You’ve done the research and are now brimming with brilliant ideas that you want to share with the scientific community. Writing a coherent research manuscript so that your argument is easy to follow can be tricky, but don’t despair. Simply structure your sentences into proper paragraphs that are well linked and your thoughts will flow freely.
Easier said than done. It is not always easy to construct good sentences, and even harder to put sentences together into well-structured paragraphs. Based on the many manuscripts that I have edited, it seems that some scientists solve this problem by not using paragraphs at all. Bad idea. Paragraphs are too important to ignore.
Paragraphs provide structure and flow to your text. They allow you to move from one thought to another. When you start a new paragraph you are telling your reader that the topic is over and you are moving on. Without this structure, your brilliant ideas and your sound argumentation will be difficult to follow.
In this post, I will explain how to make the most of your sentences and how to put them together into paragraphs that communicate your findings and argumentation clearly.
Let's start with sentences
Good paragraphs are made up of a series of good sentences. So how do you write a good sentence? For starters, make sure that each sentence deals with one main idea. And do not interrupt your thoughts; help your reader to understand the idea you are putting across by keeping related words together.
For example, keep the subject close to the verb. This will make your idea easier to follow. Take a look at this sentence:
‘JNKs and their interacting proteins, which have diverse biological functions, form a complex network.’
This sentence is a bit irritating. The problem is that we have to wait to find out what JNKs and their interacting proteins are doing while we read that they have diverse biological functions. Now see what happens if you put the subject and the verb together:
‘JNKs and their interacting proteins form a complex network and have diverse biological functions.’
The main thought is now easier to follow. The same applies to modifiers and the thing they are modifying. Take a look at this example:
‘The drug inhibited the enzyme quickly.’
Putting the modifier at the end of the sentence means your reader has to wait to hear how the drug inhibited the enzyme. If you keep the modifier close to the thing it is modifying, your message will be clearer:
‘The drug quickly inhibited the enzyme.’
Create rhythm in your writing
You can give your writing rhythm by varying the length of your sentences. Short sentences have impact. They get to the point. Longer sentences give you the chance to go into detail or develop an interesting idea without interruption. Both long and short sentences are useful, if used properly. But beware of very long sentences – check that you are expressing one main idea. If not, break it up.
Now let’s talk about putting your superb sentences together into perfect paragraphs.
Build good paragraphs
Each paragraph should deal with one topic. This gives you the chance to fully develop that topic and support your argument. Start by explaining what the paragraph will be about (the topic sentence). This prepares the reader for what is coming. This first sentence should be very clear. Keep in mind that the reader should get the gist of your paper just by reading your topic sentences.
Then develop the topic. Make sure that your ideas flow logically. There are different ways to do this; for example, start with what is known and gradually move on to new ideas. Or if you are writing a narrative, present your information chronologically. Once the topic is fully developed, make your conclusion. You can propel your text forwards with an enticing transition to the next topic – once you are sure your paragraph has said all it needs to say.
A paragraph should go on for as long as it takes to introduce, develop and conclude a topic. So do not worry about how many sentences are in your paragraph. That said, if you are close to finishing a page and haven’t inserted a paragraph break, then you may have moved on to another topic without realising it. Check that you are still discussing the same topic. Likewise, if your paragraph is very short, check that you have fully developed and concluded your argument.
Transitions – enticing but tricky
Guide your reader through your argumentation with transition words. These words (however, in addition, in contrast, similarly, etc.) can be very useful, but use them sparingly. Too many transitions will distract your reader and confound your argumentation. Also, use transition words appropriately. For example, two related sentences do not require a transition:
‘The protein was expressed in the brain. Similarly, it was expressed in the heart.’
‘Similarly’ is not needed here. Instead you should write:
‘The protein was expressed in the brain and the heart.’
Transitions between paragraphs are also important so that your ideas flow logically from one to the next and your argumentation is clear.
Go for the flow
Deciding whether your own writing flows well is difficult. It can be harder still to make extreme structural changes to a manuscript that has taken many hours to write. Scary even.
One technique for revealing structural problems in your text is the reverse outline. Rachel Cayley explains how to do this in her blog Explorations of Style. By creating an outline of your writing, you can distance yourself from your work and gain the confidence you need to take the plunge and restructure your writing for the better.
Believe me, it really is worth the effort to create paragraphs that flow well and communicate your findings and argumentation as clearly as possible. Your reader will appreciate how easy your writing is to read and journal editors will probably be more inclined to accept your well-written submission for publication.
Make your argument clear
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.