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Journal of Materials Processing Technology 227 (2016) A1–A5

Journal of Materials Processing Technology 227 (2016) A1–A5 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Journal of

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Journal of Materials Processing Technology

journal homepage:

journal homepage: Editorial Writing for the benefit of the reader Great


Writing for the benefit of the reader

Editorial Writing for the benefit of the reader Great research in materials processing technology takes

Great research in materials processing technology takes time:

we explore the literature and the industrial context to identify some problem in today’s solutions; we explore and imagine alternative new solutions; we develop analysis and set up new equipment; we conduct trials and compare them with our numerical predictions; we reflect on what we’ve learnt. At last, we can identify a distinct new contribution to knowledge and we want to communicate it. We want present and future colleagues to understand our contribu- tion so they can take most benefit from our efforts. It’s time to write the paper and some of our star authors have a wonderful ability to do this in a way that compels our reading. But in our experience as editors of JMPT, others find the art and craft of writing harder. The result for us, and for future readers, is that it’s harder for us to appreciate the value of the new work – and potentially this will reduce its future impact. In this year’s editorial, we therefore want to share some ideas about writing – engineering the written paper itself. This isn’t about the research, although of course it’s easier to communicate about a well planned research project. Neither is it about the use of the English Language: we are only able to consider papers that have a sufficient quality of English that we can understand them clearly. When papers arrive with problems in their use of English language, we always send them back and recommend use of one of Elsevier’s recommended language editing services – which can be found at Instead of discussing research or lan- guage, in this article, we want to share ideas about the way in which the paper is written; ideas that we think are as important for native English speakers as anyone else. Writing a research article is an art not a science. It isn’t pos- sible for us or anyone else to give a prescription that leads to a perfectly written paper. Of course not – writing is an art, and each author will find different ways to communicate their ideas in a way that best suits their way of thinking. But, as with all art, along with the 5% of creative inspiration required to find the best way to illu- minating this particular piece of research, there’s the 95% of hard work, or craft, in bringing the inspiration to reality. So, having con- sidered that craft over all the thousands of papers that have been submitted to JMPT in the past eight years, we want to share our ideas on three key features of the process: the narrative story that runs through the paper and makes it a whole; the structure of the writing in sections and paragraphs; the efficient design of individ- ual sentences. Those are the topics of the next three sections, and we’ll follow them with some ideas on the process of creating the paper.

0924-0136/© 2015 Published by Elsevier B.V.

1. Narrative: the single integrating thread that runs

through the paper

Surely we shouldn’t be using the language of ‘stories’ to dis- cuss the communication of scientific or technological advances?

The whole point of research is that it’s based on carefully gathered evidence, the very opposite of imaginative fiction, isn’t it? How- ever, the people reading the article are humans and not robots, and

if you’ve done great work, you want the readers to follow through

your careful logic without missing anything. They’ll do that most easily if you can keep them on track with your evolving story, or narrative. You yourself may be aware that your new experiment has five crucial limitations, and know that the reader must understand that. But if you carefully describe the limitations in turn without telling the readers why they should be interested, they’ll rapidly become bored. By the time you bring together all your building blocks to reveal your new approach, they may have lost all interest. Here then are three suggestions about creating a clear narrative for

a paper, followed by a common ‘template’. Firstly, clear your head of the sequence and duration of how you spent your time during the research project. The sequence of the narrative in your paper should be designed for the sake of the reader’s understanding, and not to justify to your boss why it took so long. It may have taken you six months to find out why the pressure gauge didn’t work and how to over-ride it, but this is of no inter- est to the reader. What happened next, in the two days that the experiment operated, is likely to be much more interesting. How- ever, let’s imagine that on the third day of trials, something unusual occurred and as you investigated the unexpected spike in pres- sure, you realised that the original intention of the experiment was uninteresting. Instead, by exploring the spike you actually found out about a new non-linear change in the properties of the mate- rial, and could give a credible explanation of why it occurred. Now, when you set about writing, the original intention of the experi- ment, the problems with the equipment, and the initial trials are of very little interest to the reader and should probably be dis- carded. Starting from the really valuable new nugget of knowledge about the material properties, what’s the best narrative that will lead the reader to recognise the new phenomenon you’ve charac- terised? Good research work is non-linear and iterative: it makes jumps, pauses, and then re-examines the starting point. But good writing appears to have a simple linear thread. So, for the sake of the reader, having worked out what really was the important step forwards in your work, you then have to design a narrative that


Editorial / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 227 (2016) A1–A5

leads them up to an appreciation of the new idea, even if this nar- rative is quite different from what you actually experienced while working. Secondly, unlike narratives in fiction, stick to a single theme. Good research papers do not have sub-plots, or allow unexpected arrivals of new materials, methods or equipment in the closing sec-

tion. Knowledge in our subject is built up by placing bricks on a wall, one at a time. Having done the research, you should be aware of how your one new brick fits in with its surroundings and predecessors. A good research paper presents a single brick, with one clear theme so that by the time they have read the title, the readers know exactly what to expect. We sometimes receive submissions to the journal

”, “Some

and so on, and these are generally not useful

contributions to knowledge: the authors have not put in sufficient thought to identify one clear new piece of knowledge. Describing

a lot of different activity in an area, but without a focus, is rarely

enough to convince our reviewers that a paper has contributed new knowledge. The narrative thread should show that the whole paper

addresses a single subject. Thirdly, as well as having a clear storyline and a single theme, the narrative of the paper should maintain a simple drama that moti- vates the reader to continue: “what an interesting problem they’re working on, I wonder if there’s any space for new thinking here?”, “Aha, they’re right – previous work hasn’t covered the whole area

– so what are they going to do?”, “Wow, that’s an interesting

will it work?” As an example,

the introductory section of the paper should convince the reader that they’re going to discover something they are about. Compare these two imaginary openings to a research paper: (1) “In order to increase metal’s ductility, heat treatment can be used. Compo- sition can also be varied, and new processes developed. Predicting

likely ductility requires use of material testing in laboratory.” (2) “A hundred years after mass production began with the model-T Ford, car makers are still troubled by splits when pressing body panels. These splits are caused by differences between predicted and achieved forming results: could new material property tests reduce the failure rate?” Both statements are true, but the second

is more compelling, and in the subsequent paper on methods for

material property characterisation, occasional references back to the motivating application will help the reader to maintain their interest. The drama must of course be subtle and appropriate to the audience, so should exclude trivial knowledge. In principle, you can assume that the reader has knowledge of at least undergradu- ate level, so the narrative need not cover everything going back to

early school years. Good papers have a well-chosen sequence of information. They focus on a single theme, but maintain sufficient internal drama to compel the reader to keep concentrating. In our advice on the JMPT website on “Writing a good paper for JMPT” we propose an outline structure for good papers. This creates a form of template for a convincing narrative, which is numbered here to relate to typical sections of the paper:

idea they’re putting forwards

experiments on

with titles starting with phrases such as “Research into ”


(1) We’d like to be able to achieve something, but at the moment we can’t; (2) In previous work, various attempts have been made to move forwards, but not all avenues have been explored – there’s still a gap in our understanding;


Here is a new idea, explained in sufficient detail, that might help to fill this gap.

(4) If someone completely neutral was to evaluate our new idea against what’s happened before, these are the trials they would do, and here’s what the results show; (5) We wanted to achieve one thing, and our new idea was partially successful, but also we’ve gained a few other insights.

Obviously this isn’t the only template structure for research papers, and of course we’ve paraphrased the narrative. However, having in mind some such ‘drama’ greatly increases the chance that the reader will be able to follow your thinking. This sequence also helps in writing the abstract of the paper. In the programme given to the audience in a theatre, a synopsis summarises the whole plot. Similarly, in a journal paper, the abstract should have one or two sentences summarising the key messages of each section. Having read the abstract, the reader knows exactly what new knowledge is being offered, so can decide whether to read the whole paper. And if they choose to do so, they’ll be grateful to you for maintaining their interest as they learn about all your detailed work. The narrative thread that runs through a good research paper should have a sequence designed for the benefit of the reader, should stick to a single theme and should maintain a simple drama tomaintain the reader’s interest. Indeed the title of the paper should make absolutely clear to the reader what the narrative thread is going to be. Which, of course, reveals that the key narrative theme of this editorial is that the art of writing a great research paper is to think about it from the reader’s point of view, not your own.

2. Structure: a clear architecture to reassure the reader of

their progress.

A good analogy about writing research papers is to imagine that two friends are standing back to back on a narrow moun- tain ridge separating two flat grassy plains. A full legion of the Roman army – 5,400 men – is arrayed on one of the plains, and must pass through a narrow gap in the mountains, one at a time. One of the friends can see the army’s present configuration, while the one who is looking the other way, has no idea about their cur- rent form. However, the second friend must reassemble the army in the identical configuration after they have walked through the narrow gap, based solely on what her friend tells her as each sol- dier passes. If the soldiers in the army are words, their centuries are paragraphs, their cohorts are sections, and the whole legion is the paper, then this is what we’re aiming at when designing the structure of our writing: we have to give our readers enough information that they can anticipate and assemble the structure of the army (the new knowledge) as each word passes by. Just imag- ine how difficult it would be for to reassemble the army if, as the soldiers started to pass by, you knew nothing about their arrange- ment. You would have to guess some configuration to get started and then re-evaluate your idea and rearrange the pattern as each new soldier passed. It would be both difficult and frustrating, and by the end of the experience you would be focused more on the incompetence of your friend, than on the army. The key to good writing is thus to tell the reader in advance what they should antic- ipate. We do not want to cause readers any surprise so structure the paper into sections, paragraphs and sentences, always using the first element of each type to anticipate what will follow. We also want to reassure the readers that they’re continuing to fol- low our planned journey through the paper. Careful choice of the titles of sections and sub-sections allows us to provide some helpful signposts. The first section, the introduction to the paper, should motivate the reader to continue, and demonstrate a clear objective. With- out giving away the whole internal drama, (we want the reader to retain their excitement) we want them to know the shape of what’s coming. A common, but rather boring way of doing this, is to end the first section with a list of the sections that follow. That works well, but perhaps with experience, you can find ways to give away the same information without having to use a numbered list. Within each section, the first paragraph should remind the reader where we are in the drama, motivate them to read the

Editorial / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 227 (2016) A1–A5


section, and set out the structure of the argument that will be presented in the remaining paragraphs. The statement ‘alterna- tive methodologies are presented in this section’ might be true, but gives us very little idea of what’s really coming. In contrast, the statement ‘three alternative methodologies are presented in this section, and then evaluated to determine the appropriate approach for this work’ anticipates precisely the structure of what will follow. Having read this, we are almost certain that the remainder of the section will have four paragraphs: one on each of the methodolo- gies, followed by one for evaluation and selection. A consequence of this form of structuring is that it should be impossible to begin any subsequent paragraph with the word “another”. Inexperienced authors often begin paragraphs in this way and it always suggests that the author hasn’t properly organised their own argument. In turn this raises doubts for the reader about the rigour of the research work. In a well written paper, after the first paragraph of any section, we should know exactly what will follow. By similar logic, within each paragraph, the first sentence should motivate us to read the rest of the paragraph. A paragraph should have one theme only, so the first sentence need not tell us about the structure of what’s coming, but it should make absolutely clear what this paragraph is about. It’s also very helpful if the first sen- tence can include a reminder of where we are in the narrative of the section. However good the research, your readers may occa- sionally lose the thread of your argument: they may be interrupted by a visitor, a phone call, an email, or maybe your previous para- graph raised an unexpected idea for them. The more help you can give them to remember where they are in the story, the easier it is for them to assemble the army of your argument. The logic we have presented here is that:

the first section anticipates the remaining sections;

the first paragraph sets the scene for the remaining paragraphs in the section;

the first sentence sets a single agenda for the rest of the sentences in the paragraph and reminds the reader of where they are in the story of the section.

We are convinced that this is the best way to organise the material in the paper. However, you may notice that based on this description, the arrangement of our writing keeps breaking down into smaller sub-elements: sections – paragraphs – sentences. This is inevitable, as we read the words on the page in a linear way, but it leaves one problem. Each section or paragraph ends at the lowest level of the hierarchy, and this can cause the reader a sense of anti-climax. It’s therefore worth trying to reassure them that the hierarchy is working properly, and that they can see the overall argument being assembled. This is the opportunity given by the last section, paragraph and sentence. For our two friends organising the Roman Army, the statement “the man with the red hair that you’ve just moved completes the sixth cohort, so we just have the last two to arrange” is not really necessary; the truth of this statement should already be visible in the arrangement of men on the plain. However it’s very reassuring that the organisation is proceeding as planned. So, for our readers, adding ‘wrap-up’ statements to end the sections and paragraphs can help greatly to provide reassurance of the progress in their understanding. One very effective way of providing this sort of reassurance to the readers is by careful use of titles for each section and sub- section. The titles act as signposts of the narrative, and the wrap-up statements confirm that we’ve completed the next step through the paper’s argument. In fact, well chosen titles can work so effec- tively, that if the reader skims the paper reading only the section and sub-section titles, they should have a clear view of the overall narrative. In some disciplines, particularly in traditional materials science, the section titles are often by convention “Introduction,

Methods, Results, Discussion.” However, the topics of most inter- est in JMPT are those which present real novelty – new processes, new material characterisation, new forms of validated analysis. The standard titles from materials science papers present a familiar log- ical structure but they miss the opportunity to help the readers with their navigation. For example, in the imagined paper we discussed earlier, the titles might be “(1) The industrial cost of splits in body panels. (2) Limits to existing test methods. (3) A proposal for a new test. (4) Numerical and experimental evaluation of the new test. (5) Benefits and outlook.” These slightly longer titles now help the reader to remember where they are in the argument, to anticipate what’s coming up next, and to see the overall narrative. They also clearly show what must be achieved in the “wrap-up” of each sec- tion. To reassure the reader of the logic of the paper, section 2, for example, must end with a succinct summary of the limits of exist- ing test methods, to define precisely the knowledge gap that the new proposal in section 3 will attempt to fill. We’ve discussed narratives and structure, so now we need to look at the building blocks out of which all writing is created: sen- tences.

3. Sentences: engineering the words for maximum


Effective sentences are short. You can only write short sentences when you know exactly what they must say. It is easier to create good short sentences while editing your paper than while writing the first draft. It took us three attempts to write that first paragraph! We’re not experts on the structure of the English Language; in fact there are very few such experts: English is a language with many ‘parents’, and as a result the formal rules of our grammar are complex and largely unknown to native speakers. However, our concern here is not the details of verb tenses and the endings of adjectives. Instead, this article is about making life easy for our readers, and we want to make four suggestions about writing sentences in the most helpful manner for them:

Check that the subject of the verb can actually achieve the action. Although we are writing this editorial in the first person, to indicate that we are sharing ideas informally among colleagues, all JMPT papers must be written in the third person. However this requires care, particularly with sentences that are more fre- quently used in the first person. For example, in conversation we might say “Our friends in industry consistently tell us that they would like a better material test.” Without care, it is tempting to write the third person version of this sentence as “It would be desirable to have better material tests” or “Industry desires better tests.” But in the first case, to whom would “it” be desirable? In the second one, “Industry” is an abstraction, which cannot there- fore experience the human emotion of “desire.” A better third person statement is “Better material tests would be valuable in the automotive industry.” Now it is quite clear to whom the tests would be of value, but the automotive industry has not taken on the character of a person. Write formally and avoid conversational phrases. We often receive papers in which the author gives impressions rather than evidence – “the metal seemed warm” or “the model results were good enough.” Both of these statements would be fine in conversation among colleagues – because the listener would immediately challenge them and ask for more detail. But in written academic papers, the reader can’t ask questions of the author. Therefore the author must write formally. Each sentence should have only one precise meaning, to prevent misunderstanding.


Editorial / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 227 (2016) A1–A5

Try to avoid using too many caveats. Any research project makes assumptions, and it is vital that these are clearly understood and their consequences explained. However, if a paper reports on some new piece of knowledge that has value, then at some point the authors should be able to say precisely what it is. The state- ment “the new test provided more accurate predictions than the others in this study, for three of the four materials tested” is a clear new contribution to knowledge. In contrast, the statement “the new test, generally showed excellent predictive capabilities, although in some cases the results were not so good, and not all of the tests were operated precisely according to the intended methodology” is unhelpful. It leaves us knowing nothing about whether the new test has any value. It should be possible to write the paper with clarity about assumptions, but without raising further doubts in the reader’s mind.

For long or complex sentences in particular, see if they would be simpler if written in a different order. As a simple example “On the mat was sitting the cat which was blue” is complex, while “the blue cat sat on the mat” has the same meaning and is sim- pler. Quite frequently when writing the first draft of a paper, the author will start a sentence thinking about one feature of what they are explaining, only to realise that they should have started with something else. This problem is shown in the fol- lowing example: “The experiment was stopped if the pressure dial showed pressures above the threshold which was set at two times the expected mean value”. Changing the order of the sen- tence makes it much simpler, and thus easier for the reader: “A safety threshold was set at double the expected mean pressure. The experiment was stopped if the pressure exceeded this limit.” See if it’s possible to split long sentences into two shorter ones and avoid having a long sub-clause that separates the verb from its subject or object in the main clause.

Remember: effective sentences are short. For us, good sen- tences are refined when editing a first draft. Check that the subject can accomplish the verb. Look out for informal language. Min- imise the use of caveats. Check whether the sentence would be simpler if written in a different order. But remember too that writing is a creative art. There isn’t a template to tell you how best to communicate the key insight that you, for the first time, have gained. See if you can create variety – in this article we’ve used the first paragraph of each section to tell you what’s com- ing up, but we’ve then followed it in a different way each time. Take note to see if you’re falling into patterns such as using the same word too frequently, or having the same structure for each opening paragraph. See if you can bring variety without losing clarity. The more the readers enjoy your writing, the more likely it is that they will remember your research. If they understand and remember it, they’re more likely to recommend your work to others. Writing is itself an engineering skill. We all start out on our papers with an inspiration, and then we should aim to use the same care and attention to construct the article that we would in design- ing a machine. At least, that seems like a great ambition. It can also be difficult and can be testing with our co-authors if we go through too many iterations. So the next section aims to make a few sug- gestions about how to manage the process of creating a great and readable paper.

4. Enjoying the process of writing the paper without


The greatest privilege of working in a university is to col- laborate with bright and motivated students. But we’ve noticed with most of our research students, that writing their first serious

journal paper proves to be a trial: they set out with great intentions, but by the end of the first day, having completed the first para- graph, they don’t like it, so they start again, and again, and again. Getting to the first full draft of the paper takes many weeks. By the time they’ve completed the first draft, they’ve invested so much time in it that they’re reluctant to make changes, even if we’re sure that change is required. As with the discussion on structuring and sentences, there’s no perfect process for paper writing that works for everyone. However, here’s a suggestion for a four-step process which seems to be working in our own groups. Once the research work ismainly finished, start to plan the paper by thinking about the narrative: how exactly are you going to tell the story of this project; how will the reader really understand the value of the new knowledge? What will be the main section head- ings, the sub-section headings, and what’s the title? Write these down – and nothing else – until all the co-authors agree on the strategy. Then, plan the paragraphs: using bullet points, write one short bullet-point statement about what will be in each paragraph. Check that the planned paragraphs fit together and that they flow with the narrative. At this stage, you haven’t actually started writ- ing the paper, but have a two to three page plan, and this is the best stage to talk it through with all other authors. It’s much easier to adjust, or even completely rethink, the narrative before you’ve actually written any of the text. Once the structure’s agreed, the lead author needs to write the first draft of the paper. The best way to do this is to find two clear days with no interruptions and then write the whole draft. Don’t draw any figures, don’t worry about details or checking the equa- tions, or creating the tables of key results. Your only focus at this point should be on the narrative. In our experience, it’s extremely difficult to edit the narrative, but very easy to edit the details and

the sentences. So at this stage, don’t worry about details. If you can’t remember something, just make a note to yourself in the text, but keep writing. Working quickly is the only way that you can retain in your mind the clear narrative thread you planned. Once you have the first draft, you can relax. There’s nothingmore frightening than a blank piece of paper, and now you won’t need to look at one! You know that the paper is going to work out – so after

a rest, you can work on the details. This is the moment to confirm

that every detail of the research work is described correctly, pre- sented logically and that the results are all described with complete precision.

Having planned and agreed the structure, drafted the narrative at high speed, and then edited in the details you now have a good second draft of the whole paper. The best thing to do at this stage is to put it away for two or three weeks and think about some-

thing else. At the moment that you finish a piece of writing, you can remember most clearly the effort you put into particular phrases or paragraphs. As a result, you can become defensive about them. But leave it for two weeks, and as you come back to your own writing, you’ll be amazed: how can I have thought that part was clear? This

is the moment to pick apart the sentences. Are they too complex or

too long? Is the use of the third person comfortable? Are there too many caveats? Is it possible to say the same thing in fewer words with more clarity? A really good way to edit the paper at this stage is to work from back to front – so that you focus on the detailed

clarity and not on the overall narrative. For research students, this stage will often be done in close collaboration with your supervi- sor. Regardless, having completed this third draft, you should now ask all your co-authors for a detailed review of the whole paper.

If you’ve done your job well, they should write back with great

appreciation of its clarity. And if they’re doing their job well, they should always be able to find some areas of the writing that could be further simplified or clarified. And then it’s time to submit the paper to JMPT. One of us will read the paper and celebrate your excellent writing before passing

Editorial / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 227 (2016) A1–A5


it onto appropriate expert reviewers for feedback. To recap our sug- gestion: create a planning document, using the titles to define the narrative and with one bullet point per paragraph; write the whole narrative in two days, skipping over details as required, to make sure that you don’t lose the thread; edit the paper to incorporate all the details, and to validate every step of the research; put the paper away, and come back to it to edit it for clarity.

some imaginative and thorough research work, they capture our interest and present their new understanding in a way that’s so compelling that we fully agree and appreciate the value of their ideas. In a future editorial, we’d like to share ideas in parallel on the design of good graphic figures within the paper. But for this year, our focus has been on the writing itself. Our writing is for the benefit of our readers.

5. Discussion

The key to good writing is to think about what the reader will experience, just as the key to great teaching is to think about how the student will learn. Writing is an art. We’re all on a never-ending journey of self-improvement, trying to find the best possible way to communicate our ideas to the widest possible audience. There is no unique solution to good writing, and each author would write about the same piece of research in a different manner. But the common features of great papers is that, apart from starting from

Joint Editor-in-Chief Julian M. Allwood Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Joint Editor-in-Chief A. Erman Tekkaya Institute of Forming Technology and Lightweight Construction, Technische Universität Dortmund, Germany