Effective medical writing and what physicians look for in a manuscript

December 16, 2019

In the competitive world of medical writing, an astounding 50% to 90% of manuscripts are rejected from reputable journals (1). While these odds seem to be stacked against the writer, a well written manuscript has the best chance for success. It is important to know what to include (or exclude) from your writing to help push a manuscript from your desk, to publication, to the hands of medical professionals around the world. As physicians are often the intended audience, it is helpful to unearth some insight on what they prefer to see in a manuscript.

But first, why do physicians read manuscripts? Most are interested in reading to inform patient care and to grow their knowledge as educators. Some may read to perform literature reviews. Whatever the reason, physicians are busy, and the process of finding what they need in a manuscript must be quick and informative. As a renowned vascular surgeon, educator at New York University, and now Chief Medical Officer at Syntactx, I have provided tips on what physicians look for in a well written, informative, and impactful manuscript.

Tip #1. Pay close attention to your title, abstract, and data

Physicians often skim a journal’s Table of Contents searching for titles that are relevant to the topic of interest. The title of the manuscript contributes to the visibility of your paper and impacts a physician’s decision to delve deeper into the article (2). Ideally, the title and abstract will provide all key points without the granular detail of a full manuscript and will drive the physician to read, or not to read. Rarely is an entire manuscript read from top to bottom. Thus, the key parts of the manuscript (title, abstract, and tables/figures) must be as informative as possible.

Tip #2. Focus on presentation of data and data analyses

Data are the backbone of your manuscript and are the main source of interest for the physician while sifting through an article. Without clear and meaningful data, there is no basis for a manuscript.

How should this data be presented? Physicians do not want to search for large amounts of data lost within an entanglement of text. This can be cumbersome and of course, frustrating. Clear, well thought out tables and figures should supplement the information the physician takes from the manuscript text. Numbers should be used more sparingly in the text itself. If possible, it is important to include primary and secondary endpoints in tables and figures. Figure format (KM curves, bar graphs, and line graphs) is the preferred method to represent results over time. If there are complex data analyses, you should explain these analyses in a way that makes sense to readers who do not have a statistical background or training. These analyses help the reader learn if the conclusions of your study are valid.

Overall, easy access to data is key.

Tip #3. Know your audience

To whom are you catering your writing? Your target journal and corresponding audience matter when deciding on what to include or exclude from your manuscript. For most medical journals, manuscripts should be catered to physicians and specialists rather than students. With that in mind, the inclusion of basic facts and ubiquitous topics can come across as condescending. For instance, you do not need to explain the basics of superficial femoral artery stents to an audience of vascular surgeons. On the other hand, background information on novel concepts or devices is important to include. Be aware of what your audience already knows and what they need to know.

Tip #4. Teach them something they don’t know

If your manuscript is not worth reading, then why write it? Physicians want to know what they are going to learn from your manuscript early on (in the abstract or introduction) to determine the value of what they are reading. Are they going to learn something new? What sets this device or drug apart from what is on the market? How will this impact the patients they treat? Your discussion should clearly state how your manuscript informs or changes the body of knowledge on the therapeutic area. Overall, writing a manuscript is a balancing act of skillful writing and data presentation (and can even be fun). Be sure to focus your manuscript writing on conveying new or impactful information to a target audience in a clear and concise way. Physicians are a wealth of knowledge. Teach them something they don’t know!

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1. Kanitkar M. Rejected but not dejected: Dealing with an unfavourable decision on a scientific manuscript. Medical journal, Armed Forces India. 2018;74(2):169-171.

2. Liumbruno GM, Velati C, Pasqualetti P, Franchini M. How to write a scientific manuscript for publication. Blood transfusion = Trasfusione del sangue. 2013;11(2):217-226.