It matters how you write

Last Updated on March 11th, 2019 by Sharon Johnatty

Writing a scientific paper or thesis for most of us can be a daunting task. It reminds me of a classic poem I learnt as a child “Maria intended a letter to write, but could not begin, as she thought to indite…”. The rest of the poem was advice from her mother to think of it as though speaking to the person, but with her pen.

Oh that it could be so simple getting your manuscripts written and published! In this article I will outline some general principles that I’ve gleaned over the course of 30 years in academic research and publishing in a range of scientific journals, editing student theses and research grants, and as a peer reviewer for various biomedical journals.

In the simplest of terms, the entire paper should consist of the context set out in the Introduction, the content presented in the Results, and the conclusion brought together in the Discussion.

An important over-riding principle of scientific writing is clarity. Keep the message clear and accessible. Think about your driving hypothesis, and phrase it in the simplest of terms without compromise to accuracy.

“If you write in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, you are not only opening yourself up to citations by experts in other fields, but you are also making your writing available to laypeople, which is especially important in the biomedical fields.” (Stacy Konkiel in ‘The write stuff’ Nature 2018)

Some journals require a brief statement of the main findings written in language that is accessible to all readers. This is an opportunity to encourage the reader to want to know more about your work. This also applies to the Abstract, which should focus on the study question, why it is important, how you have addressed the question, and the broader implications of your work.

Keep in mind that PubMed searchers and e-alerts will bring up only the Title and the Abstract, which is all that most people will ever read. The Abstract should be written so that those outside your field will get the big picture and entice them to access the full paper.

The Introduction should not be a comprehensive long-winded overview of the topic, but should be concise, sufficiently capturing the relevant aspects of the topic that help to clarify why you undertook your research. It should give the reader enough of the broad scope of the topic and possible deficiencies in the current knowledge.

Choose references that are fairly recent, scientifically sound, and published in reputable journals. Finish the Introduction with a brief paragraph on your hypothesis and what you are about to present, which should logically flow from the information outlined in the preceding paragraphs.

The Methods section should be quite straightforward. For some it is the easiest section to write, and can be written up prior to obtaining results. Experiments can take months to complete, and analysing data and writing up your results require good record keeping. For this reason, lab books are not only critical to your manuscript, they are also legal documents in both academic and industry research.

The same applies to large-scale data analysis; you may spend weeks or months cleaning and organizing large datasets and performing quality checks before beginning the analysis. Keeping a log of what you did will pay dividends when you begin to write up your methods.

It is often a good exercise to review how methods are written for other publications in the target journal, and the level of detail that is acceptable. This is often where acronyms abound and can lead to statements that are incomprehensible. I recently read a thesis where a simple two-word expression used only three times in the entire document was turned into an acronym. It reminded me of the scene in the movie Good Morning Vietnam where Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) said “Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn’t we keep the PC on the QT? ‘Cause if it leaks to the VC he could end up MIA, and then we’d all be put on KP” (I just about fell out of my seat laughing!). 

Acronyms have their place, but use them sparingly and only where it helps to avoid verbosity. It’s a good idea to stick with acronyms already in use in the published literature, and avoid confusion by developing new ones, particularly for terms that are commonly used as keywords in PubMed.

The Results section should describe the results as factually and as clearly as possible. Avoid the temptation to insert justification or interpretation in the Results section. Some journals allow a combined Results and Discussion section. This helps to avoid repeating the main findings at the start of the Discussion. However the same principle applies, i.e. Results should describe the main findings based on stated aims that are detailed in the Methods, while the Discussion allows interpretation of the results in the broader context of the topic, and how it fits with the existing literature.

Avoid introducing results that are not specifically outlined as part of your Methods, or making claims that are not consistent with the evidence obtained, especially if so-called ‘exploratory analyses’ were undertaken. Likewise, any analysis outlined in the Methods should be reported in the Results. Supplementary Material is usually a good place to provide additional data or analyses, as long as it is part of the research undertaken. Large-scale genome-wide association studies often utilise Supplementary Information to provide effect estimates that reach a certain significance threshold, even if they are not all discussed in the main paper.

The Discussion can be the most challenging section to write, and requires considerable knowledge of the existing literature. Good reviewers will be well informed on the topic, and will highlight deficiencies in the Discussion or aspects of the topic that should be considered. Conclusions should be confidently stated and evidence-based. In general, a good Discussion leaves no loose ends; it shows that you have considered alternative explanations for your findings, and addresses strengths and weaknesses of the research and the reasons for them. As your research is unlikely to be the final chapter on the topic, include a statement about unanswered questions that may form the basis of ongoing work.

Finally, give serious consideration to crafting a Title that stands out. ‘Punchy’ titles have their place in scientific writing, but for manuscripts published in scientific journals, aim for one that provides a clear informative statement highlighting the most important finding of the study, and that sets it apart from others in the field. Avoid boring titles that begin with “Studies of XYZ in ABC…” or “Characterization of crumple-horned snorkaks in…”. A recent published study assessing title characteristics of health care articles concluded that easy-to-understand, declarative titles were more likely to be picked up by the popular press compared to those with more uncommon words.

The cover letter is the final document you will draft before submitting. When you consider the months or years it took to produce your paper―an important stepping stone in your scientific career―then what level of importance should you place on the cover letter? I would say very high importance! The cover letter is the most important part of your written submission. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of a well-crafted cover-letter. Regardless of how amazing your work is, it could determine whether your paper will be considered for review or rejected outright. Your cover letter should be formally written by the corresponding author, and addressed directly to the editor in chief; so take the time to look up his/her name. It should be no more than a single page briefly summing up in a few sentences the main highlight of the study, how it fills an existing gap, and why it warrants publication in your target journal. Most journals will provide guidelines for what to include in a cover letter, such as suggestions for reviewers and their contact information, or those to exclude. Careful thought should be given to this.

As a final pre-submission step, check the literature one last time for relevant papers that have come online while preparing the final draft. As the lead author, you are responsible for EVERYTHING in this paper. Read your paper again (and again!) for grammar and spelling errors, formatting, references, line spacing, and the multitude of non-scientific content like acknowledgements, affiliations, and referencing style. Check that tables and figures are correct and correctly formatted. Scan references for any glitches that occur with your referencing software—they sometimes have a mind of their own! A major annoyance to reviewers is careless mistakes, suggesting that the paper was rushed out and sloppily done. Your aim should be to make life easier for a potential reviewer and your paper a pleasure to read.

There is a lot to be said about avoiding dry and boring traditional writing styles that are accessible only to a select few. Scientific writing should be factual and evidence-based, while at the same time creative enough to draw the reader in. It is important to strike a balance between emotive language that sensationalizes the science and engaging the reader with uncomplicated accessible language.

It’s great to be able to say my grandmother who is not a scientist can tell her friends about my work. Scientific writing is not about ‘dumbing it down’; it’s about telling a great story with clarity, confidence and conviction. And yes!  You can!

At SugarApple Communications our writers are long-standing authors with experience in all stages of the publication process, including data management, statistical analysis, and ethical publication practice. Get in touch today and let us discuss you next publication.

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