Skills Earth Sciences

Strategies to start writing

The common structure of a research paper is not necessarily indicative of the order of drafting. Each writer will eventually develop a preference for the drafting order of the various components of their work. There is no right or wrong way to do so, but there are several common places to start.

One way to reduce the pressure of starting off with a project is to write down the structure and outline of your text and to slowly build up its content. Since the structure of a scientific text is generally fixed8, there is a low threshold to note down your chapter and sub-chapter titles. You can then also make a set-up for your document layout by assigning headings to chapter titles, including page numbers, etc.. Once your blank page has turned into a neat-looking table of contents, you can continue outlining your text by adding content-specific bullet points to the different (sub-)chapters. Even if you feel more comfortable with the content of some chapters than you do with others, try to note down a few things under each heading and do not forget to repeat this process anytime something new comes to mind. Eventually, if you keep adding information to your bullet points, and when you expand the short phrases into full sentences, you will find yourself developing paragraphs. Keep in mind that what you are working on is a first draft of your text. You will come back to revise it at a later stage (see the revision process): what you write down now is not and does not need to be perfect.

Generally, visualizing your results is an efficient way of science communication (see Visualisation). By developing your illustrations (figures, tables, etc.) first, and placing them in your previously defined outline, the story you want to tell your audience will become more apparent and it will be easier to write it up. Once you have drafted your figures, you can move on to write your methods, results, discussion, and conclusion chapters. Your introduction and abstract may be written after that, and you can finish off by writing a title, your acknowledgements, and formatting your references14.

If you are not yet sure how to visualize your results, it might be useful to start by simply writing down the things you already know: your methods and results. Your methods chapter should generally be quite easy to write, and once you have your results your observations should be clear as well. From there, write up your discussion points, generate some figures, and continue with the conclusions, introduction, and abstract in an order that works for you.

You could also work in the opposite order and start by writing the abstract and introduction of your text first. Writing the abstract of your scientific text allows you to put your thoughts to paper, even before you finalize all the research necessary for your project. Since your abstract and introduction will include the aim of the research, these chapters serve to phrase your research question, and to set a framework for the rest of your text. Your abstract may include some early conclusions (that you can/should change later) that give you a goal to write towards. The clearer you define your goals and your research question, the easier it will be to write the rest of your scientific text3). While adding literature, objectives, and approach to the introduction chapter, try to develop the structure of your paper or thesis13. You can do this, for example, by outlining, ordering, and introducing your sub-questions in different paragraphs. Remember that this structure and even the research question(s) you set here may be subject to change once you continue your research and writing. You may have to revise this chapter thoroughly as you round up your work. This of course counts for all first drafts, regardless of the order you write them in.

In your Earth Science MSc program at Utrecht University, you will likely be expected to write a research proposal prior to your MSc thesis research. This proposal may already consist of a thorough literature review and problem statement that will make up the first chapter(s) of your final thesis. In that case, it will be useful to follow up your work on the introductory chapter(s) by drafting figures and writing the remaining chapters after that; i.e. a combination of the drafting orders presented above.