Over the next few weeks, we will be posting a series of columns aimed at helping young scientists improve their writing skills. Even experienced writers can benefit from tips on improving future manuscripts, as well as alternate points of view on the writing process. Our series starts this week with tips for writing an abstract. Next week we will focus on writing the introduction and discussion sections of an article.
In general, scientists tend to wait until the end of the writing process before completing two major components of their manuscript: the title and the abstract. These are the first two items a reader sees and they often determine whether that reader chooses to download and read the entire article. Over the next couple of columns, I will discuss how waiting to write the abstract can result in an unnecessarily muddled and less appealing final product.
An abstract is in essence a synopsis of your article. As such, you should be able to write it BEFORE you start writing your manuscript. I know many think the abstract should come at the end of the writing process—a retrospective Cliff Notes version of the manuscript that should encapsulate everything you have already described in the main text. The trouble is, thinking like this will only make the process of writing a manuscript more difficult in the end. This is not to say that an abstract written early in the process won’t change over time; it probably will. But starting with the abstract ensures that those changes will be thoroughly thought out and well-targeted.
Most well-constructed abstracts contain a single simple sentence beginning with the words “Here we show…” or a phrase with similar meaning. This is a landmark for the reader, indicating that this particular sentence has special significance. Now, the placement of this sentence can vary; it can come at the beginning, middle (generally where you find it in most manuscripts) or end of the abstract. I present here a basic example of how to create an informative “Here we show...” sentence:
“Taken together, these results represent the first demonstration of silencing of a metabolic gene central to pathogenesis by aberrant DNA methylation, offering a possible explanation for the less malignant phenotype of XX cells relative to YY-dependent cells.”
The sentence has two basic problems that need to be addressed. First, it is overly long and complicated, leading to reader fatigue and confusion by the end of the sentence. Second, the impact of the sentence—and the significance of the work it describes—can be emphasized using the more direct “Here we show…” phrasing.
“Our results demonstrate silencing of a metabolic gene central to pathogenesis by aberrant DNA methylation, offering a possible explanation for the less malignant growth phenotype of XX cells relative to YY-dependent cells.”
This is better, but the sentence remains long and unwieldy. It is important to remember that the “Here we show...” sentence is likely the most important point you are trying to make in the abstract, if not the entire manuscript, so don’t clutter it with too much information. Now, let’s begin to make the information available to the reader in slightly smaller bites.
“Our results demonstrate the silencing of a metabolic gene by aberrant DNA methylation during pathogenesis. This finding offers a possible molecular explanation for the less malignant phenotype of XX cells relative to YY-dependent cells.”
One interesting extension of separating the sentence into two is that the connection between the sentences is now somewhat muddled. It is important to strongly connect all the elements of the “Here we show…” sentence, even if it is split into two parts as we have done here.
“Here we provide the first direct link between metabolic gene silencing by aberrant DNA methylation and pathogenesis. Importantly, these findings offer a possible molecular explanation for the less malignant phenotype of XX cells relative to YY-dependent cells.”
At this point we have constructed a “Here we show…” statement that clearly summarizes the important findings of the manuscript, providing an anchor for the reader as they start the article.
Our basic steps were:
Step 1: Add in the “Here we show…” statement to the sentence. The first thing we did was to make clear what the results showed in as straightforward a manner as possible. The phrase “Here we provide the first direct link…” clearly sets the stage for the reader to understand the main point of the article.
Step 2: While a single sentence is often the best way to go, sometimes that is not practical. The author has to weigh the amount of information presented (in this case too much) against the use of a single sentence. Rather than have readers forget the first part of the sentence due to length, we opted to divide our sentence into two parts.
Step 3: Now that we have two sentences, examine how well are they connected to each other. This is critical to making the two sentences work as well as our single “Here we show…” sentence.
In the next column, we will explore how much data is too much to present in an abstract.
BioTechniques Special Series: Manuscript Tips