The bottom line in scientific writing

October 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm Leave a comment

One of the best short pieces I’ve found so far on scientific writing is, “Me write pretty one day: How to write a good scientific paper,” by William Wells.*

The author gives great tips for writing each section of the paper, but what I especially appreciate is his emphasis on defining the “bottom line.” Says Wells:

The first step with any manuscript is to define your bottom line. Be realistic about how much the average reader will take away from an article. Non-experts will retain at most a single message. Make sure you have one, and then repeat it over and over again—at the end of the Abstract, in the Introduction, in the Results, and in the Discussion.

Even if you agree with this, though, defining your main message can be tough. In recognition of this, Wells helpfully offers advice for discovering it:

To uncover your bottom line, ask some questions: What was the mystery that you wanted to answer at the start? Have you answered it? What first got you excited about this area of research? With any luck, it was more than the idea that proteins X and Y might bind to each other—there was probably a bigger idea that motivated and intrigued you. Make sure you convey that reason and that excitement.

Wells’s insistence on a single message is echoed in a 2006 article** from EMBO reports. In it, the authors state:

The primary function of a scientific paper is to transmit a message—to convince the reader and the community that this is important research. It is therefore a good strategy to first think about the message before sitting down to write.

My only quibble with these authors is that they appear to view the development of a message as something that happens strictly through thinking ahead of time — that is, before a single word is typed. What I’m trying to get my students to see is that it’s okay not to know the message (or the complete message) before sitting down at the keyboard, that writing can be a tool for discovering it. Or if they start with one main point, but a different one emerges as they write, that’s okay, too. In other words, nothing’s wrong with their process when things evolve or they realize their original thinking was fuzzy — that’s just the process!

*W. Wells. 2004. Journal of Cell Biology 165(6):757-758
**A.S. Bredan and F. van Roy. 2006. EMBO Reports 7(9):846-849

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Entry filed under: Getting started, Parts of the paper.

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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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