Many scientists realize that to attract readers, the abstract and introduction need to capture attention and peak interest in a manuscript. To make your manuscript stick out in reader’s minds though, which is key to building your citations, that interest needs to be maintained throughout the paper.
Unfortunately, the next section a reader gets to is generally the results, and it is often in this part where maintaining the reader’s interest is no longer a consideration…but if the reader gets bored and stops reading here, how will they ever learn your awesome conclusions?
It is easy to forget to keep the reader in mind when writing the results. The abstract and introduction sections are far removed from the day-to-day life of your project, and it is clear that they are written for others to introduce them to your work.
The results section, on the other hand, is what you did every day throughout the project, what you contemplated and mused over for months to years while conducting the work, and what you spend your life studying. Therefore, it is very easy to slip into a mindset of forgetting that your reader doesn’t know as much as you when you get to the results.
Without having something that “connects the dots” or pulls the results together into one coherent story that is easy to understand for someone who wasn’t working side-by-side with you every day, it is very easy for a reader to get lost.
Luckily, it is pretty simple to keep a reader’s interest throughout the results section using a few simple tips.
This tips are designed with your reader in mind – showing you how to write results that readers will be more likely to read – and these tips all involve one major subject:
That’s right, the most important key for keeping a reader’s attention in your results section is to include sufficient context for them to understand and appreciate your results and to keep them moving through the rest of the manuscript.
Context Tip #1: “Storyline Sentences”
I call the first sentence of each of your results paragraphs your “storyline sentence” because this sentence is responsible for keeping the flow of your story moving and keeping your reader invested in that story.
The purpose of this sentence is to let the reader know right away exactly what happened in the paragraph and why.
You want the reader to be able to see immediately what your motivation was for each experiment and how you tackled that problem. In that way, you can keep the reader interested and moving through the paper, even if they are skim reading (as most do!), and you avoid potential confusion.
Additionally, this means that a reader who is skim reading will still get the overall outline of your paper by just reading these first sentences. In this way, your storyline sentence forms a ROADMAP that both pulls the reader along in your story and ensures that anyone who even flips through your paper has a rough idea of what you did.
- Write these sentences simply and for a broad audience.
- Ensure you begin a paragraph with why you needed to do the next experiments and, briefly, how you conducted them.
- Feel free to use a pattern: “To discover XXX, we did YYY.”
- Use your storyline sentences as an outline or roadmap of your story.
- Include experimental minutiae and detailed explanations here.
- Jump straight into results.
- Be overly technical.
Context Tip #2: Define terms using context clues
All of the terms in a manuscript need to be understandable to the lowest common college course your readers will have taken in your topic.
This means that papers published in high-level manuscripts, read by a wide audience, generally need to have all terms that would not be understandable to a 101-level student in your broad topic need to be explained to avoid losing the attention of your reader.
A good way to do this is to circle the first appearance of all of the terms in your paper and reasonably cross out any that are known to the 101-level students in your field. The circled words that remain should be explained sufficiently for your reader to understand them in the context of your paper.
For example, a biology paper in a high-level journal will not need to explain what DNA is, though will want to define a split gene drive.
Unfortunately, papers are rarely long enough to allow for in-depth definitions of all of the terms in your paper, so context clues, which define terms though contextual hints within the flow of your paper, can help you do this more efficiently.
Provide a synonym
Often, there will be a word that is specific for your field that you want to use in your manuscript, especially to avoid sounding too simplistic, but this word is unfortunately not very common in every day language.
In that instance, is becomes easy to provide the “every day” word next to your field-specific word, and then you can feel free to use the field-specific word throughout the rest of the paper.
For example: “We measured the time to hemostasis, or coagulation,…”
Provide an antonym
Occasionally, your exact term might not be well known, but its opposite is. In this way, a contrast to the opposing term can in itself define your term.
For example: “Whereas a standard gene drive links the endonuclease and gRNA, split drives…”
Provide a brief description in an aside
Sometimes there is no way around needing a definition for a term, but it doesn’t have to come in a way that needs its own sentence that could interrupt the flow of the paper.
For example: “Double-bridged peptides, conformationally constrained by two chemical linkers,…”
Finally, sometimes your term is best defined for your reader based on examples that they will likely know.
For example: “Conformationally constrained peptides, such as disulfide-cyclized or knottins,…”
Context Tip #3: Provide the information a reader needs to make up their mind
No matter what you are trying to convince someone of, you will be more likely to be successful at it if you can make it such that they make up their own mind.
People become much more sure of conclusions they drew themselves and are more willing to go to bat for those decisions.
Therefore, give the reader the information they need to make up their mind about your work.
For example, which of the two paragraphs below is more convincing?
A: “We used this to measure the rate of conversion to be 72%, which is considered quite high for this technique.”
B: “This technique can be used to measure the rate of conversion, with acceptable rates falling at about 50% and rates above 70% considered to be quite high. Using this technique, the conversion rate for XX sample was determined to be 72%.”
In both paragraphs, you essentially say the same thing. You inform the reader of the conversion rate that you measured and inform them that it is considered quite high.
But what happens in a reader’s mind when they read these two paragraphs?
In paragraph A, the reader will read your assessment, then will think to themself if that is actually true.
If paragraph B, you never come out and directly say your rate is high, and let your reader do that for themself. When reading through paragraph B, the reader reads the first sentence, the second sentence, and thinks “oh, that rate is quite high!”
A very different outcome.
When you tell someone something, especially if they are not yet convinced of your story, they will question you.
When someone comes to a conclusion themself, they will believe it readily.
After reading these context tips, what other ways might you already use to ensure you include context in your results? How might you tweak your next results section to make your paper easier to read and digest for your reader?