Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:
- Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
- Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
- Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
- Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).
I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!
But, in my experience, it’s very common for manuscripts to say something along the lines of the first one. It devotes an entire sentence (often the topic sentence of the paragraph!) to something that is not particularly informative; as option 4 shows, you can not only tell me that Figure 2 shows that relationship, but also tell me exactly what the relationship was, which is much more useful and interesting! The second option is a modification of something that I recently read in a published paper, and left me wanting to shout TELL ME THE RESULTS!!! THIS IS NOT A MYSTERY NOVEL!!! (Apparently I get worked up while reading papers sometimes.) The third is another common thing I see in manuscripts – in this case, the focus is on the stats, not the biology. Unless your research focuses on statistical method development, people are much more likely to be interested in the biology than the stats.
So, when writing manuscripts, I urge you: Be specific and focus on your biological results!
If I read the first (topic) sentences of each paragraph of the results, I should be able to come away with the gist of what you found biologically. Many times, you’ll need the subsequent sentences in the paragraph to help explain the nuances of the result. But, similar to having your figures tell your story, the topic sentences of the results section should tell your biological story.
Aside: if you aren’t sure about topic sentences, here’s a quote from p. 150 of Stephen Heard’s excellent book on writing:
In scientific writing, the topic sentence is nearly always the first in the paragraph. This is one of a paragraph’s two “power positions”, where readers expect to find important information. The other is its last sentence, a good place for a succinct statement of the paragraph’s take-home message. When you structure a paragraph this way, you announce your destination right up front, bringing the reader along for a smooth ride to the expected finish.
Speaking of Stephen Heard, my advice relates to something else he wrote:
When you refer to multiple figures and/or tables at once, you ask the reader to do your work for you. It’s the writer’s job, not the readers, to find and point to the pattern in the data that supports a particular point.
I’ll add: when you aren’t specific and don’t focus on your biological results, you are also asking the reader to do your work for you; you are asking the reader to find the biological pattern in your data. Don’t do that. Make life easier, less frustrating, and more interesting for the reader: tell us your results clearly and specifically, focusing on the biology!