Writing well is an essential skill in science. Many resources offer guidance on producing concise, efficient, and convincing papers (Table 1), which are mostly based on the classic Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (IMRaD) structure (Fig. 1A). For general rules on writing we suggest sources presented in Table 1. Here, we focus on an important aspect of writing often overlooked in these resources: developing the scientific story. Embracing this valuable skill—one that underlies any good paper—can increase the impact of your work and the likelihood of it being accepted in highly rated journals (Turabian 2019).
Tile Authors/date/ISBN Notes/cost Editing and publication Montagnes (1988) ISBN (none) A simple, practical guide to effective writing, designed for editors at research institutes but equally useful for authors. Free on-line as a pdf Writing science: how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded Schimel (2012) ISBN: 978-0-19-976024-4 A comprehensive coverage of the subject, with useful insights into "story telling" £25 Scientific style and format: The CSE manual for authors, editors, and publishers, 8th edn Council of Science Editors (2014) ISBN: 9780226116495 A definitive style guide, and an invaluable resource for authors, but not a useful "how-to" book. £55 *Guidelines for scientific paper writing (Written in Chinese) Zhao and Ding (2014) ISBN: 9787030415455 Introduces what to do at each step and how to build the relationship between parts. Aimed at students and new researchers. £5 (in China) How to write and publish a scientific paper Gastel and Day (2016) ISBN: 9781440842801 In its 8th edition, this is an excellent all-round resourced. We recommend it to students. £30 *English for writing research papers 2nd edn Wallwork (2016) ISBN: 9783319260921 A thorough training book, from sentence to manuscript structure. For non-English speakers but useful for all, from beginners to mature writers. £20 How to write a good scientific paper Mack (2018) ISBN 9781510619135 A useful general guide, with good guidance on figures. £30 Writing and publishing a scientific research paper Parija and Vikram (2018) ISBN: 9789811352119 A useful general guide, but expensive. £70 How to write a scientific paper: an academic self-help guide for PhD students Saramäk (2018) ISBN: 9781730784163 Includes parallels to our writing backwards approach and a useful general guide. Offers guidance on finding main ideas from your work (i.e., the take-home messages). £10 *Science research writing: for native and non-native speakers of English 2nd edn Glasman-Deal (2020) ISBN: 9781786347848 A useful training book, for researchers at the start of their career. £20 Scientific writing = thinking in words Lindsay (2020) ISBN: 9780643100466 Short and easy to read, and full of useful information for all career stages. £15 *Books that focus on helping non-English speakers
Table 1. A selection of sources for structuring a scientific paper, presented by date/authors, with no prejudice. These are mostly recent books that we see as useful sources. By no means is this an exhaustive list; many other good books and articles are available on the subject. We encourage authors to find sources that best suit their needs. Prices are for paperbacks (when possible) and are only an approximate value, rounded to the nearest £5, and determined in 2021. Some sources may also come as less expensive e-books. Furthermore, if you are on a budget, older editions of many of these and other books are often as useful as the newest edition, and might be significantly less expensive
Story-telling is part of being human. Stories are an integral part of our lives, from newspapers and novels to blogs and movies. This is because stories have evolved with us as an effective form of communication, including in science (Angler 2020; Clemens 2018; Sanes 2019). But what do we mean by a scientific story? A scientific story goes beyond just presenting information; it is a narrative that uses information (e.g., data) to solve a problem, engaging the reader with both your observations and an appreciation of their impact. The scientific story has a beginning, a middle, and an end (Fig. 2). These three components can, and should, map onto the typical IMRaD structure (Fig. 1A). However, as editors we see many manuscripts that follow the IMRaD structure but do not tell a good scientific story, even when the underlying data clearly can provide one. For example, many studies present the findings without any synthesis or an effort to place them into a wider context. This limits the reader's ability to gain knowledge and understanding, hence reducing the papers impact. Here, we offer guidance on how to tell your story.
Figure 2. The scientific story seen as three parts, mapping on to the IMRaD structure (Fig. 1A)
Three structural rules underpin all writing. These rules can be directly applied to developing your scientific story: Rule 1—consider your audience (i.e., scientists); Rule 2—consider your venue (i.e., scientific journals); and Rule 3—consider your purpose. The purpose of scientific research is to collect and analyse data to determine underlying truths and gain understanding through hypothesis testing or the exploration of large data sets. For a thought-provoking review of scientific approaches see Voit (2019). Fretwell (1975) provides philosophical insight into this process.
"Scientists are responsible for truth, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Truth is what is—it is the underlying reality of all existence. Knowledge is what we think we know about truth. Knowledge, however, is always an imperfect assessment, and is always subject to revision and improvement. The realization that there are discrepancies and weaknesses in knowledge is wisdom. Wisdom leads to a process, called the philosophy of science, through which knowledge is modified to better fit the truth..."
Fretwell (1975) then extended this philosophy to applied science, which is very much one aim of this journal, Marine Life Sciences & Technology (MLST).
"We may think of understanding as what we use in order to adequately apply our wisdom and our knowledge in guiding our actions. While applied scientists seek understanding, basic scientists seek knowledge."
As scientists, regardless of how we find and apply our answers, the order of our writing is generally expected to follow the IMRaD structure (Fig. 1A). We argue, however, that trying to write a manuscript following this structure will often impede developing a good story (Fig. 2). Instead, we suggest that authors should consider writing backwards (Fig. 1B; Magnusson 1996; Sanes 2019). In the next sections we outline this approach.
Writing backwards may seem like an odd concept, but it's not. Think about telling a joke to your friends. Knowing the punchline is essential. You build up to it, and the punchline makes the joke. Of course, a good setup to the punchline is also crucial, but without a perfect conclusion, the joke won't work (Jodłowiec 1991). In fact, many comedians start writing their jokes with a punchline in mind—or at least a rough version of it—and then craft the setup (Fig. 3). In other words, the joke is constructed backwards from the punchline, even though that's not how you tell it. A scientific story is no different.
Figure 3. An example of a joke with the setup and punchline, in this sense following the same structure as a scientific story (Fig. 1)
The scientific story
There is one danger in writing backwards, as we and others propose (Magnusson 1996; Sanes 2019). When inappropriately applied, this process can undermine the basic tenets of objective scientific inquiry. By examining the data and determining the take-home messages, we are at least in part ignoring the idea of developing initial (a priori) predictions. Instead, to some extent, we are relying on post hoc (after the fact) observations and interpretations. This post hoc approach is now a recognised and entirely appropriate form of scientific investigation (Voit 2019). Furthermore, our opinion is that all scientific endeavours include some subjectivity and that the crux is the study's ability to obtain—or at least approach—the truth. In this sense, we emphasise the need for authors to be objective when approaching Step 1; i.e., when deciding on the overall conclusions and take-home messages (Fig. 1B, Box 1).
We also caution authors to ensure that the questions/propositions/hypotheses at the end of the Introduction (Step 4.2) do not appear too contrived; i.e., they should be general rather than being so detailed that they reflect only the specific findings of the study. There is a fine art to developing a good story. It takes practice and training. Here, and in Table 2, we offer some basic guidance, but we encourage authors to read further so they can develop more nuanced and engaging stories (Table 1).
Do's Don'ts Learn to write all sections in the IMRaD structure (Table 1) before thinking about structuring your story Ignore the guidelines presented by the journal you are submitting your work to Consider methods for structuring a paper other than our proposed method of writing backwards Think that this editorial provides all the answers Be a good scientist, letting the facts lead to the story Provide fake news by writing a story based on insubstantial facts, no matter how exciting the story is Consider all options when interpreting your data and obtaining the take-home messages Become attracted to one seemingly "sexy" idea, just because it appears to tell a good story Ensure that you present negative results (i.e., ones that may not support your story), either in the paper or in supplementary material. These can be extremely valuable Present only positive results (ones that support your story), as this provides non-scientific bias Use all of your relevant results Throw away results that disagree with your take-home messages Collect more data if your take-home messages are unclear Try to create a story based on poor or insufficient data Ensure that your data analysis is appropriately targeted to address your questions; i.e., your analysis must lead to the take-home messages Chose analytical methods that are designed to reveal the trends that you think the story is telling Provide balanced arguments that consider the breadth of ideas available in the literature Ignore key references that disagree with the story you have initially developed When writing the first draft of your paper, try not to worry about making it perfect. You can worry about the grammar and the sentence structure after you get all your ideas in order Get caught up in the details when writing the outline of the story After you finish your paper, put it aside for a few days. Then pick it up, with "fresh eyes" and see if the story works Finish the manuscript and send it off immediately
Table 2. Some Do's and Don'ts when writing your scientific story. This list offers guidance on how to avoid the pitfalls when constructing your story. Much of it is common sense, and we present it to remind the reader that this editorial offers only very directed guidance, some of which may not work for all authors