Writing a Primer: an interview with one of our launch author teams

To give readers a behind-the-scenes look at writing a Primer, we interviewed the authors who wrote about solid-state NMR spectroscopy on their experiences with Nature Reviews Methods Primers.

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The first batch of Nature Reviews Methods Primers articles featured a Primer covering solid-state NMR spectroscopy, which is a valuable technique that is being used to answer important questions in biology, chemistry and materials science. As a part of the journal’s launch articles, this was one of the first Primers we handled, which was a new experience for the authors as well as for us, so we wanted to get a better sense of the author team’s experience!

Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. You will see that they enjoyed writing this Primer despite some of the challenges it presented and all gained valuable lessons from working with their colleagues from different specialty areas. In general, the authors hope this Primer will spark interest among readers to consider the use of solid-state NMR for their own research.

Sharon Ashbrook, University of St Andrews, UK

Lyndon Emsley, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), CH

Mei Hong (lead author), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US

Bernd Reif, Technical University of Munich, DE

How did the process of writing a Primer differ from writing a Review? What were your favourite aspects and what did you find most challenging?

Sharon Ashbrook: As I usually write papers with students and postdocs or with senior colleagues in other fields, it was certainly interesting working with three senior authors in my own field. I think the length of the review posed a challenge given the broad research content we were asked to cover; it was challenging to decide what to include while retaining a good balance between different areas.

Lyndon Emsley: The most interesting thing was working with three senior colleagues as the sole authors, so the dynamics of the discussions were quite different from working on a more conventional manuscript. The most challenging aspect from my point of view was the figures, especially since we were trying to capture the use of NMR across an extremely broad range of applications.

Mei Hong: The Primer is broader in scope and is more basic than the biological solid-state NMR-based reviews that I normally write. I like reviewing the basic principles of solid-state NMR and summarizing its applications to biological systems. The hardest part is to synthesize and standardize the very different topics contributed by 4 co-authors into one coherent voice.

Bernd Reif: We had a lot of support in writing our Primer. This was a different experience in comparison to any other review-type article that I have written so far. The major challenge for me was to discuss and focus on research that happened in the past five years. Many developments in NMR have their roots decades ago, and I found it difficult to discuss new developments while omitting these old seminal papers. Another issue was the character count. There is never enough space to cover all aspects of solid-state NMR. I guess, this applies to most methods in a similar way. 

How did you find collaborating with such a global team?

Sharon Ashbrook: I enjoyed working with the team and I think this worked well given the different continents and time zones. When we were closer to deadlines this was even a benefit as we could work on drafts sequentially rather than simultaneously as our working hours varied. We all had quite different views on what was important and this led to robust, but constructive, discussions!

Lyndon Emsley: We know each other well, so it was nice to be able to work together on a manuscript. The most fun thing was finding a path through four quite different takes on what was most important to convey to non-specialists, and how to convey it.

Mei Hong: I enjoyed writing with my co-authors, who work on different aspects of solid-state NMR. Their writing broadened my own perspective of what other solid-state NMR research is taking place, particularly in materials chemistry applications.

Bernd Reif: Mei (the lead author for our Primer) did a great job in coordinating all authors. The difficulty was in keeping all the deadlines. Strict deadlines were never an issue in the past (you just ignore the deadline). But this worked out here rather well. 

What was it like working with the editor?

Sharon Ashbrook: I was impressed by the huge amount of work the editor does and they were always extremely helpful with very rapid responses to the many queries we had. It was also interesting to see their suggestions for making the text more accessible to the general audience, and I learned quite a lot from this.

Lyndon Emsley: The editor was obviously great! Seriously, very helpful, with many highly pertinent comments on the science in the manuscript that in particular helped me to put myself in the shoes of the target audience.

Mei Hong: Stacey kept us organized and on time, which is great. She is always upbeat and professional. It’s a pleasure to work with the editor.

Bernd Reif: This collaboration was perfect. I never had that much support from an editor in writing a paper in the past.

Is there a section that you think was particularly valuable to the Primer? If so, what was it and why do you think it is important for readers?

Sharon Ashbrook: I am not sure I would pick out any one section, although I hope the results section demonstrates the quality and quantity of atomic-scale information that solid-state NMR can provide on a range of very different materials.

Lyndon Emsley: I’m really not sure. I hope we managed to give a global overview that will help and inspire beginners tempted to use solid-state NMR, and to show them that the method is much more accessible than they might have previously thought.

Mei Hong: Most sections within the Primer are valuable for readers who are interested in learning more about solid-state NMR and/or those looking to use it in their own research.

Bernd Reif: Our primer covers all areas of magic-angle spinning solid-state NMR. I could not say that one part is more valuable than the other. I guess, it is just the overview for (potential) students who are interested in NMR that makes this review particularly valuable.

Is there anything that you gained in the process that you think you’ll take forward?

Sharon Ashbrook: I am more likely to consider writing reviews with other senior colleagues in my field – it was good to have contributions from more specific expertise on different aspects of the work.

Lyndon Emsley: I learnt that it is, in fact, possible to complete a review article on time. Thanks to Stacey.

Mei Hong: I learned a great deal about how to write a broadly accessible review-based article, without heavy jargons, even though the subject matter is an advanced spectroscopy. Writing with other PIs also makes me see how they think about solid-state NMR. So the skill I gained is to converse with a broad audience, which is very valuable going forward.

Bernd Reif: I will consolidate my co-author management skills and introduce deadlines to streamline the paper writing process in the future.

Stacey-Lynn Paiva

Associate Editor, Nature Reviews Methods Primers

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