On writing a scientific manuscript: tell a clear story

Part I: An overview on structuring your storyline

I have worked as a scientist, and I have worked as a scientific writer and editor. I know that scientific research is complicated and rarely goes according to plan: experiments fail or give contradictory results. Data is hard to interpret. Science is usually messy and difficult.

But your scientific paper shouldn’t be.

If I could give one piece of advice on manuscript writing to my editing clients, it would be this: your manuscript should tell a clear story.

What do I mean by this?

I mean, first of all, that your manuscript is a story, not a “data dump.” Your manuscript is not a collection of miscellaneous observations and experiments; it is not a place to dump data without interpretation or explanation. Presumably, the experiments detailed in your manuscript are all connected in some way. You need to make those connections clear to the reader. You need to distill months and possibly years of hard work—trial-and-error, painstaking optimization and entirely serendipitous discovery– into a clear, coherent, succinct narrative.

Easier said than done, I know.

When putting a manuscript together, I find it easiest to first articulate the key points you want the reader to understand and remember. From those key points you will build your narrative or storyline.

 

The elements of your scientific story

Your storyline must address the following:

(1) What major question or problem does your paper address, and why is that issue important?

(2) What did you do to address this question or problem? Were the methods or approach novel?

(3) What were your results?

(4) How are your results and/or methods novel and important? How do they build upon the previous work in the field?

(5) What are the implications of your results?

 

This storyline is given in condensed form in the Abstract section of your paper. The storyline is elaborated at length through your manuscript as a whole. Points (1) and (2) form the basis of your Introduction and Material and Methods, while points (3)-(5) form the basis of the Results and Discussion sections (in some journals, the Results and Discussion sections are combined into a single section).

You should be clear as to the key points of your paper. These key points take the form of your key results and their implications, and these points should be consistently emphasized. You don’t want your readers to have to guess what’s important about your paper; tell them what’s important. If you emphasize one set of experimental results in the Abstract, a different set of results in the Introduction, and a third set of results in the Discussion, you will confuse your readers. Be consistent. The key results should always be given in the Abstract and Discussion, and I advise also briefly stating your key results again at the end of the Introduction.

You must also be clear as to the context of your results. As stated in point (4) above, how do your results build upon what was previously known in the field? Are your results novel? Are you the first one to have discovered that protein “X” is involved in, say, DNA damage repair? If you’re the first one to demonstrate this, then say so.

Science is hard. But your task as an author is to make your scientific manuscript as easy for a reader to follow as possible. Think of your paper as a road leading from the Introduction to the Discussion. You want to guide your reader down that road as smoothly as possible; you want no gaping holes in the road, no sudden jumps in logic. Explain why one experiment leads to another; explain why you’ve done what you’ve done.

There is much that goes into making a clear scientific manuscript. As an editor at ScienceDocs, I can help authors with language issues. I can work on a sentence-by-sentence level to make the manuscript more clear; I can correct verb tenses and other grammatical errors, prune away redundancies, and reorganize sentences, paragraphs and whole sections for better clarity and readability.

But as an editor, I cannot decide on your key manuscript points for you. I can’t decide what your most important experimental results were, or why they’re so important.

That’s your job.

And deciding on those key points and putting them into context—that’s the heart of your scientific story.

 

Next in Part 2 of this series: I’ll go into detail over the different sections of a scientific manuscript (Abstract, Introduction, Material and Methods, Results, and Discussion) and how these different sections come together to make up an overall scientific narrative. I will also give some tips on common grammatical errors and language issues that I frequently see.
Suggested reading: Zeiger M. Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2000.

 

On writing a scientific manuscript: tell a clear story

Part II: Organizing and writing your scientific manuscript

In my last post, I presented an overview on structuring the narrative of a scientific manuscript. In this post, I want to look more closely at the different sections of a scientific manuscript, and of how these sections come together. I will also offer style tips for clear, effective writing.

The sections of a scientific manuscript—keep them separate!

As I said in my last post, a scientific paper should be as easy to read as possible. The standardized organization of a manuscript helps in this matter: it enables a reader to know exactly where the information he or she wants is located. Readers who are interested in the fine technical details of a biochemical assay can look it up in the Material and Methods section; a reader who wants just a quick overview may only read the Abstract. Many readers will wish to examine the data before anything else, and so will head directly to the Results section. A colleague who is already familiar with the experimental results may wish to skip to the Discussion to see the authors’ interpretation.

A problem that I frequently see as an editor is that authors confuse the different sections of a scientific manuscript and place information that belongs in one section into a different section. For instance, an author may repeat very detailed descriptions of an experimental procedure in the Results section. This is unnecessary, and slows the reader down. The reader is looking for results in the Results section; if he or she wants to know about the three 20 mM Tris wash steps in your Western blot procedure or the catalog number of an antibody used, the reader can go to the Material and Methods section for that information. There are instances where a method is novel, and a   general description of that method may be needed in the Results section so that the reader can understand how the results were obtained. But the nitty-gritty technical details should always be left to the Material and Methods.

Conversely, I have seen manuscripts in which the Materials and Methods section contains long explanations of why various experimental procedures were performed and detailed descriptions of the results obtained. Those elements belong in the Results section. I’ve seen too much interpretation and speculation in the Results section; these elements should be confined to the Discussion if there is a separate Discussion section in your paper. I’ve also seen too much detailed repetition of results in the Discussion section. When different elements are repeated in the wrong sections, a cluttered, confused manuscript results. An author may think that repeating experimental details or certain elements throughout a manuscript brings clarity; however, it often has the opposite effect of cluttering and needlessly lengthening a manuscript.

I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with the standard sections of a scientific manuscript; however, a brief review of these sections follows:

Abstract:

The entire story line of your manuscript is given in condensed form in the Abstract. As I wrote in my previous post, the Abstract should always cover the following points:

  • What major question or problem does your paper address, and why is that issue important?
  • What did you do to address this question or problem? Were the methods or approach novel?
  • What were your results?
  • How are your results and/or methods novel and important? How do they build upon the previous work in the field?
  • What are the implications of your results?

These five points should be covered as succinctly, yet clearly, as possible in the Abstract. These points are further elaborated over the course of the rest of the manuscript, with different sections focused upon different points. 

Introduction:

The Introduction section elaborates on point (1) above. Introductions usually begin with a brief statement of the major question or issue addressed, followed by background and context. Authors need to provide enough background and context to ensure that the reader is able to understand the paper, and also to understand why the authors’ work and results are important. If the methods used are novel and a focus of the paper, then context for those methods should be provided. After giving the necessary background, it is appropriate to briefly state your main experimental approaches and key findings. Remember, however, that these descriptions should be brief—no more than a paragraph, and often only a few sentences.

Material and Methods:

The Material and Methods section elaborates on point (2) above, with the exception that a discussion of a method’s novelty or importance should be addressed briefly in the Introduction and in more detail in the Discussion. The Material and Methods is not a place for discussion or speculation; it is more of a technical recipe guide. All the nitty-gritty technical details of the experimental procedures and materials should be placed in the Material and Methods. Involved rationales for why experiments were performed or descriptions of results do not belong in this section.

Results:

This section elaborates on point (3) above and is the “heart” of a manuscript. Many readers will turn first and possibly only to the data figures and tables, so figures and tables should be clear and able to communicate the major results independently of the manuscript text. The manuscript text itself should describe the results as clearly and simply as possible. Fine details of the experimental procedures should be confined to the Material and Methods. If the manuscript has a separate Discussion section, detailed speculation and interpretation should be left to the Discussion. In some journals, the Results and Discussion sections are combined. In that case, interpretation and implications of specific results can be discussed immediately after a description of those results.

Discussion:

This section elaborates on the final points (4) and (5) above. This is where authors discuss in detail the interpretation and implications of their results. This is not a place for a long, detailed repetition of specific results—that belong in the Results section! This section is devoted to a discussion of the results’ meaning. Author should seek to tie their results back into the context of the larger field, showing how it fits in (or doesn’t) with the larger body of work. This is an appropriate place to speculate, to address puzzling results, and to address controversies in the field. For instance, if your results are in contradiction to other published results, this is the section where you would want to discuss the possible reasons for this and what that might mean. This is the section where you should discuss the new questions and avenues of research raised by your study.

Additional tips on writing: keep it simple*

If I could give only one tip on writing style, it is this: keep the writing as simple and clear as possible. Below are two concrete recommendations to help you achieve this.

–Aim for short, simple sentences.

I’ve seen too many manuscripts filled with long, complicated sentences which try to pack in too many ideas. Long sentences are hard for readers to follow. Whenever you can, aim for short, simple sentences. Instead of stringing multiple ideas together into a single long sentence, break up your ideas over multiple sentences. Aim for one major idea per sentence.

Example: 

“In our intermittent dosing models, drug resistance took 4-5 months to develop and was inefficient (only ~25% of tumors developed resistance), and so we decided to develop an accelerated and more efficient model of drug resistance by turning to a continuous dosing strategy with 786-O xenografts treated with R32 continuously for 55 days.”

Revision:

“In our intermittent dosing models, drug resistance took 4-5 months to develop and was inefficient (only ~25% of tumors developed resistance). To develop an accelerated and more efficient model of drug resistance, we turned to a continuous dosing strategy. 786-O xenografts were treated with R32 continuously for 55 days.”

The ideas in the original sentence was broken down over three simpler sentences.  

–Remove unnecessary words.

Every unnecessary word, phrase, or sentence is just another obstacle in your manuscript that slows the reader down. Redundant details complicate and clutter your writing. Eliminate them wherever you find them. Eliminating needless words also naturally helps with the goal of writing short, simple sentences.

Example #1:

“Out of 62 samples, 40 tested positive and 22 were not positive.”

Revision #1:

“Out of 62 samples, 40 tested positive.”

Example #2:

“The boxes represent a combination of frequency and intensity. They represent a combination of both.”

Revision 2:

“The boxes represent a combination of frequency and intensity.”

The second sentence is superfluous and so was eliminated altogether.

Conclusion

Writing a good scientific manuscript means writing a clear story. I hope that this series of blog posts has helped give you the tools to do that. Decide on the key points of your manuscript; build your scientific narrative; organize your manuscript appropriately into distinct sections, and write as clearly and simply as possible. Now. . . happy writing!

Do you have anything to add? Any writing tips that you would like to share? Please weigh in on the comments!

 

*None of the writing exercises shown here are based on manuscripts from ScienceDocs clients.  All client material submitted to ScienceDocs is held in the strictest confidentiality.  

Suggested reading: Zeiger M. Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2000.

Interested in having ScienceDocs edit your journal article?

 

Cell BiologistLearn more about Dr. Fogg

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