An Editor’s Perspective on how to Write a Primer

Kristina Maria Kareh, a senior editor at the newly launched Nature Reviews Methods Primers, shares her thoughts on writing a Primer.

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In today’s crowded publishing landscape, launching a new journal can be a daunting prospect. Launching a new journal with an entirely new format is even more of a challenge. Luckily for Nature Reviews Methods Primers, its sister journal Nature Reviews Disease Primers forged the trail with a specific sets of criteria for Primer articles: a rigid article structure with section headings set by the journal, a global panel of authors capable of discussing all of the different aspects of the topic, and the aim of being an introductory but authoritative read (to give each reader a current understanding of the subject at hand together with references directing them elsewhere for specific information). Our aim is to carry over these features at Nature Reviews Methods Primers, which makes the essence of writing a Primer rather different from writing a more conventional Review-type article.

While writing a Primer may initially sound like more work, having set section headers as well as knowing what each section aims to cover greatly simplifies the writing task. This is where editors come in. After refining the scope of the Primer with our lead author, our next task is to develop a detailed outline together. This helps both the lead author and the editor get a grasp of what a specific Primer will include, the order in which it will be discussed, and what sort of finished manuscript we can all expect. We then work with the lead author to determine who to include in the author panel and tentatively allocate their sections — fleshing out and inviting an author panel with the relevant expertise. This process can be quite smooth (some lead authors have a very good idea of what they want to cover, how to make it fit within the Primer mould, and who they want to write with) or slower and more exploratory (other lead authors have never really considered a review of this type or think of Primer articles in a creative and abstract way, leading to multiple discussions with us about what could and should be covered).

The detailed outline should make it straightforward to assign writing tasks and to spot and tackle author issues (for example, authors who commit to writing a section but find themselves unable to contribute). When writing, all authors should primarily keep in mind the intended readership: if you had to explain this part of the method to a PhD or postdoctoral student who has recently joined your laboratory with no expertise in this method, or to a collaborator with only adjacent expertise, how would you do it? For example, are there pre-requisites that they need (and that you should mention in the Primer)? Are there key figures that illustrate the method that should be included? Once all the sections have been written, it is the responsibility of the lead author to put the Primer together. One thing I will say is: don’t be too much of a perfectionist. As long as the written Primer matches the detailed outline, the Primer is ready to be submitted to the editorial team.

As an editor, I personally tend to think of Primers as Legos®: even when the topic is not in my field, I know what basic building blocks are needed where, and I can spot a hole if there is one. My main goal when receiving and editing a Primer is to make sure the written Primer covers what it is supposed to, that the content of each section corresponds to the section header, and that it is aimed at the right readership. It can seem like editors are taking the manuscript apart, but truly our only goal is to get the manuscript as close to complete as possible. This will guarantee the review process goes smoothly, and that the article meets its intended goal.    

While the act of writing the Primer ultimately lies with authors, prep work in the form of a detailed outline, a solid author panel, and clear task assignments should make any Primer a series of small hills as opposed to a huge mountain.  As a lead author, please take as much time as you need with the prep work, and use your editor!

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay.

Kristina Maria Kareh

Senior Editor, Springer Nature

Kristina joined Nature Reviews Methods Primers in August 2020. Prior to that, she was an editor at Nature Communications from March 2017, where she handled manuscripts spanning all areas of metallurgy and structural material science. She completed her MEng and PhD at Imperial College London, where she investigated real-time deformation of semi-solid aluminium-copper alloys using synchrotron X-ray tomography. She continued on at Imperial College as a postdoctoral scientist imaging semi-solid steels and solid oxide fuel cells. At Nature Reviews Methods Primers, Kristina handles primers covering methods across the physical and the social sciences. Kristina is based in the London office.
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