How to write a results section

As a published scientist and freelance academic editor, students and clients often ask where to start with their Results section. The Results section is where you present your core findings and highlight the key aspects of your data to your reader, and there are a lot of things to consider and remember when writing it. It is arguably the most important section of your paper. You need clear, informative and relevant figures and tables, as well as a well-written body of text that guides the reader through your data. When I edit manuscripts and dissertations, I often notice that portions of different sections have crept into the Results — the Results section is for presenting your findings, not for explaining what you did (Methods) or interpreting the results (Discussion). I have noted down a few things that might help you get started, answer some of your questions and help you avoid common mistakes.

I often write the Results section second, after writing my Methods. The Results section usually comes after your Methods and before the Discussion, though sometimes journals request a combined Results and Discussion (though that is not the focus here). Writing your Results will help you define and refine the direction of your paper, which is why it is good to write it before you try to tackle your Introduction.

Steps to get started:

1. Decide what data to include

Going back to your hypotheses or initial research question(s) is really helpful — what data do you need to present to test and/or answer them?

2. Decide what order to present your data

The order in which you present your data will give structure to your Results, and should tell the “story” of your findings.

There are several things to consider that might help you decide:

· Which data answer your main question?

· Do you need to present several data sets to answer your question, is there a logical order to the data?

· Which order do you intend to discuss your results (in the Discussion)?

· Does the reader need general results first for context, such as about the study area or environment, in order to understand the more specific data?

· Can you use your hypotheses as sub-headings, or the same sub-headings as your Methods?

You can chop and change the order of your data as you build your Results section, so don’t spend too much time on this initially. As you build your text, this will likely become clearer.

3. Decide how best to present your data

Deciding whether to use figures, tables or only text, is essential in getting your findings across to the reader in the clearest way. All figures and tables should be informative summaries of your data and statistics — not presentations of raw data.

· Figures present data in a visual way, such as images or graphs. Graphs in particular are useful for summarising or demonstrating trends, patterns or relationships in the data.

· Tables are lists of information, either numerical or text.

Figures and tables

Your figures and tables should be clear and easy to understand without reading the text. Figures and tables are numbered separately, and in the order that they appear in the text. You should present the figures after you have referred to them in the text. For journal articles, figures and tables are usually prepared in a separate file and the journal will format them within the manuscript.

Formatting figures

If you are preparing a manuscript for a journal, check the author guidelines for formatting specifications. Some journals only require formatting after acceptance, which is a great time saver, though you will still need to provide clear figures when you submit. Here are some general tips for formatting figures:

· Ensure the axes are the correct way around: x axis (horizontal) is the independent variable and y (vertical) is the dependent variable (what you are measuring).

· If you are presenting summary data, such as mean, ensure you include a measure of the spread of data, such as standard deviation or standard error bars.

· Scale your axes so that the data is spread across the graph. The exception here being if you are presenting several graphs on a panel and would like to compare across them. In that instance, you might decide to keep all axes to the same scale for easy comparison.

· Remove white space.

· Remove boxes around graphs.

· Remove figure titles, such as produced in excel (use only legends).

· Minimise text on figures by using acronyms that are explained in the legend.

· Ensure all text is legible, including when formatted to journal size specifications or shrunk to fit within a page of your dissertation.

· Use the same font for all figures (check author guidelines for specifics).

· Be consistent in style and formatting for figures, especially those with multiple panels.

· Label panels of multipanel figures, e.g. a) b) c), as per journal guidelines

· If you need a key, make sure it is clear and well-placed.

Figure labels

Figures should be self-explanatory, therefore clear and informative labels are essential.

· Ensure all figures have both x and y axis labels.

· Ensure axis labels are informative and tell the reader what is being measured (y, the dependent variable) and what affects the dependent variable (x, the independent variable).

· Axis labels should include units of measurement using standard symbols or abbreviations.

· Make sure the labels in the key are legible and explained in the legend, if necessary.

· Make sure major tick labels are legible and informative.

Formatting tables

· Only include essential information.

· Have one table per topic.

· Ensure all text is legible with a clear and consistent font and size.

· Ensure each column has a heading.

· Use minimal gridlines or boxes, typically only for the headers and not columns.

· Consider using centre or left-aligned text in different columns for clarity.

Table labels

· Include units in column headings.

· Use footnotes to write-out abbreviations or denote statistical differences.

· Keep the labels as brief as possible, while still being clear.

Writing strong and informative legends

Figure legends go below the figures and table legends go above the tables, are both left-justified and in the same font as the main text, though often slightly smaller. Ensure you use consistent phrasing in the figure/table, in the legend and the text. Legends should be concise. Briefly including methods and results into the figure legend is sometimes people recommend. The general rule of thumb is to include only what is essential for understanding the figure. Typically I find that this does not include detailing methods or results. Here are some tips to get you started:

· The first part of your legend forms the title, and is based on your graphs axis labels, showing what you measured (y axis) followed by what affected the measurements (x axis),

e.g. Figure 1: Mean number of Oecophylla smaragdina (±SE) on different species of tree.

· Include sample sizes (e.g. n = X) and statistical test summaries if used.

· Write abbreviations out in full, such as those used for the key or x-axis tick labels. For tables, write out abbreviations as footnotes.

· For multipanel figures, refer to each panel in order, describing what it shows

e.g. Figure 1: Mean number of Oecophylla smaragdina (±SE) on each species of tree at the three study locations, a) Bay two, b) Hilltop farm and c) Cashew plot 1.

The text

The text of your results section is vital for highlighting your key findings and detailing the statistics for your reader in a logical and easy-to-follow way. Any results that you want to discuss in your Discussion, need to be detailed in the text of your Results. I often find it useful to use subheadings in my Results that mirror those in my Methods, each of which address a specific question. Structuring your Results this way provides consistency across your paper and guides the reader through the story of your findings.

Tips for writing Results text

· Be careful not to interpret or discuss your results in the Results section — save this for Discussion.

· Do not to repeat your Methods in the Results.

· Avoid telling the reader what you think you of the findings, instead let them speak for themselves. This means avoiding phrases like “the results were interesting” and “the data clearly show”.

· Refer to every figure and table, and in order.

· In the text you can abbreviate Figure to Fig. (e.g. Fig. 2), but Table should be written in full.

· Use the text to pull-out interesting or key findings from the figures and tables, rather than simply signposting the reader to them.

Avoid: “Figure 2 shows the height of trees on different mountain slopes”

Try: “Trees on north facing mountain slopes of were significantly shorter than those on the south (Fig. 2), with a difference of approximately 2m in mean tree height (F(2,88) = 6.87, p<0.01).”

· Avoid long portions of text that are mostly numerical, such as lots of statistical tests consecutively. Consider putting statistics into a table if they cannot be integrated into easy-to-follow sentences.

· Be careful in your word and phrase choice, ensuring your text is concise while still getting all of the key information across.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have further questions and would like help with your Results section or other academic writing, contact me via

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Freelance academic editor and writing coach

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