Successful people have plans of action. The investor allocates funds based on a portfolio configuration. The builder consults blueprints to construct a building. The professor prepares a lesson before teaching. Without these guided methods, the investor would be penniless, the builder would make a crooked home, and the professor would ramble.
Scientific writers use a similar tool to succeed when crafting their manuscript: an outline. You may lament the outline as a further workload to the already daunting prospect of writing a research paper, and you are likely to chastise me for suggesting that your Introduction to Writing professor—ever—gave good advice. But, here’s the kicker: they were right.
Although research papers require the author to piece together complex ideas, drafting an outline will ensure your concepts are cohesive and substantive. An outline will make the actual process of writing your manuscript less stressful and help you avoid the most common errors. More importantly, an outline will help your work be clear, concise, and convincing to the journal editor who considers your study for publication. Improving your writing is all about perspective, and developing a proper outline gives you a birds-eye view to help squash structural issues before they manifest.
So, where do you begin?
First, outline your introduction. This is the place to discuss the scope of your work. It is not a summary of the study. You will want to answer questions such as: What problem exists that your study may solve? What work in this area has been done in the past? What differentiates your work from the current literature? Remember, you are trying to persuade the reader that your research is valuable to the scientific community. Writers often bloat the introduction because they are excited to get to the meat of the paper. By outlining your introduction, you can splice together what is necessary the first time, instead of rushing to trim the fat before submission.
Next, outline your methods. Detail how your experiment was conducted, what measurements were used, and how results were analyzed. A common misstep is for authors to get caught up in explaining their results here, when these should be saved for later. An outline separates your methods from your results and interpretation, freeing up space to expand upon your procedures.
Then, outline your results and discussion. A journal editor and peer reviewer want to see what you found and how those findings specifically relate to the problem presented in your introduction. A mistake here is for authors to state their results and what other researchers have found but not tie those ideas into the greater argument. An outline will increase the paper’s clarity by giving you the opportunity to connect the dots before writing.
Finally, outline your conclusions. Far too often are conclusions merely rehashing (or even directly quoting) the Introduction. An outline can help you stick to the key points: what the study discovered, why the findings are valuable, and how the research could influence future studies. Convincing conclusions are often the make-or-break point for the journal editor. This section is the final impression of your paper, so make it count!
It may also be a good idea to plan out your acknowledgements, conflicts of interest statement, funding sources, and other housekeeping items, but the above sections are generally the most suited for your overall blueprint. You may ask: What about the abstract? In general, the abstract is the last piece of writing you will do. Once you have written and confirmed the specifics of your paper, you can then write the abstract. At that point, you will fully understand the scope of the work and your own conclusions.
While the structure of every research paper will vary based on the target journal, this article gives you a brief primer on how to group your ideas, avoid common oversights, and be the architect of your own success.