise should explain in a way that is understandable to a layperson (e.g. like a (grand)parent) what the upcoming work will be about. The answer text should start with words like "The work I'm currently writing deals with..." begin.

The 2. The first part consists of two subtasks, the first of which is to summarise the previously written statement in a sentence. In the second part, this sentence is then to be formulated as a question in 3 different variations. The aim is to test different ways of emphasising the individual sentence components and to select the most interesting formulation. The exercise is then continued using the selected variant.

In step 3 the current state of knowledge should be formulated. This involves describing who has already worked on this or a similar question and what is known about their answers.

Paragraph 4 requires a list of materials, methods and data that must be collected or gathered in order to answer the formulated question.

In the 5. In the final section of the method, it should be considered why it is important to investigate and answer the question. What is the hoped-for result and who would potentially benefit from it?

You will soon find out exactly how you can incorporate the results of this exercise into your work!

The literature research

Literature research forms the basis of almost every scientific paper. It not only creates a comprehensive knowledge base, but also makes it possible to compare previous findings, discover any gaps and build on the latest research. Publications can be found in scientific journals and books, but also on the Internet in online libraries such as Pubmed or via search engines such as Google Scholar.

Tip: Many publications are only available in full with paid access to platforms such as Elsevier. However, some universities offer free access with a campus licence. It is therefore best to enquire about this before taking out a subscription. Alternatively, you can also ask your working group or supervisors about papers and publications.

A distinction is made in scientific literature between Primary literaturecase reports or study results, for example, and Secondary literaturee.g. reviews and meta-analyses. While secondary literature has usually already been compared, evaluated and contextualised, this is partly left to the reader in the case of primary literary texts. The following strategies and questions about the text can help you to read and understand primary literature in a structured way:

First read the Abstract and emphasise the working hypothesis(es), as well as any announcements of results and the context of the research.

Position in the Introduction the same questions again and also try to find out more about the scientific motivation of the authors and the current state of research.

In the section Material and methods In the case of literature research, a rough skim is usually enough to get a feel for the scientific nature and standards of the research described.

Take a look at the Results and try not only to read the descriptions of the illustrations, but also to use them to form your own judgement about their significance and context. To help you interpret them, use the Discussion sectionfrom which you should be able to read to what extent the authors see their hypotheses supported by the results. At this point, ask yourself what the findings could mean in relation to your own work and what questions may have remained unanswered.

Read - if available - also Secondary literature to your text, in which the context and significance of the research are presented in more detail. It also never hurts to get tips or explanations from your working group or supervisors to help you understand your work.

By the way: Free citation programmes such as Zotero are invaluable for keeping track of your literature and research and making it easier for you to cite at the end!

The structure of a scientific paper

A scientific paper usually consists of four sections, each of which should answer different questions. The Introduction describes what the work is about, the relevance of the study and the current state of research. In the part "Methods and materials", your own work process is explained, i.e. how and with what you have gained the insights listed below. Subsequently, the not yet interpreted Results and at the end in the paragraph "Discussion" are interpreted, categorised and reflected on in relation to the research question. We will now take a closer look at the structure of the individual sections.

The Introduction of a scientific text should explain the context, the research question and the importance of answering it objectively and without prejudging the results. It is best to start by explaining the basics of the topic. From there, you can move on to the specific area and point out any gaps in knowledge. From this, it is then easy to formulate the research question, the objective and, if applicable, the hoped-for added value of the study. In this section, it is important to substantiate all assertions made and facts cited with sources.

With the help of the paragraph "Methods and materials" should enable readers to assess the quality and significance of the results. It should also make the work repeatable, so it is important to carefully list all the steps of the investigation or experiment.

The Results should be presented below using illustrations and descriptive, informative texts. It is best to create the illustrations first, put them in a coherent order and then create descriptions. Make sure that the results can be clearly deduced from the methods and materials mentioned and use a similar sequence or headings, for example. Important: No research results should be interpreted here.

The Discussion section of the thesis is intended to do just that and, in addition to a brief recapitulation of the context, the research question, the purpose and the approach of the thesis, also contains the most important results and categorises them in descending order of importance according to the following aspects: Do the results support the initial hypothesis or what do they say in relation to it? Do the results agree with those of other researchers? How can possible deviations be explained? Further interpretations and assumptions will also be discussed here with the help of references. In addition, the limitations and shortcomings of the study itself (generalisability, data quality, potential sources of error...) will be pointed out and the results will be classified in terms of their usefulness for practice and future research.

By the end of this short lesson on the structure of the academic paper, you may already have an idea of what the 5-paragraph method exercise could do for you: many of the questions that are to be answered in the individual sections of the paper are summarised and sometimes even prescribed with the help of the writing exercise and can thus provide excellent support for the later writing process!

The abstract

The abstract is a short (about 250 words or 2 pages long) summary that should arouse curiosity, give an impression of the work and convince the reader to read the entire text. This should roughly describe the aim of the study, the methods used and the main findings in the past tense and without quotations, illustrations or abbreviations. Tip: Describe the most important main points of your work in just one sentence. This will help you keep it short and avoid the risk of rambling.

Scientific language

Unlike in some humanities disciplines, the language used in scientific papers should not aim to sound highbrow and elitist. Scientific literature, on the other hand, should be technically correct and complete, but as comprehensible and accessible as possible. Texts should therefore avoid superfluous technical jargon, frequent nominal style and excessively long sentences, but at the same time should not slip into unspecific everyday language or overly subjective and judgemental formulations. You can stick to the following points when writing, for example:

  • Use sensible Technical terms and always the same term when the same thing is meant. Example: "diabetes" instead of "diabetes". Do not change such terms either. Repetitions of technical terms are not a problem, but serve the purpose of clarity and unambiguity.
  • Lead Abbreviations for frequently used or particularly long terms and use the abbreviations that are already common or standardised. It is best to create a list of abbreviations before the introduction, but make sure that you use no more than a handful of abbreviations per paragraph so as not to impair clarity (except for commonly known abbreviations such as "DNA").
  • Structure paragraphs of text as follows: a main sentence uses key words to explain the one key idea per paragraph. Further sentences can then go into a little more depth, but try to avoid unnecessarily complicated or already sufficiently explained contexts. A final sentence can provide a conclusion and lead to the next section.
  • Avoid nested sentences! At the latest when a sentence is more than three lines long, you should consider splitting it up. You should also Avoid filler words, empty phrases and expressions of personal opinion become. Example: Phrases such as "unfortunately", "to my regret", "square cube",...
  • Use active instead of passive formulations! Example: instead of "The samples were analysed by the researchers for changes" à "The researchers analysed the samples for changes"

Revision and feedback

The revision of what has been written so far should take place repeatedly during the writing process and ideally according to different criteria. While at the beginning it is primarily a matter of creating a logical structure, in the course of the process more and more attention should be paid to content and finally linguistic subtleties.

An unbiased view from the outside is particularly helpful, which is why feedback from other people, such as supervisors or fellow students, can be a very important tool. Don't be put off by criticism or the need for (major) changes, as many of them will only help you move forward! However, feel free to set limits and ask certain people for feedback on a specific question, for example only on spelling or comprehensibility, and only follow the advice that seems useful to you. It is also best to think about which people you would like feedback from early on in the writing process and announce yourself in good time. It may even be possible to organise a feedback circle with other doctoral students or fellow students.

Overcoming writer's block

Most people who have ever had to write a text for university or school will be familiar with the problem of writer's block and procrastination. What helps against this is very individual. A few of our personal top tips are:

  • divide the work into small, manageable chunks
  • arrange to work in groups
  • Formulate plans and writing goals for each working day as precisely as possible
  • Writing exercises, such as the 5-paragraph method - once a writing flow has been created, it is often easier to maintain it
  • start with simple text sections that require relatively little preparatory work (for example, first mention the methods and materials before starting with the comprehensive and information-laden introduction) and, in the process of writing, feel free to mix things up or take turns writing at the points that occur to you at the moment
  • first roughly sketch out paragraphs or thoughts that are difficult to formulate and then write them out when you are ready or have an idea for them
  • Don't have too high expectations of your rough draft and don't make linguistic or grammatical mistakes at the beginning - there will be enough time for that at the end!
  • One tip from writing coaches is "speed writing": find a keyword and jot down all your ideas (even supposedly nonsensical ones) as quickly as you can. This will not only get you into the flow of writing, but in the best case scenario, you will also have one or two content-related ideas.
  • Create a formal framework for your work and format your document according to the requirements of your university/supervisor, including headings, page breaks, etc. and create a bibliography using your citation programme. It's much easier to work on a well-prepared and reasonably tidy document!
  • Finally, the usual suspects: get enough sleep and drink water, take regular breaks and exercise in between

Enough reading - now it's time to write!

We hope to be able to provide you with some helpful facts and advice in this article and keep our fingers crossed for your writing process from here on! Let us know what helped you in particular and whether you would like to add a tip or two. You can reach us at any time via the contact form on this website or via Instagram @futuredoctorde

Frequently asked questions

FAQs on the our tips and tricks

The scope of the work and the time spent on it can vary greatly depending on the type of dissertation. While retrospective clinical theses can sometimes be written entirely during the course of study, experimental theses usually require several semesters of full-time research. The time frame should be agreed with the doctoral supervisor as bindingly as possible before the start of the doctoral thesis.

The text length is around 100 pages, but can also vary.

The introduction should first introduce the topic and its context. Support all the facts mentioned with sources and then state your working hypothesis(es) and the scientific interest in your research. However, do not mention any results.

Yes, absolutely! As is so often the case, practice makes perfect. Reading scientific literature, using scientific language and producing a volume of text all become much easier with time. So don't let initial difficulties or writer's block get you down. You can find tips on how to overcome them in this blog post, for example.

In libraries, with scientific search engines, e.g. Google Scholar or Pubmed, or via your working group and supervisors.

Scientific papers can be published by doctoral students, but also - in the form of their final theses - by graduates of bachelor's, master's or diploma programmes.

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