Writing Skills and Review Articles: “Walking the Path from Idea to Print”

How to cite this article:
Kumar MJ. Writing Skills and Review Articles: “Walking the Path from Idea to Print”. IETE Tech Rev 2009;26:225-7

I recently came across a wonderful book titled The Clinician’s Guide to Medical Writing written by Dr. Robert B. Taylor [1] . As the title suggests, this book is primarily meant for writers in the medical profession. Dr. Taylor has published extensively and has a long professional experience. He admits that he has committed several mistakes as a writer, like many of us do while writing papers. In this editorial, I want to highlight a few ideas, including those from Dr. Taylor’s book, on “basic writing skills and writing review articles” so that we can try to avoid the ­commonly made mistakes.

1. Basic Writing Skills

When you want to write an article, you must have an idea on which to build. Ideas may come from different sources: A discussion with your colleague, a scientific problem that you think is of great interest to many people but has not been understood properly, or an accidental exposure to an interesting topic while you are doing literature survey, and so on. For example, the idea to write this editorial came to me when I chanced upon Dr. Taylor’s book on Springer’s website.

Once you have an idea, jot it down somewhere so that you will not forget it. It is important to keep the focus of your article limited. For example, if you plan to write on climate change, perhaps you can limit it to “the role of IT industry in various aspects of climate change.” It now becomes easier for you to build a structure for your article, which may include (i) introduction on the concept of climate change and its consequences, (ii) industrial activities that cause climate change, (iii) IT industry’s contribution to climate change, (iv) minimizing IT industry’s contribution to climate change and (v) conclusions. As your understanding of the topic improves, you may change the structure slightly, but it is useful to begin with a structure and allow it to evolve.

You also need to organize your article into neat paragraphs, each focusing on a theme. After developing the theme in a paragraph, make sure that you conclude the paragraph meaningfully. To illustrate your point within the paragraph, provide simple examples, as I have given above for building the structure of your article. Try to break your paragraphs by looking for logical breaks so that the paragraphs are not longer than about 10 sentences [1] . Having several paragraphs on a page also provides a pleasant appearance, with white spaces between the paragraphs. However, make sure the paragraphs are not unusually short. How you write the sentences in a paragraph is another skill that you must learn.

Avoid writing long sentences. This makes reading a pleasure for the reader and provides ease in understanding the message meant to be conveyed. Proper punctuation in the sentences will provide breathing space as you read. “Commas, semicolons, periods and question marks are called stops. They improve sentence cadence and clarity, and thus make reading easier.” [1] . Minimize the use of verbosity, i.e., using more words than required to convey the same meaning. Why write “In only a small number of cases,” when you mean “Rarely”? To avoid confusing the reader, use words that are precise and clear. Understand the difference between similar sounding words. For example, “presently” is not the same as “currently.” Flowery and poetic words should be avoided. To write a good paper, therefore, one must improve the basic writing skills, which include (i) choosing an appropriate topic with a focus, (ii) developing a structure for your article, (iii) composing meaningful short paragraphs, (iv) writing short sentences with appropriate punctuations and (v) selecting the right words [1] .

2. Writing a Review Article

There are journals such as Proceedings of IEEE or IETE ­Technical Review that publish, mostly, review articles. Occasionally, many journals also publish review articles written by eminent authors. Usually, review articles make a broad survey of a given area and provide original analysis of the known information already published in literature. The authors of such articles are often ­active researchers themselves, as is evident in the excellent ­review article written by Charles Lieber of Harvard University [2] . A typical review article has a theme; logical expansion of the theme using appropriate figures, tables and comparisons for a critical analysis; conclusions; and a list of references. Although a review article is not an original scientific work, it does provide a ­different perspective and a feeling to the reader – that he has learnt something new about a given area. When you want to do research on a new topic and you do not know where to start, the best bet is to read some review articles on that topic. Many people, such as busy scientists and policy makers, also read review articles to keep themselves updated on a topic. Therefore, review articles do serve an important purpose in our professional work.

When do you decide to write a review article? To emphasize my point, let me digress here a little bit. When transistor dimensions are reduced to nanoscale, they start behaving erratically because of short-channel effects. These effects will make the design of low-power circuits extremely difficult, and hence many groups are working on minimizing the short-channel effects. A couple of my students have worked on this issue, and we came up with certain simple solutions. While doing this work, we also became aware of several other methods for circumventing the short-channel effects in nanoscale transistors. Then it occurred to us that it would be useful to a new researcher if we could put together all these methods in a review article and provide a ­critical comparison [3] . Coming back to where we digressed – you see, the idea to write a review article germinates from your own research experience. Whenever I receive a review article for IETE Technical Review written by someone who has no prior publication record, I become suspicious. A majority of these submissions turn out to be poorly written and also highly plagiarized.

2.1 Points to Remember While Writing a Review Article

Once you have decided on a topic for the review article, do a careful literature survey to make sure no one else has written a similar article. Even if someone has written, you can still write a review paper by appropriately choosing your article’s theme and structure, and by including more recent literature on the topic. I usually search for literature on the websites of Web of Science [4] , IEE Explore [5] , Elsevier’s Science Direct [6] and Scopus [7] . Access to these websites is only through membership or institutional subscription. Pay attention in choosing the right source for collecting your information; or else, you will be lost in the elusive search for literature.

Visit the website of the journal where you plan to send the review article. Look at the previous review articles published in the journal; learn about the style, page-length restrictions, etc. Most review articles in our profession contain both a survey of the past work and also a comparison of several studies to provide future trends or anticipated bottlenecks in the evolution of a given technology. Pick up a topic that is of current interest to many researchers. It will be a futile exercise to write a review article which no one will be interested to read. Make sure you do not leave out publications that are considered important in the context of your paper. Usually these are the most cited publications or papers by eminent authors. Otherwise, a reviewer can easily identify this deficiency, thus exposing your lack of experience in the area. Also, include as many recent references as possible. The editor, in all probability, will send your paper for review to one or more of the well-known authors listed in your references. This ensures that a poor-quality review article is not published in the journal.

To be able to write a good review paper, you must have worked on the chosen topic for years and must have been well established in academic circles through your previous publications. Otherwise, do not attempt to write a review article. The other option is to write the review article in collaboration with a co-author who is well known and is also an active researcher.

2.2 Seeing Your Review Article in Print

Your ultimate goal in writing a review article is to see it in print so that your intellectual exercise reaches a large number of readers. Many factors will decide whether your paper will finally be accepted by a journal. The rejection rate in IETE Technical Review is high. One major reason for this is that many authors fail to adhere to the basic writing skills described above.

In addition, there are minor but important issues that you need to take care of:

1. Your manuscript should be organized properly in the ­following order:

  • Title page (also giving authors’ names, affiliations, contact email, etc.)
  • Abstract
  • Key words
  • Body of the text
  • Acknowledgments (if any)
  • References (follow the journal’s format)
  • Tables with legends, each on a separate page
  • Figures with legends, each on a separate page [1]

2. Make sure the figures are prepared in high resolution. The font size of letters and numbers in the figures should be big enough so that when the figure is reduced to the single-column size in the journal, the letters and numbers are clearly visible.

Read your manuscript several times and make changes, with ­particular attention to the spelling mistakes that may not be detected by your word processor. Do not strive to make your ­manuscript perfect. Beyond some point, you cannot make it any better.

If your paper is rejected, do not resubmit it to the same journal unless the editor has asked you to revise and resubmit. If your paper can be reconsidered after revisions, make every effort to revise your manuscript at the earliest. Write each comment of the reviewer and provide your response to each of the reviewer’s comments. If you disagree with the reviewer’s comments, be ­polite in your response. In your reply, point out on which page what corrections can be found. Identify all the corrections in the revised manuscript in color so that the editor can easily see what changes have been made. Editors and reviewers do appreciate if you are meticulous and to the point in your responses.

3. Conclusion 

In my view, novices should not attempt to write review articles. If you are an experienced researcher, to be able to write a review article, you must have an idea with the right focus. You need to carefully develop an outline and structure of your article. Make sure you have read the “guidelines to the authors,” available on the journal’s website, and formatted your manuscript correctly. In addition to putting the right technical content in your article, you must pay attention to the basic writing skills. The chosen topic for your review article must be current and should be based on sufficient literature survey from appropriate sources. Your article should provide a comprehensive and different perspective by comparing and analyzing the known information. Following these simple guidelines will enhance the possibility of getting a favorable reply from the editor. To conclude, as Taylor says in his book, “Now it’s time to Write It Up. Have fun!”

As always, I would be glad to get your feedback and comments.


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