We work hard to get our research published. But a published manuscript is worthless if nobody reads or cites it. To engage your readers, you need to understand that their needs are different from yours (the writer’s). In this post, I explain how to write a manuscript that is suited to your reader.
Don't get technical
Research can be difficult to understand, but your writing doesn’t need to be. You may think that long words and complicated sentences sound ‘clever’. However, it is much more effective to explain your complicated findings using words and sentences that are easy to understand. Remember that many of your readers are non-native English speakers. Do them a favour by keeping things simple. For example, use familiar words rather than obscure ones (e.g. ‘cause’ instead of ‘etiology’).
Your reader doesn’t want to be interrupted. Scientific writing is filled with long words and technical phrases. Abbreviating common terms (e.g. PCR instead of ‘polymerase chain reaction’ or DNA instead of ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’) improves the clarity and flow of your text. But unfamiliar abbreviations can confuse and interrupt your reader, even if you define them with the first use. For example, a cognitive neuroscientist will probably recognize that MCI means ‘mild cognitive impairment’, but a geneticist may need to look it up. Abbreviations make your life easier, not your reader’s, so avoid them where possible.
Speak in a common language
Your reader will quickly give up if they don’t understand what you are talking about – so bridge the gap between your knowledge and theirs. Your audience will have different areas of expertise; some will know a lot about your field and others will know very little. So how do you satisfy everyone?
Your reader would rather be reminded of something he/she already knows than left wondering what you are talking about. So give all the relevant information needed to make your study understandable – even the things that seem obvious to you. And explain anything that is too field-specific. If your reader can understand you, they will want to keep reading.
Consistency is key
Research can get complicated. For example, say you have shown (rather elegantly) that a particular protein can prevent cortical neurons from dividing or differentiating, depending on its activation state. To reach this conclusion, you have generated six different genetically modified cell lines and used them in four different experiments. In your head, everything makes perfect sense. But your poor reader may see things differently.
Being consistent with your word choice will help your reader to make sense of complicated results. Give each cell line a name and stick to it. To you, it may not matter at all if you call your tetracycline-inducible cell line by four different names, but your reader will get confused and (understandably) stop reading.
Keep your reader’s focus – be consistent with your spelling, punctuation, abbreviations, capitalization, citations, etc. You may think that such small details do not matter. Who cares if you use two different abbreviations for the same thing? But subtle inconsistencies are easily noticed and will distract your reader.
Meet your reader's expectations
Put information where your reader will expect to find it. Most original research articles are helpfully structured into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections. Make sure you put the relevant information in the right section. For a detailed explanation of what should go in which section, check out my previous blog post.
Your reader expects to be interested in your paper. Entice your reader with a good research question early in the Introduction and satisfy your reader’s expectations by answering the same research question in the Results and Discussion sections.
Bring your ideas together to make your manuscript easy and enjoyable to read. It is better to narrate to your reader than provide a list of unconnected facts. You can do this by structuring your ideas and arguments into clear paragraphs. Each paragraph should introduce, develop, and conclude a common topic. Keep your reader hooked by linking paragraphs with enticing transitions.
Keeping the subject and verb together will also make your manuscript easier to read. Separating the subject from the verb forces your reader to work harder to understand the meaning of the sentence. You can also make your meaning clearer by cutting the clutter from your manuscript. For example, be as concise as possible, remove phrases that do not contribute to the meaning, and don’t repeat yourself.
Convince the reader
The reader is not obliged to agree with your opinions or follow your suggestions. It is your job to convince them that your interpretations and ideas are sound by backing them up with reliable evidence. Do this by presenting a balanced argument; discuss alternative ideas and explain why you believe your theory is correct. Strengthen your argument by providing specific details and avoiding vague expressions. Be sure to strike the right tone; present your opinions with confidence but don’t be confrontational or dismissive about another’s perspective. For example, ‘That other group clearly have no idea what they are talking about. Our findings are just better. We have the best ideas.’ will not win you credibility.
Ready to put your reader first?
You want as many people as possible to read and cite your published manuscript. If your reader understands your paper and enjoys reading it, your manuscript will have maximum impact on the scientific community. So write with your reader in mind.
Write with your reader in mind
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.