How to write a discussion: what does it all mean?

In this blog, you’ll get to learn valuable tips on how to write a discussion section that will effectively explain to your readers how your research solved a particular problem.

A chalkboard with the word 'problem' crossed out with red chalk and 'solution' written underneath to symbolise how to write a discussion and explain what it all means.
The discussion section is likely to be the most important part of your work. Describe and explain your results and show how they address a particular problem that you set out to solve.

Summary

  • Only discuss and explain the results that you present. So, avoid talking about data that is nowhere to be found by your readers.
  • Use a logical structure in your discussion. Ideally, use a similar order that you’ve used in the methods and results sections.
  • Always try to seek guidance from your institution, company, target journal or supervisor before writing your discussion section.
  • Compare and contrast your work with the work of others regardless of whether they agree well or not.

The discussion section is one of the most important parts of your document whether it be a coursework assignment, dissertation or scientific manuscript. It’s where you must make sense of all the results that you have shown to the reader. You also get to demonstrate how your findings help to fill a gap in knowledge and solve an existing problem. Essentially, you take the hand of your reader and gently guide and tour them through what your results actually mean. You present your main argument(s) using your results to back up what you state.

Discuss everything

Discuss only the results that you present         

A lot of work underachieves because the discussion fails to fully represent the results. Always make sure you explain all of the data that you show in the results section. Leaving out any mention or interpretation of data in the discussion section will just confuse and flat out annoy your readers. It’s akin to watching a movie where a character mysteriously disappears without any acknowledgement or explanation. Incredibly frustrating for the viewers and would be just the same for your readers if you don’t tie up all loose ends.

Don’t discuss results that you don’t present

Likewise, make sure not to explain or mention data that is not present in the results section. It’s also like talking about a character that makes no appearance in a movie. Readers tend not to want to wait for the sequel to be introduced to this character so keep your discussion aligned with your results. Unless you’re citing data that has been published elsewhere that is easily accessible to your readers, then it’s fine.

Keep it logical

To avoid these aforementioned issues, try to be systematic in your approach to writing the discussion section. You can do this by using a logical order in which to discuss certain aspects of your research. Where appropriate, I recommend that you discuss things in the same order as they appear in the methods section which should normally match up well with the order things appear in the results section too. I talk more about how to write a methods and results section in the blogs ‘Methods section: what you did’ and ‘How to write a results section’.

In one of my publications, I combined both the results and discussion sections together which is common. In this article, I presented the findings for my research which involved measuring the flow of hydrogen gas through a series of dense metal foil membranes. I used a special piece of kit referred to as a membrane permeability rig (MPR) to measure the gas flow through the membranes. I divided this section into four parts: pre-MPR membrane characterisation, MPR results, post-MPR membrane characterisation and discussion of findings.

In the pre-MPR membrane characterisation sub-section, I describe the analysis I had done on the membranes before testing in the MPR. Then I present the results of the MPR test and interpret them in the MPR results sub-section. In the post-MPR membrane characterisation sub-section, I talk about the analysis I had done on the membranes following the MPR test to see if testing changed the samples in any way. Finally, I try to thread everything together by discussing the entire picture in the discussion of findings sub-section. Notice that I take a logical route through my discussion and take the reader on my journey of my experiments in chronological order from start to finish.

Don’t know? Ask!

Depending on the type of document you are writing, double-check with the guidelines of your institution/company, Guide for Authors of your target journal or ask your supervisor for advice on if you can combine both the results and discussion sections.

Juxtaposition

Now, you’ve presented some novel findings in your results section that you want to share with the world. But to add credibility to your research always compare your data to that found in other credible and reliable publications. Comparing your data with other data found in the literature that agree well helps to further solidify your arguments and makes them more convincing to your readers.

If your results don’t agree all that well with data found in the literature that’s fine. So, long as you’re highly confident in your methodology and results then don’t be put off from putting your data side-by-side with published data that disagrees. Use this as an opportunity to explain why you believe your data is correct and how you came to that position despite other publications saying otherwise.

Try to compare your research with other quality work found in highly-cited publications in reputable journals. If you don’t, a keen assessor or peer reviewer will demand that you compare your work with other research that you have omitted.

General tips

Substantiate your arguments

Resist making a claim that cannot be substantiated by your results. Think of your results as the foundation for all of the arguments you present and the discussion is built on top. Without it, your discussion will come crashing down like a house of cards.

Be specific

Be really specific. Stating that you observed a different trend when interviewing more respondents is a bit vague. State how many more respondents were interviewed. Or perhaps a chemical reaction took place at a higher temperature. State the temperature and even the other conditions involved.

Thread everything together

Always look to form a connection between your interpretation and explanation of the results with your objectives. I talk about different ways to present your research objectives in my blog ‘Writing an introduction: telling a story’. Focus on how to tie your results in with answering your research question(s). Discussing results that have no relevance to your stated objectives is just unnecessary clutter. Trim the fat.

Weakness is not the same as failure

Don’t shy away from mentioning the weaknesses in your study. After all, this is not a job interview where you play to your strengths and try to ignore any weaknesses. To benefit the scientific community, you need to be transparent with some of the shortcomings of your study. Don’t be embarrassed about them. It may be that you were unable to carry out certain experiments because you lacked access to specialised equipment. That’s totally understandable. In this situation, you could present ideas for future work using said specialised equipment. Perhaps there’s someone out there that has access to this kit and can carry on where you left off. Think of it as progress and not a competition.

Organise

Organising your discussion into sub-sections using sub-headings can be really handy for readers to navigate. Presumably, you’ve split your methods and results section into sub-sections with sub-headings, then try to use similar sub-headings in your discussion. This way, everything flows seamlessly.

Use a blueprint

Use other well-known and highly-cited publications as a blueprint to help you produce your own. Most publications have gone through scrutiny during the peer review process and if they have been highly-cited and published in a reputable journal then you’re on to a good example. Study it and learn from it.

Writing style

Similar to the writing style I talk about in the blog ‘Writing a quality dissertation’, write your discussion in the present tense using the third person singular passive voice. Not sure? You can refer to the discussion section of my article.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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