OK, so ‘take-home-message’ is a pretty hackneyed phrase. However, in the case of writing journal articles (and thesis chapters) it’s pretty apt. It’s a handy way of thinking about – and really focusing on – what it is you want people to remember most after they’ve finished reading your 7-10,000 words.
“Find the ‘take-home message’” was one of the few things that my own PhD supervisor said to me about writing my Big Book. (And it was a very Big Book indeed, but we won’t go there.) Almost in passing he suggested that I finish every chapter with the key point that I wanted the reader to take into the next chapter, the one thing I really, really wanted them to remember.
Journal editors say much the same thing about papers. They say, “Don’t try to deal with more than one idea in a paper, and always make sure that you make the point, and make it clearly.” They always talk about getting loads of papers that try to do too much, leaving the reader wondering what the point was, or which of the many points they are supposed to take most seriously.
I use the idea of the ‘take home message’ when I’m doing writing workshops. I generally ask people to write the point they want to make in a way that they actually won’t say in the final text. “Be blunt” I say. “Imagine you are on a soapbox telling a particular obtuse listener the message you want them to understand.”
Workshop participants are often a bit horrified when asked to make their point in plain and un-mistakeable terms. They are used to reading things which are abstracted or phrased tangentially. Or perhaps they are just worried about the reader’s reactions when they come out and say what they are really thinking. Or maybe they think it is unscholarly to think in an unequivocal way. Or they don’t know what they think. Whatever the reason, it can be scary to get the point into plain language.
‘Change wont happen if you (politicians and media) keep beating (name of profession) up and saying they are hopeless.’
‘It’s about time you looked at the evidence and stopped making ( name of area) policy on the fly, isnt’ it?’
‘This is a really interesting area for more and important research such as ( name possible projects) to be done, and it’s got my name on it.’
‘Why don’t you listen to what these people (name of group) are saying rather than deciding what’s good for them?’
‘This is not an either/or situation. We have to think much more carefully about this (name problem) or we will continue to be stuck in this unproductive place’
Most of the workshop participants I encounter are eventually prepared to give the ‘take home message’ a go – even if just to shut me up. It probably helps that I also promise them it won’t stay like that.
After taking a strong stand via getting the point sorted, the next talk and task for workshop participants is always about how to make a convincing case for the ‘take home message’. How does the paper need to start so that everyone understands and signs up for the issue/problem? What line of ‘evidence’ and argument need to be made so that the reader follows along to the inevitable conclusion?
It is only after working through all this, it is then and only then can the participants go about rephrasing the blunt message so that it is more acceptable in polite journal company. Nevertheless, it must still be quite comprehensible. The writer must do as much as possible to make sure that the reader finishes their paper knowing what they are meant to take away from it.