What’s your point?

June 17, 2009 at 8:45 am Leave a comment

“It might seem unnecessary to insist that in order to say something well, you must have something to say, but it’s no joke. Much bad writing, mathematical or otherwise, is caused by a violation of that first principle.” (Paul Halmos, How to Write Mathematics)

Question_markWhen you have a mountain of results in front of you, the idea of writing a concise and coherent summary of them and their implications (a.k.a., a manuscript) can be overwhelming. Add even a pinch of uncertainty about where you were going in the first place or the significance of your research question, and the task can seem downright impossible.

But figuring out what you have to say probably isn’t as hard as you think. Many people use outlining to organize their thoughts, and outlines can be useful. However, they can also become so detailed themselves that the big picture of what, why and how (to borrow from news writing) still gets lost. So, my suggestion is to start by answering for yourselves a few simple – but critical – questions. Once you have those answers firmly in mind, you can then begin adding the necessary details.

What types of questions are we talking about? Here’s a set from a 2004 article, “The top 10 reasons why manuscripts are not accepted for publication.” In it, the author, D.J. Pierson, states that writing a manuscript is a matter of answering four questions:

  1. Why did you start? (the introduction, including background and hypothesis)
  2. What did you do? (the methods section)
  3. What did you find? (the results section)
  4. What does it mean? (the discussion section)

Here’s another useful list from the PLoS Biology guidelines for pre-submission inquiries:

  1. What is the scientific question you are addressing?
  2. What is the key finding that answers this question?
  3. What is the nature of the evidence you provide in support of your conclusion?
  4. What are the three most recently published papers that are relevant to this question?
  5. What significance do your results have for the field?
  6. What significance do your results have for the broader community (of biologists and/or the public)?
  7. What other novel findings do you present?

Again, refrain as much as possible from going deeply into specifics as you answer these questions. Instead, step back and try to address each in just a paragraph. Keeping your answers brief will force you to decide what you really want to say. And don’t cheat by listing bullet points either. Challenge yourself to write something that hangs together logically.

Remember, clear writing leads to clear thinking. And vice versa.


Entry filed under: Getting started.

Writing and manuscript acceptance or (gulp) rejection Boosting clarity and reducing reader effort

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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