I have spent most of my time recently writing papers for publication, and I have come to a realization. It is one of those realizations where I knew it all along, but had forgotten, or had never considered how important it was. What I realized is this: every paper should have a point, expressible in a sentence or two, and everything in the paper should be relevant to understanding and evaluating that point. Analyze the data, read the literature, analyze the data some more, but before one actually starts writing, one should have a pretty good sense of what one's point is. I've taken to making the point of the paper also be the title of the paper. Here are three titles I've written recently:
• Post-fertile survival in comparative perspective: humans are qualitatively different
• Behavioral biologists don't agree on what constitutes behavior
• The grandmother hypothesis is supported, but only in humans
I don't know that these will be the titles these papers actually have when they get published, but they serve to remind me that there is a point I am trying to make, and I'm not just spilling out everything that I've done or found out or thought. In many cases the point changes somewhat once I start writing the paper, and then I change the title. But in those cases where I start writing not really having a point in mind, I end up in a morass, casting about, writing several pages and then deleting them because they don't really say anything, the bits don't go together into a single logical argument.
The null assumption of many paper writers is that one starts writing at the beginning of the paper, writes until one gets to the end, then stops. In some forms of writing, (e.g. writing a short essay for one's blog) this is probably the most reasonable approach. I have heard it suggested that in writing a scientific paper, one should write the sections in revers order. Compile the list of references one needs to mention, write the conclusion, then the discussion, the results, the methods, the intro and only very last the abstract. I am think that what works well for me in creating a first draft is more like this: Reference, title, abstract, decide what journal I hope to submit to, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, add more references and then re-write the abstract and then write the introduction last, putting in only that information necessary for readers to understand the rest of the paper. These are arranged into the document in the order the journal demands, but I write them in the order that I feel leads to an efficient writing process. Of course I then end up going back and reading it in the final order to make sure the document does not read as disjointed.
Now that I've come to this realization, and begun to implement it in my writing, I need to also impress it upon my students. I have more than one very talented student struggling somewhat in writing a paper for publication, and in some cases I think what the papers lack most is a clear and central point. We need to rectify that. New rule for the lab: decide what your point is first, then continue writing after that.