Many times during your career you will be required to prepare a document about a certain topic.  This may entail writing a report for a business meeting, a newsletter, or a session proposal for an upcoming conference. It may entail writing a review article, a scientific paper for peer review, or even a peer review of someone else’s work.  Whatever this form of writing it may be, its success and its contribution to your career often depend on the message conveyed and the way it is presented.

My belief is that the best documents are written around one central message that is based on a single main point (i.e., major finding, important point, or recommendation). So begin by asking yourself one simple question: Exactly what is it that I want to say? Answer the question in at most 25 words. Everything else in the document should relate to your answer to this question.

As an example, if you are writing a review article on immunotherapy for cancer, write down the main take home message you want to convey the reader (of course based on supportable evidence).  Let’s say that your review of the literature shows that, while there has been some success with specific cancers, the fact that cancers are so variable has thus far prevented a consistently viable approach. The wording in the above sentence summarizes what you want to say, the message around which you develop the review.

As another example, you may be asked to do a formal peer review of a submitted manuscript related to a study. After evaluating the manuscript, ask yourself exactly what it is you want to say about the manuscript. If you want to say that the manuscript is simply not acceptable, this becomes the central message. You then compose the peer review in such a manner that you highlight the limitations of the study. However, if you want to say that the manuscript can be improved to a point that it could be acceptable, you compose a review in which you emphasize the changes/additions that would strengthen the manuscript.

You may be preparing a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal.  Again, it helps to start by deciding on exactly what you want to say. Do you and any co-authors have a clear and shared understanding of what you want to say (the central message)? A manuscript often has more than one author and the writing may be shared. Without a shared understanding of the central message, it becomes difficult for each co-author to contribute the appropriate material and provide consistency to the manuscript. 

So when it comes to writing and publishing in laboratory medicine, start with “What”.