Have you ever read a scientific paper only
to find that later you cannot recall what the overall conclusion was? You might have vague memories of where the
study was conducted and one or two graphs, but cannot say what the take-home message
was. You may be momentarily concerned, thinking
you are slow-witted or suffering early dementia. But don’t worry. The reason you cannot repeat the main message
of the paper you just read is because the author did not make it clear. I’ve reviewed hundreds of manuscripts over
the years and during that time have noticed the same writing mistakes made again and again-mostly
by inexperienced writers, but also by those who should know better. One of the most serious errors to make when
writing a scientific paper is to fail to clearly articulate what was found and why it’s important. Instead, the writer may offer a laundry list
of results and a rambling discussion that doesn’t pin down a conclusion. The reader is at a loss as to what they should
remember and, consequently, quickly forgets everything they just read. When I first began writing scientific manuscripts,
I was never advised to boil my results down to an overarching message and then ensure
it came across loud and clear in the paper. Despite this lack of guidance, though, I somehow
intuited that I needed to write my papers so that they expressed a clear outcome. Consequently, my early papers were generally
written so that the main finding and its importance were readily apparent. The problem was that I did not formulate my
core message before beginning to write. I just plunged in, writing my results without
first thinking about which ones should be highlighted. I described the outcome of each experiment
or analysis in the results section-in no particular order and then discussed each one in the same
order. Not surprisingly, I floundered around as I
wrote and rewrote the manuscript. Eventually, I realized that having an overarching
message in mind before starting the writing process would save me time and effort. I thus developed the habit of distilling my
message before leaping into writing a paper or preparing a conference talk. My distillation process would begin with answering
a few questions. Why did I conduct the study? What was the central question driving my study? What were my main findings? Why should people care? What was new or innovative? To answer these questions, I had to spend
time pondering my results from every angle, especially if I had conducted multiple experiments
and analyses. But this approach made it much easier to write
my papers. For example, I wrote a paper in which my main
finding was that recovery of a clear-cut mangrove forest in the Caribbean was aided by the presence
of coastal grasses and forbs, which acted like nursery plants for the tree seedlings. This herbaceous vegetation helped the mangrove
seedlings get established and promoted their growth by ameliorating harsh environmental
conditions. We used a new way to compare the plants involving
a standardized approach. The study not only led to a better understanding
of how these coastal forests recover from disturbance, it suggested a practical application:
how to select nurse vegetation to accelerate restoration of damaged forests. The next step was to distill this information
down to a single sentence, which would be my core message. Even though our study was complex with a series
of results, I was still able to condense everything to fit under a single umbrella. Here is that sentence: “Mangrove recruitment after forest disturbance
is facilitated by herbaceous species in the Caribbean.” Once I could express my message in a single,
clear sentence, I knew that I was ready to write the paper and, once written, it would
effectively convey that message to the reader. Often, such a sentence can be used with minor
modification as the title of the paper, which was the case here. The process of distilling that sentence made
me think harder about my results and what I wanted to get across in the paper. The process also helped me decide how to organize
my material and which data to highlight-all before writing a word of the narrative. Whenever I got bogged down or overwhelmed
with details, my distilled sentence helped me get back on track. I eventually began thinking of this condensed
statement as a “message in a bottle”. What would I write so that a colleague finding
the bottle on the beach would understand what my paper was about-and want to read it? The modern version of the message in a bottle
is, of course, the Tweet. Being adept at summarizing your information
in 280 characters is now a useful skill in the age of social media and electronic publishing. But the main purpose of distilling your message
is to make sure you see the big picture before starting to write. You may have multiple points to make in a
paper, but having an overall message in mind will keep you focused as you write and will
ensure that the reader remembers that message. I hope this video inspires you to identify
the message you want to convey in your next paper. If you found this video useful, don’t forget
to tap the like button below the video. If you have a question about scientific writing
, please leave a comment.