Brevity in Articles
Teri Surprenant, Managing Editor, Language Editing
Brevity in articles is a challenge for both native English speakers and for those authors for whom English is a second language. When you are passionate about your research, it is easy to get carried away with enthusiasm and add an abundance of information. Unfortunately, instead of enhancing your article, overwhelming details may become a distraction to your readers. Here are some strategies to help you streamline your writing and meet the stressful word-count limits that journals impose. Always remember to check with your target journal for specific requirements.
One sentence should be used to state the variables of interest, possible mechanism, and the importance of your study so the readers understand the significance of your work. Avoid incorporating well-known facts, and, unless your target journal stipulates otherwise, active voice should be used. A second sentence can be added that indicates the impact of your findings.
You will only want to mention the methods that are relevant to the conclusions. Be sure to include sample sizes and characteristics, but limit the information to what is validated in the conclusions. You must include statistical results, but you should only include results that pertain to the methods and conclusions that you report. Conclusions should not reiterate the results; you should answer the question or hypothesis that you proposed in the background sentence.
If the word-count limit is difficult to reach, consider the following options: only include units once at the end of a list of multiple dosages or measurements, use a slash for compounded units, do not include spaces around mathematical operators, and look for adjectives and sentence transitions that can be removed. In addition, statements of statistical analysis and ethics or consent statements can be omitted from the Abstract.
The Introduction is the place to emphasize the novelty and impact of your work. Offering a summary of what is general knowledge does not add to your credibility. The Introduction is neither an opportunity to reiterate the information you provided in the summary nor is it the time for you to discuss your findings; none of this will make sense until your readers are introduced to your methods. Unless your target journal specifically requires you to restate the results, methods, or conclusions you mentioned in the Abstract, which is unlikely, you should focus instead on introducing your study. The Introduction should end where your work begins—the question you answered or hypothesis that you tested.
The following should be omitted: statistical results from previous studies that you mention (you can summarize prior work in short sentences instead); an editorial on the societal significance of the problem (a few short sentences are fine), specific details of your methods (a brief mention of your method is fine, especially if it is pivotal to your study), including secondary hypotheses (a few sentences stating the major hypothesis that was tested in your study is all that is needed), and an unruly non-sequential review of the literature (published literature should only be discussed as it applies to your work, and it should be in sequential order when it is mentioned; the reader should be able to clearly view the path that previous researchers have taken in an attempt to solve the current problem).
The Results should be as concise as possible. Instead of listing results in paragraph form, use tables and figures to display detailed information. Not only is it easier to read in this format, the use of tables and figures also lowers the amount of text that you have to devote to details in this section.
A general rule to follow is that any material found in your conclusions should also be in your figures. This allows you to focus all of the Results text on ancillary results and a summary of the tables and figures.
The Results should summarize findings. Significant differences should be identified by conventional statistical hypothesis testing; list the complete statistical findings only for ancillary information that does not appear in a figure or table within the paper. Essentially, reported results should be limited to supporting data that validate your findings and provide the context for your research. However, some fields do require data that support you conclusions, such as listing primer sequences. In cases like this, you may wish to consult your target journal to see what information can be placed in a separate supplementary information file.
The Discussion is arguably the most difficult section to write because you are weaving together current research with the published literature, which entails interpreting what your findings mean and how what you ascertained when you tested your hypothesis is relevant to your field of study. The Discussion should not be an unwieldy section that rambles on. Instead, this portion of the manuscript should be streamlined to showcase what your findings are and what they mean in the context of the prior research in your field.
The Discussion is not the Introduction, so you should not re-review the literature (you should only mention studies that are necessary to interpret your recently obtained data), and importantly, do not discuss or add references to studies simply because they relate to the field. This section is not the Results, so results should not be rehashed (p values and other statistics should not be included), and there should be no references to figures and tables in this section.
Writing–and especially writing well–is a difficult skill to master. It is important to keep in mind that the number of words on the page is not indicative of the quality of writing. Good writers are succinct and to the point. Remember, it is not how many words you write that counts but what you write that counts. These tips for constructing your articles will help you streamline your writing so you can master the art of brevity.