Why do I need to think about 'signposts' in my scientific writing?
When you work on a research project for some time, you become an expert. All of the little important details of your study and experiments become embedded in your brain. You probably even dream about those cells or patients!
However, when we start to write about our research, it can be easy to assume our readers - the thesis examiners or journal reviewers - know all of these details too.
Some researchers even think they don't need to explain the basic details. After all, it is easy to feel intimidated when writing for other scientists.
Aren't the thesis examiners and journal reviewers super-smart, respected scientists who know everything? Perhaps...but they probably know nothing about your study until they start to read your thesis or manuscript.
Thinking about 'signposts' will make you look like an expert navigator who can clearly guide your readers through the story of your research. Without signposts, the reader will be lost, confused and wonder why you even did the study or what your results are.
What are the main 'signposts' I should think about?
After editing thousands of manuscripts, I have identified five crucial places where a reader can easily get lost when reading a thesis chapter or manuscript:
If we think about these sections of your manuscript as signposts, then these sections need to include the following information:
The end of the introduction
This section should include:
The results subheadings
Arrange your results in a logical order, from simple to complex. This is not necessarily the same order you did your experiments in.
Then, write clear headings for the results section that guide the reader through the story.
Sometimes, you can even use the subheadings of your results section to tell the reader your results as confident statements. For example, compare: "The sky is blue" with "Assessment of the colour of the sky".
The figure/table titles
Use the figure/table titles to tell the reader exactly what is in the figure or table. Don't make them guess your samples, groups or analysis.
Sometimes, you can also use the figure/table titles to tell the reader the results, so they don't have to work out what you are trying to tell them.
The start of the discussion
Briefly (very briefly!) remind your reader of your problem/research gap, hypothesis, aims and objectives. This should only take one or two sentences.
You can write this in the same way as the end of the introduction, for example: 'This study aimed to investigate ...[problem]. We hypothesized that [H1]...'
Alternatively, you can 'spin' the text into an overall summary by incorporating your findings, for example: 'This study demonstrates [some new knowledge about your problem]. We confirmed that [HI] is true....'
The end of the discussion
This is where you wrap up the whole story, and should reflect the problem/research gap and objectives you described at the end of the introduction.
Summarize how your findings provide new knowledge or help to close the research gap you identified at the end of the introduction.
Then, follow-up with how your study will actually help other people, referring to the other researchers or members of society that you mentioned in your objectives.
If you need more help, then join our free 5-day challenge masterclass starting on Monday December 2nd 2019.
In just 10-15 minutes per day, you'll learn how to use three simple templates for polished figure and table titles, including a 'tell them the results' template!
I remember trying to write my first manuscript. Why was it so difficult? Why did I feel like a failure?
Now I’m a scientific editor, I know every single scientist struggles (or at least used to struggle) with writing manuscripts.
That’s why I’ve created a simple, FREE checklist to help you write better manuscripts.