What is a key message and why have only one?

When you read a scientific article to gain knowledge of what people have done and what they are thinking, what do you take away? Often when I was working in the lab I would specifically look for reaction conditions that might work for my experiments and ignore the introduction and discussion. However, if you read the entire article you likely will not remember exact experimental conditions once finished, rather you will hopefully leave with the idea that the article answered a question and you will take away an idea. This idea is the key message for the manuscript.

Determining the key message

Often when writing articles you will discuss what the message will be when planning the article and putting together the outline. This message will infuse the article, being proposed or hinted at in the introduction, expanded upon in the discussion and possibly explicitly stated in the concluding remarks. However, if you try to include two separate messages then you will muddy the message and it will be less impactful.

For example, if my message is that the new treatment I am discussing is efficacious and well tolerated I can easily build the article around this message. Whereas if the messages are that the treatment is efficacious and well tolerated, and also that it is extremely cost-effective compared to therapies currently on the market, then there will be two narratives running through the article aimed at different groups of people and this may cause confusion.

What to do if you want to include multiple key messages?

I would suggest that if you want to have two different messages for different audiences that you consider writing two articles. This will improve the ability of the article to reach the appropriate audience, and also allow each message to have maximum impact.

Why should you read author guidelines before writing a first draft?

By the time a first draft is written I always feel that the following should have been completed:

  • Type of article/manuscript being written
  • Author list decided
  • Outline put together showing what work will be included and discussed
  • Outline agreed upon by all authors and their input included
  • Target journal selected

At this stage there is the excitement of actually writing up the work, however, it is important not to dive in without knowledge of any rules you may have to conform to. There may be a limit to the number of words, figures or tables to include, or specific guidance on section titles to use or how to draw figures. If you write the draft without knowing any of this you may have to go back and edit your work, possibly significantly. I find it much easier to write a smaller number of words originally, rather than having to delete some. This is because once something is in writing it seems important to the story and is harder to let go. Additionally, it is easier to write to a particular structure rather than contorting the work to fit once completed.

However, you may be thinking that these are only guidelines and that your work is so amazing that no matter what state it is submitted in it will be published. This may be the case but often the journal will request you edit to journal guidelines before acceptance or even before consideration. So writing in line with the guidelines should save you work later on and maybe also increase the chances of your manuscript being accepted.