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Writers’ Lab: Five Steps to Completing your First Draft – the Academic Writing Edition

Some time ago, I came across an excellent article that outlines 5 steps to completing your first draft. The article aims at any written content, and it’s just screaming to get its academic makeover.

Before you can start throwing words into you MS Word document (or any other text processor for that purpose), you need to have a plan.

Let me stress that again, if you want to get things done in an efficient way, make a plan.

And even before you can get started with outlining your plan, you need to ask yourself a few important questions.

1. What is my purpose?

Why am I writing this report or article? What do you want to inform people about? Do you want them to learn about a new methodology, about a new experimental observation, or something else?

2. Who am I writing for?

Where is this article or report going to be published? And, what information are the readers of this type of publication after? Do they want to get a general idea of what you did and where your research is taking you (say, for a conference paper)? Do you want to solidly show how you built up a new theory (in a journal paper)? Do you want to make all details of your experiments publicly available for whoever will be continue working on your research (in a detailed research report)?

3. How will I write?

While most academic writing is based on the same, neutral style of writing, you might want to make a few course corrections depending on the final goal of your written document. For example, for a conference paper or industry publication that will be read more by industry partners than researchers, you might want to highlight the practical importance of your work, and try to avoid jargon.

4. What do I want to tell?

Identify the core message of your article, and make sure that this message rings loud and clear when you make your plan for your article, when you write your article and when you proofread your article. If it helps, practice an elevator pitch about the core message of your article. Sometimes it helps to “talk it out”, just tell a friend/colleague/your computer screen the following: “The article that I am preparing is about… and I show how … works based on results from …” (for example). For a larger piece of writing, such as a dissertation, you might want to draw a scheme or diagram of the content, so you know how the different chapters are interrelated.

5. How will I structure my article?

Once you have chewed a little bit on the previous questions, you can go ahead and start making your plan/outline of your article. Which sequence will you use? Introduction – experiments – results – conclusions? Or: introduction – theorem – proof – conclusions? Craft a title that summarizes your article. Write a comprehensive abstract. If you are limited to a certain number of words and/or graphics, indicate as well which figures are absolutely necessary in each part of the article, and have a rough idea of the number of words per subsection.

Once you have this preparation work done, you will be ready to bring you content together in a more organized way.

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