Research papers often present complicated information. Without a clear focus, your reader will not understand your results and interpretations. Unfortunately, scientists often struggle to maintain focus in their research writing. Veering off-topic and cluttering the paper with redundant information are common problems. In this blog post, I explain how to stay focused in your research paper so that your message is communicated effectively.
The bigger picture
Let’s start by considering the overall structure of your research paper. The research question (i.e. what you want to find out) should be your focus. The information you present in every section of your paper should contribute to answering this question.
It is easy to lose focus in the Introduction if many papers have already been published on your topic. What information should you include? Think about your research question. You should tell your reader what they need to know to understand your question. And explain why this question needs to be answered – what gap in the knowledge will your study fill?
If you are exploring new territory and there are no relevant studies published on your topic, avoid cluttering your Introduction with unnecessary information. A short, relevant Introduction is more effective than a long, redundant one. For example, if you are investigating the role of a gene in brain development and nothing has been published on this topic, don’t write a paragraph about how this gene affects heart development, even if there are hundreds of studies about it. This tells your reader nothing about your research question. Stay on-topic with a brief mention:
The role of this gene in heart development has been well described (see Ahmad et al. for a recent review), but little is known about how it regulates brain development.
Then explain why you think this gene may have a role in brain development. Why does your research question need to be asked?
The Results section should present findings that answer your research question. If your figures or tables don’t do this, then consider putting them into the supplementary information to keep your reader focused. For example, a large figure describing how you inactivated a gene in a knockout mouse model may distract your reader from the more important phenotypic findings.
The Discussion is your chance to satisfy your reader by answering the research question you asked in the Introduction. Start by reminding your reader why your study was important, but do not repeat introductory information. Answer the research question using the results you presented but take care not to refer to data that were not described in the Results section. And do not introduce a new research question at this stage, even if your results were unexpected.
An important part of the Discussion is interpreting your findings in relation to the published literature. Select studies that are most relevant to your own when comparing results to avoid distracting your reader from the main focus.
Focus on paragraphs
Switching from one idea to another and then back again is a common problem in research writing. You may understand your train of thought, but your poor reader probably won’t. To communicate your ideas effectively, deal with one topic at a time. Paragraphs allow you to present your ideas and arguments in a clear, logical way. So how do you write an effective paragraph?
First, make sure that each paragraph deals with one topic. If you start off talking about risk factors for breast cancer and wind up concluding that heart attacks are the leading cause of death, you have gone wrong somewhere.
Introduce the topic in the opening sentence, then expand on this topic in the next few sentences before finishing with a sentence that draws your conclusion. For example, in your Discussion, you could start a paragraph by stating one of your study’s conclusions:
Laparoscopic splenectomy had a better postoperative outcome than open splenectomy did.
You can then support this argument by briefly describing the relevant results:
Pain scores were lower and there were fewer surgical-site infections in the laparoscopic group.
Then build on your argument by discussing published findings that either support or contradict your finding:
This agrees with previous studies that have shown better outcomes in patients undergoing laparoscopic surgery compared with open surgery for cholecystectomy and splenectomy. However, a recent meta-analysis has shown better health-status outcomes following open hernioplasty than laparoscopic repair.
Then finish the paragraph by giving your final conclusion:
Laparoscopic surgery is less invasive and has fewer postoperative complications. However, open surgery may be a safer, more effective approach than laparoscopic surgery for certain operations. Surgeons should decide on a case-by-case basis which approach will give the best outcome for the patient.
Another useful way to maintain focus in the Discussion is to present your conclusions in the same order the respective results were presented in the Results section. So if you described gene expression in different brain regions at the start of your Results section, discuss the implications of these findings first in your Discussion. This will help keep your reader focused as they can anticipate what is coming next, making your thoughts and ideas easier to follow.
Just like one paragraph should deal with one topic, one sentence should deal with one idea. To make the most of your words, be as specific as possible. Ambiguous words can be distracting, for example:
Treatment with the Rac inhibitor altered cell motility
does not tell the reader much. Changing the ambiguous altered can make a huge difference:
Treatment with the Rac inhibitor reduced cell motility.
Maintain your reader’s focus by making your sentences easy to read. You can do this by keeping related words close together. For example, keep the subject close to the verb. Consider the following:
Medium spiny neurons, via the globus pallidus, project axons to the subthalamic nucleus.
This sentence is difficult to follow because the subject (medium spiny neurons) is separated from its verb (project):
Medium spiny neurons project axons to the subthalamic nucleus via the globus pallidus
is much clearer.
Sentence structure is also important. Sentences that are difficult to understand can often be improved by changing a non-parallel structure to a parallel one. Read my previous blog post to find out how to write parallel sentences.
Pointing the way with punctuation
ROI analysis identified three predictive factors for complex gastroschisis: gastric dilation, intestinal wall thickness, and overall abdominal circumference.
You can also use parentheses (round brackets) to draw attention away from information that is not fundamental to the main topic:
Gastric dilation predicted gastroschisis at 20 weeks gestation (cut-off: 9.5 mm) and 30 weeks gestation (cut-off:13 mm).
This helps the reader to focus on the important information in the sentence.
Stay on track
Lack of focus is a common problem in research writing and can get in the way of effective communication. Following the tips outlined in this article will help you to maintain your focus and communicate your ideas more clearly in your next research paper.
Focusing on your main message will keep your readers' attention
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits scientific research papers and teaches courses on scientific writing.