Writing clear Results sections

Several structural features make a text seem well-organized and logical. One of these features is that each paragraph expresses one main idea. ONE.

One paragraph = one idea. No exceptions.

No exceptions.

A paragraph break is really a psychological break as we go from one idea to the next. If multiple ideas are jammed together in a paragraph, we have to mentally juggle them, which risks that they all fall unceremoniously on the floor around us. The first step in others appreciating your results is understanding them, and expressing one clear message in each paragraph of your results will help that happen.

Often the results section of a paper reads like a list of experimental results, which doesn’t help the reader place those results in context or understand their significance. If any of the paragraphs in your results section begin with:

Next, we did experiment X.

please read on.

Clear Results paragraphs begin with a topic.

This means that within a paragraph, the main topic should appears in the first sentence. The topic is what you were testing scientifically, not experimentally. Think about the biological question. For example, here is a bad topic sentence:

We next tested whether this band shifts on a Western blot when cells are treated with inhibitor compound A.

We don’t know why we should care if the band shifts or not, or whether you had a good reason to look at that. Here’s a better topic sentence:

To test if signalling pathway A is required for cleavage of the protein, we treated cells with inhibitor compound A and performed Western blots.

This makes the usefulness of that experiment obvious. To express the topic well, a paragraph’s first sentence is usually something like:

“To test [hypothesis X] we did [experiment Y]”

or some other description of the reason for the experiment or the aim of that part of the work.

Beware of vague statements like “To characterize these cells, we…”, “To analyze this further, we…” or “Taking advantage of this new experimental technique, we…”. These can sound like a rationale, but don’t help the reader pinpoint exactly what you were testing.

Clear Results paragraphs end with a point on that topic. 

Many difficult Results paragraphs end on a technical description of the results. This doesn’t help the reader understand their significance: you need to end with the point, the conclusion of those experiments. The main point is usually if the hypothesis was supported, and what, overall, those data or results mean. Again, this is answering your biological question, not your experimental question. Bad final sentence:

We observe a shift in protein size upon treatment with the inhibitor.

Good final sentence:

Therefore, signalling pathway A is required for the cleavage of the protein.

Everything in the paragraph should be connected to the main point.

If one or more sentences aren’t directly linked to the biological question or the main point at hand, they will distract readers. Our brains expect everything in a paragraph to be linked, so putting semi-related information in there forces us to try and figure out the link. If there is no clear link, we’re easily confused. Sentences that are only kind of related or peripheral to your main point need to be revised (making it clear how they’re connected) or moved elsewhere.

Some of these ideas seem a bit obvious (for example, that you need a point), but researchers very frequently don’t incorporate them into their writing. This paragraph structure:

(topic)

(data)

(point)

makes the Results (and the rest of your paper) much clearer and easier to follow.

Use subheadings and figure titles to reinforce your main points

If your text is globally coherent, you’ve already determined whether all of your results contribute to the main message of your paper (see “Diagnosis: Paper-level coherence”). The one-sentence description of each main result should strongly resemble the last sentence of each paragraph in the results section.

It is also helpful for the reader to place the main point in the Results subheadings and the figure legend titles, rather than stating the type of experiment or analysis. This can also help keep you on topic as you write. For example, after reading the subheadings or figure titles:

Analysis of the interactions between protein X and Y

Lineage tracing of cell type X

the reader doesn’t know anything more about your results than when they started. It is easier to immediately understand what we are looking for in the results and figures if the main point is right there in bold. For example, consider the difference in understanding after reading these subheadings or figure titles compared to those above:

The AB domains of protein X and Y interact

Cell type X gives rise to neurons and glia in the cortex

Rather than stating the topic, state the main point. The reader will be able to quickly understand the scope and be able to identify the main messages of your text more easily.

 

Patricia Gongal works with researchers to improve the structure, clarity, flow, and style of their scientific writing, and has lots of opinions about science and academia.

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