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Skills & careers

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Being able to explain why your research matters means putting it in context and making it relevant to people. Some articles do this really well, pinpointing exactly where their research advances knowledge in a particular area or tackles a particular disease.

But in some cases articles fail to relate their research to people, or to communicate the excitement of making new discoveries. It’s ok to say that your research might lead to new treatments for a particular disease, it’s even better to convey what this might mean for the people with the disease, or society as a whole.

Yet context shouldn’t take up the majority of the article. Remember that you need to write about your research too. Unsuccessful articles barely mention the writer’s own research, or fail to explain their role in the research.

Most of the articles submitted made good attempts at drawing the reader in with attention-grabbing first paragraphs. This is important because if you can’t get the reader’s attention in the first place, they won’t continue to read about why your research is important.

However, some articles failed to keep up with the tone they had introduced in the first paragraph, slipping back into using jargon or the kinds of phrases that you often find in scientific writing: ‘signalling pathways’, ‘receptors’, ‘patient outcomes’ etc. These are not phrases that are used in everyday language, so shouldn’t be used without explanation.

Metaphors and similes are useful devices for getting complex scientific concepts across, and lots of last year’s entrants used at least one device like this to explain an aspect of their research.

But remember to use metaphors and similes carefully, and make sure they aren’t too specific (you want them to mean the same thing to each of your readers). Think twice about using an extended metaphor throughout an article — in some cases these worked really well, but in others they put people off.

Some specific points:

  • Use the 'active' voice: don’t write “I was able to see…” when you could write “I saw…” or "the cells were incubated" when you could write "I incubated the cells".
  • Use first names rather than titles to help personalise the research.
  • Only include important and relevant information. Readers are restless and will stop reading if you include information that is important only to fellow scientists. Always bear in mind what is interesting to your reader.
  • Avoid acronyms if at all possible — even if a protein is known as ABC2D among scientists, it is more appropriate and understandable to use a different name for a more general audience.
  • If you use any technical terms, do so sparingly and consistently, and provide explanations if necessary.
  • Be careful with punctuation, especially commas and semi-colons. Don’t use a semi-colon unless you are sure it is appropriate. Double check your use of commas too — don't pepper the text with them at random but use them when you need them.
  • Break up your paragraphs. It is hard work to read paragraphs of more than, say, 100 words. There’s no hard and fast rule for word count in paragraphs (or sentences) but if in doubt, put in a break.