The #1 mindset shift you need to write excellent papers and grant proposals

Hint: Put your reader first.

Do you know what I do when I just can’t extract a paper’s main message when editing a client’s manuscript? I read their cover letter. In most cases, I then understand the study’s conclusion and its significance. How come the authors couldn’t put this so well in their paper?

I think I know the answer. When you write a cover letter, you are thinking about the receiver, the editor. In other words, a real human being who you want to convince of the quality of your study. Writing a paper can feel more abstract. Often, you focus on your own deadlines, the sexy journal you want to send this manuscript to and when you will finally get that paragraph that your collaborators promised. Yes, there is a lot to do. But I do think that there is someone who gets a raw deal: your reader. How often in the writing process do you think about who’s going to read your manuscript? Whether they will be able to understand the scientific story you are telling them?

I believe that in order for you to become an excellent scientific writer, you need to put your reader first. A paper is not (only) for you, it’s for your reader. I promise, once you think about your writing in this way, it will improve automatically.  

Who are your readers and how do they (feel when they) read your paper?

I suggest you start with imagining your readership. Who is your target journal’s audience? Scientists in the same field or another discipline, or researchers with various backgrounds?

A paper is not (only) for you, it’s for your reader.

The next thing to consider is how your readers will likely read your research paper. For example, some will only ready your abstract. Others skip the introduction section and jump straight to your results. I have often found myself only reading the discussion. Few scientists will read your Methods section. And then there are those that will skim through the whole paper mostly reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

This may sound funny. But think about it: How do you feel when you are reading papers? Are you always well rested, laser-focused, in quiet surroundings, having all the time in the world? Right…

How to write for your reader

So, what does this mean for your writing? I’ve got six tangible tips for you here on how to take into account your reader.

1. Know your target audience

You absolutely need to have chosen a target journal before you start writing a paper. Better yet, have read the author guidelines and a few articles in that journal. The same holds for grant proposals: Check what background your reviewers likely have and never skip reading the instructions. Do your research! You’ll get a feel for what level of technicality is common, and what abbreviations and jargon you can assume.

2. Never ever use synonyms for terminology

Do not overestimate your reader. Even though they might be really familiar with your field, they might only have slept three hours last night. For example, if you have introduced the abbreviation “Au-NR” for your model system, do not make sentences ambiguous by suddenly using “gold nanorods”, “the nanoparticles”, “our model system” or any other synonym instead. Even though it might seem dull to repeat yourself a lot, your (tired/hurried/unfocused) grant application reviewer will be less likely to disregard your proposal. Here are some more language tips that’ll make your scientific writing easier to read.

3. Implement a clear structure

Imagine that you are holding your reader’s hand and guiding them through your narrative and argumentation. I strongly suggest to implement the nine story elements. You might need to repeat yourself a little. Even though you told them what problem you are solving with your study in your introduction, by the time they start reading your results or discussion section they might either have forgotten or perhaps never read the introduction in the first place. Also, do not assume that anything is obvious to them. For example, you need to tell them what exactly your findings are, just referring to a figure is not enough. Describe to them what they are looking at and what that means.

4.  Have concise paragraphs

First of all, paragraphs shouldn’t be too long. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to summarise the content and message of a paragraph using a few keywords. Remember that some readers will only read the first (and maybe) last sentence of your paragraph. Therefore, these should introduce the topic (first sentence) and the conclusion (last sentence) of that particular paragraph.

5. Don’t make your reader feel dumb

This refers to using words such as “of course” and “obviously”. The thing is that something super obvious to you will most likely not be to your reader. And your reader doesn’t want to feel dumb reading your article. So, I suggest to remove “of course”, “obviously” and similar words from your scientific writing vocab.

6. Your abstract should tell the whole story

Most abstracts read as a summary of the paper’s results. The problem with those abstracts is that most readers will struggle to put the findings into context. So why not help them and tell a mini-story of your paper in the abstract, i.e. background, problem, main takeaway, results and implications? Here’s an abstract template you can use.

There you have it. Writing with your reader in mind will make sure that your manuscript is well-structured and written in clear language. Oh, I’ve got a little extra tip for you: When you get stuck in your paper trying to get to the heart of your paper’s conclusions, main takeaway and significance, why don’t you just pretend you are writing a cover letter? 😊

And the good news is, if you need somebody to make your manuscript reader-friendly, you are in the right place. Just send me an email (edit@annaclemens) and we’ll talk about your manuscript!

About the Author: I’m Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science. When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza. If you would like to work with me, please click here. I’m looking forward to collaborating!