Planning Your Scientific Paper

If I were sitting in the room talking to you, you'd fall asleep.

No, wait, let me start over.

If I were sitting in the room talking to you, and you didn't understand something I said, you could ask me for clarification.

With this article, you can't do that. You could send me an email, but if I even bothered to answer you'd end up waiting too long. So I have to be very clear in my writing.

That's the first reason we plan before we write.

What if you read something you don't agree with? I have to anticipate any and all possible disagreements, and address them adequately but not to excess, when I can't even talk to you. You might read these words two months later 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 (months) on a paper.

But you do have to plan.

Let's do that now.

"What's your paper about?" If I ask you that, and you can answer me in one or maybe three sentences, you're on the right track. If not, you've got some more thinking to do.

But I'm probably skipping ahead. It's possible to start writing your paper without really knowing what it's about, and only finding out when you're almost done.

In other words, it's probable that the first sentence of your paper is the last one you write.

Also, the prospect of writing an entire paper can be daunting. Planning breaks your major project down into manageable steps.

So let's start planning.

  1. What's your paper about? Can you tell me in a single sentence?
  2. Is it worth writing? Have similar findings been reported? Is there a need for another report? Has your literature search turned up similar cases or reviews?
  3. So what? How would your paper change concept or practice?
  4. Who cares? Meaning, who would read your paper? Why?

The first step about the single sentence, incidentally, reminds me of something Einstein said. "If you can't explain it to an eight-year-old, you don't understand it." I need to put that on a plaque.

The four steps above are my medical model, but you get the idea. Here's a general prescription for any writing project.

  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 some order that makes sense to you (most to least important, sequential/chronological, etc.).
  4. Write the rough draft.
  5. Write a final draft that shows some changes from the initial draft.
  6. Read your writing aloud, and you'll hear mistakes and find ways to correct them.
  7. Before you share it with your target audience or your end user, let somebody else read it. Bluntness from a friend is better than being embarrassed in front of a stranger.

Updated February 23, 2018
© Copyright 2000-2018, Michael LaRocca
Durham, North Carolina 27707