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Step-by-Step Planning Before You Write

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting
A board full of blank multicoloured sticky notes to represent planning your scientific paper

In a previous article, I gave you eight steps to a well-written scientific manuscript. But let’s take a step back for a moment. You need to think about planning your scientific paper before you decide where you want to publish it or even before you start the first experiment.

The prospect of writing an entire paper or grant can be daunting. You wouldn’t start an experiment in the lab without planning it, and the same goes when you come to write up that experiment.

By planning your scientific paper before you begin, you can break down the major project into manageable steps.

But Do I Really Need a Plan for a Paper or Scientific Grant Writing?

The short answer is “Yes.”

But let’s think of it this way: if I were sitting in the room talking to you and you didn’t understand something that I said, then you could ask me for clarification. With this article, like with papers and grants, you can’t do that. So, I have to be very clear in my writing.

That’s the main reason we plan before we write: to write clearly and coherently.

Without planning your scientific paper or grant, then your text won’t follow a logical progression to your conclusion – and you’ll lose your reader. Scientific discoveries and advances mean very little if they aren’t communicated and disseminated effectively.

Also, you have to anticipate any objections or arguments from your audience. What if you read something here that you don’t agree with? I have to anticipate your possible disagreements and address them adequately (but not belabor the point), when I can’t even talk to you.

You might read these words 9 years after they were written and half a world away.

Writing requires fluency, clarity, accuracy, and an economy of words. In your favor, you can self-edit as many times as you want. You can spend weeks (or months) on a paper.

But you do have to plan.

Let’s do that now.

What Are You Writing About?

The most important question for you to answer is: “What’s your paper about?” If I ask you that, and you can answer me in one to three sentences, then you’re on the right track. If not, you’ve got some more thinking to do.

Planning effectively will ensure you keep to your key message and keep your reader engaged.

There are other questions that you should be able to answer about your paper before you start writing. So, let’s start planning.

The What, How, Why, Who Planning Process

  1. What is your paper about? Can you tell me in a single sentence? Again, your search of the literature might refine this somewhat.
  2. How does this report add to the scientific literature? Have similar findings been reported? Is there a need for another report? If applicable, has your literature search turned up similar cases or reviews?
  3. Why would your paper have an impact on the field? Would your paper change a concept or practice?
  4. Who cares? Meaning, who would read your paper?

The first step about the single sentence (see my article “Eight Steps to a Well Written Manuscript”) reminds me of something Einstein supposedly said: “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it.” I need to put that on a plaque.

Remember that the point of your paper is to convey information; don’t beat around the bush getting to the point.

Planning Your Scientific Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide

Over time, I’ve found that I need to get a bit more detailed about my writing process. Below is the general prescription for any writing project.

Take the time to follow those steps and you’ll find the transition to writing your manuscript or grant much easier.

  1. Spend some time thinking before you start writing your rough draft.
  2. Compile a list of your ideas while you are thinking.
  3. Put the list in an order that makes sense to you (most to least important, sequential/chronological, etc.).
  4. Shift the list around. Take your time. You haven’t written yet, so this is when changing things around is easy. Do that.
  5. Following your list, write your rough draft.
  6. Write a final draft that shows some changes from the initial draft.
  7. Read your writing aloud, and you’ll hear mistakes and find ways to correct them.

What are your practical tips when planning your scientific paper/manuscript/thesis/dissertation? Let us know if you’ve followed these steps…

Originally published April 20, 2011. Reviewed and updated on December 23, 2020.


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