I think it’s fair to presume that most of us involved in medical research do not have extensive, if any, communications training. Yet publication of our findings, be it in journals, dissertations, or at conferences, is a vital component of research, as it is the main way in which our work is disseminated. A well-written piece of published work is something to be proud of, and it can impact on collaboration, funding, and reputation. However, getting our message across in a clear and concise manner may not come naturally. Having worked for several years as a medical writer and assistant editor for a well-known publisher of a suite of clinical journals, I would like to share some suggestions that, I hope, may be of benefit.
Keep it simple
Medical research is complicated and highly technical, as is the jargon used to report it. However, the language we use around the technical terms does not need to be. Regardless of length, a sentence constructed using simple and clear language makes reading (and comprehension) that much easier. Avoid using flowery or archaic terms and being overly descriptive of your findings. Write with a neutral tone to let your work speak for itself and for the reader to form their own opinions.
Write for your reader
Your manuscript is not just a record of what you have done, it should inform your reader of your findings and conclusions. But your readers are not familiar with your work. So, write with them in mind. Develop a logical structure for your manuscript to help your readers follow your research. What is the most important information you want the reader to know? It may help to take a step back and take a holistic view of the entire manuscript.
Being consistent throughout your manuscript (e.g. in terms of punctuation, abbreviations, format styles, language) makes your work look professional. Specific examples include giving all your p-values to the same number of decimal points, using only the abbreviation once it has been defined instead of reverting back to using the full term, using either American or English spelling instead of a mixture of both, and maintaining the order of items if the same list is given more than once in the manuscript, such as in the methods and results as well as in tables and/or figures.
Less is more
Using fewer words is better than using more words to describe the same thing. It is particularly useful when writing to a word count, which is often the norm these days. Avoid giving the same information repeatedly; for example, state the information once and refer to it instead of giving it again. It is harder to write using fewer words, but your readers (and publishers) will be appreciative of your efforts.
Use visual elements
If the same information can be presented in a simple table or figure, it may be preferable to do so. Cluttered text or large lists are difficult to read, and having a few small visual elements helps to break up the main text.
This may seem like an unnecessary reminder, but it is common to start writing with the best intentions of adhering to the instructions set out by your journal, conference, or university, only to forget all about them as you progress with your writing. Not following the guidelines may result in unnecessary and often time-consuming revisions (such as for word count or style) and prejudice from the reader by your inability to follow the instructions.
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