It happens to all of us: absolute zero motivation to write that next research paper. It happens for a variety of reasons, perhaps we’re trying to find the absolute perfect idea (that doesn’t exist), we’re afraid of failing (not getting published), perhaps we’re just too busy and overwhelmed (time for a time management refresh), or we’re just being lazy (because it feels good to sit on the couch). Even if you have zero motivation, there is an easier way to write an amazing research manuscript and get published this year.

Month One

Goal One: Select a Specific and Narrow Topic that Interests You
Select a broad topic of interest and conduct a thorough literature review to identify the gaps in the field. To conduct the best review, head to your library database of peer-reviewed literature and build a solid search term strategy. Select two or three key words or concepts that describe your research. List any related terms or synonyms that are used in the field. Consider how language has changed over time using broader or narrower terms that mean the same thing. Finally, build your search using Boolean terms.

Research Question: Do video games increase violence in teens?
Key Concepts: Do video games increase violence in teens?
Video Games      Violence    Teens
List Related Terms:
violence, aggression, shootings, attacks
video games, gaming, gamers, computer games
teen, teens, teenagers
Build Boolean Search: (“video games”) and (teen*) or (aggression OR violence)

Goal Two: Find Co-Author to Keep You Accountable
Next, identify a co-author to keep you accountable for your timeline, and provide a sounding-board when you get stuck. Identify a colleague in your immediate or neighboring department that might have an interest in your topic, has some research experience, and might have time to take on a new project. Here is an example email template that I send to ask co-authors to join a new project.

Good afternoon Dr. CoAuthor,
Do you have any experience with qualitative/quantitative research in the topic of XXXXXX?
I know this might not be your area of research interest, but I am starting a new qualitative/quantitative study on the research XXXXXX and I am writing to see if you would be willing to be a co-author/mentor on the project. This will be my first professional attempt at qualitative/quantitative research in this area, and I would benefit greatly from your expertise.
Preliminary Project Summary: Over the past decade, …….. This exemplifies a growing international trend in …….. The exact extent of _________ is unknown, as are the drivers of this change. The main questions will be:
1. Research Question One
2. Research Question Two
I hypothesize that the results will show …….. What are your thoughts on this initial study idea?
Would you like to get involved? 

Goal Three: Literature Review to Refine Study Methods and Select Target Journal
Using your search strategy from Goal One, begin reading and finding literature that is relevant to your research topic. As you search, note the “Holy Grail” studies that most closely align with your research topic and methodology. Try to find a paper with valid and reliable study methods that you can copy for your study. If you are planning to do a survey study, it is best to find previously validated survey questions in the literature. Lastly, while you are reading the literature, also note which journals are publishing in this area. Find and select your target journal – where you want to submit the final manuscript.

Month Two

Goal Four: Write IRB Submission and Submit
Ask your co-author for an example IRB submission to help you understand the requirements. The IRB Submission is the first draft of your manuscript! Use this opportunity to outline your background and methods sections. Pull on your co-author’s experience to help you understand what must be included in the IRB Smission to ensure a quick and successful review. Oftentimes, there is a very specific “formula” of details that must be included in your IRB protocol. Make sure you have answered every question and have included all study materials with your submission.

Goal Five: Write Background and Methods
While the IRB is reviewing your protocol, you can begin writing your background and methods sections. Remember that the background is limited to a concise 3-4 paragraph (~400 words or ~10- 15% of manuscript text) narrative that explains the background for the study, validates its importance, and frames the specific issue addressed. The background should be limited to information and literature pertinent to the study. This section is a funnel – start broad by describing the big picture topic and then narrow down to the specific research objectives of this study one paragraph at a time. The Background is the preview of the Discussion section, it frames that previous literature that you will use to support your study and frame your findings in the current field of knowledge.
The methods section should to tell readers in 5-6 paragraphs (~800 words or ~20-30% of manuscript text) what was done to achieve the study objectives. A well-written methods section should improve a readers’ ability to interpret study results and assess the quality of the research study and findings. The methods section should read like a recipe, so that reader could reproduce your study. This section should include the study design, setting, participant selection, variables, procedures, data management, and statistical methods.

Month Three

Goal Six: Conduct Study/Collect Data and Analyze Results
Once you have IRB Approval, you can begin to collect your study data and analyze the results. This should be the easiest step in the whole process. You have already made a detailed plan of action within your IRB Protocol, you just need to follow through with the plan as originally outlined. And yet, this step often takes the longest amount of time. Data collection, regardless of the type of study design, will always take longer than you expect. Technical difficulties, participant issues, or just plain laziness will settle in. Pull on your co-author every week to ensure that you are keeping on-track and on-time. Get that data!

Month Four

Goal Seven: Write Results and Discussion
The results section should present the study’s findings in 6-8 paragraphs (~1,000 words or ~30-40% of manuscript text) for all outcomes outlined in the methods section. The results should be described in a clear, concise format and logical flow using text, tables, and figures. Any data listed in tables should not be repeated in the text, however all major findings should be described for readers. All tables and figures should be directly referenced in the text. State the statistical significance (e.g., P value) of all findings and be sure to provide numerators and denominators for all percentages.
The discussion section should discuss the conclusions and implications of your findings in 5-6 paragraphs (~800 words or ~20-30% of manuscript text). The discussion section is the heart of the manuscript. Be sure to clearly state the main study conclusions, interpret their meaning, and answer all research questions presented in the Introduction.

Goal Eight: Send Co-Author First Draft
Try to make your first draft as complete and comprehensive as possible. Visit your target journal’s website and find the Guidelines for Authors or the Author Instructions for Submission. Each journal has specific guidelines as to what information is presented and in what order. Format your title page, abstract, and manuscript body exactly as the journal requires in your first draft.
Go the extra mile! Select 2-3 recently published articles in your target journal and begin to compare them. Look for patterns in how arguments are constructed within the articles. Oftentimes editors will use a specific formula in order to ensure the overall feel and look of the journal. Do the articles introduce the significance of the problem in a similar way? How much literature review is included in the Introduction? What types of studies are cited? How much detail is given in the Methods? In the Discussion, how are the findings placed within the context of the literature? How are the limitations of the study addressed? Try to match your article to the style of your target journal to increase the likelihood of acceptance.
Once you feel the first draft is ready for your co-author’s eyes, send it their way with a clear turnaround deadline. In your email request, be sure to note any specific findings that you want to highlight or areas in your writing that need extra attention. This will help your co-author to tailor their review and provide targeted feedback.

Month Five

Goal Nine: Paper Revision
Revising a scientific manuscript can feel like a daunting task. However, a revision does not necessarily mean rewriting the entire paper. Sometimes, revision simply requires revising specific sections to match what you have discovered during the writing process. Sometimes, revision requires writing stronger arguments to defend your final position, or providing more vivid examples to illustrate your main point. It is rare that your idea will be expressed perfectly in the first draft. All experienced writers revise their work.
Identify any consistency problems in your manuscript. Consider the order in which you are presenting the information, key terminology or phrases that you use throughout the paper, make sure that your conclusion matches your introduction. Work on each individual section to identify it’s strengths and weaknesses within the larger paper. Do you have a saggy middle methods section, or perhaps your results sections is a little confusing, or the critical and oh-so-important conclusion. Work on continuity and consistency, such as paragraph length and style, how key terms are introduced and referenced, and how literature is cited. Finally, work on those individual corrections and tweaks, from typos to one-off clunky paragraphs, to missing research.

Month Six

Goal Ten: Submit Manuscript to Target Journal
One of the most important pieces in the publishing process is submitting a manuscript in accordance with journal-specific instructions successfully. While peer-review journals may vary in their requirements, manuscripts are typically submitted through a journal’s online submission system, often found by a “Submit Your Manuscript” link on the journal’s website. Within this system, authors can upload, review, and save manuscript documents. It is important to review the journal-specific “Instructions for Authors,” usually found on a journal’s website. Most manuscripts that do not adhere to journal guidelines are returned or rejected.
Most journals will require a cover letter that directly address the editor and journal by name, clearly articulates the importance or novel aspects of your manuscript, and justifies why it the manuscript is a good fit for the journal. Generally, the cover letter should also attest that the manuscript is not under consideration for publication elsewhere and disclose if the information has been previously presented at a professional meeting or conference, among other journal-specific requirements.
Submit your paper and required files! Cross your fingers and go celebrate!