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Tips for writing a Highlights section of a Scientific Manuscript

Release Date: January 10, 2017
Category: Scientific Grant Writing
Author: Amanda W., Ph.D.

Some journals require a “Highlights” section that summarizes the most exciting, interesting points from your manuscript. This is a great opportunity to emphasize the impact and importance of your work! However, it requires a different writing strategy than the one you use for standard parts of a manuscript.

Know your format

At BioScience Writers, we most often come across Highlights sections in manuscripts destined for journals published by Elsevier; however, journals from other publishers also request similar significance or summary sections. Highlights are typically written as 3–5 bullet points, each a complete sentence that describes a main result or conclusion of the study. The most common length seems to be approximately 85 characters maximum; although, some journals routinely publish highlights that are slightly longer or may request a short paragraph instead of bullet points. Here are the questions to answer before you start writing your highlights:

  • Should they be written for experts in this field, scientists in various fields, or for the general public?
  • Should they be written as short, individual points or as a paragraph?
  • Should they focus on the results, conclusions, significance, or all of these?
  • What are the minimum and maximum lengths?

Write your highlights section last, or second-to-last

While writing your manuscript, you will examine and analyze your results in depth, and it will become clear which findings you want to emphasize. This is why many experts suggest you write your abstract at the end, after the rest of the manuscript is written. The same is true for writing your highlights. It will be easiest to wait to write your Highlights section either just before or after you write your abstract, as you will know the major points that you can emphasize at that time.

Be sure your manuscript emphasizes the same points

After you have written highlights based on your completed manuscript, you might realize that your manuscript doesn’t focus enough on the most exciting findings. This is a great opportunity to substantially edit your manuscript to shift its focus toward the most important or innovative findings. In the end, the highlights and the most emphasized points in the manuscript should match or overlap considerably.

Keep them concise

When facing strict word or character limits, it is essential to write concisely. Even if you are well within the journal’s limits, keeping the highlights brief will encourage potential readers to look at your work. Ways to reduce word or character count include replacing longer phrases with shorter ones, removing unnecessary words (especially at the beginning of a sentence), and using active voice.

Keep them simple

Even if you are writing the highlights for experts in your field, use the simplest, clearest words possible to describe your findings. It can be tempting to choose more interesting terms, but complex language may discourage readers from reading the rest of your article. If you choose to use any uncommon abbreviations in your highlights, be sure to define them at first use. Write with your reader in mind, and make it easy for them to learn what you have discovered.

Proofread your highlights

Many times, the highlights will appear at the beginning of the article or even in the Table of Contents, so it will be the first thing the reader sees after your title. If there are errors in spelling, grammar, or logic, the reader may expect the rest of your paper to be poorly written. Consider having a colleague review the section to catch any errors you may have missed. If you have your manuscript professionally edited, be sure to write the highlights before you submit the manuscript for editing so they are included in the professional revision.

When in doubt, have a professional write your highlights

If you feel stuck writing your highlights, hire a professional scientific or medical writer to write the highlights for you after reading through your manuscript. If your manuscript will be professionally edited, the editor may be able to write this section quickly and affordably because they will already be familiar with the manuscript.

Scientific Writing Workshops

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