7 The First Draft

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This chapter will cover how to write your first draft.

Sections in this chapter

The first draft

Before you can edit, you need a first draft. Writing this draft can be one of the more difficult challenges in the writing process, often you ask yourself “Where do I start?”

Your approach to writing will depend on your personal habits and whether you are writing an abstract, manuscript, book, or thesis. In general, you can try to follow the writing process below:

  • Planning: identify objective, audience, scope
  • Organization: create an outline, think about the story
  • First draft: don’t aim for perfection, aim for done
  • Editing: as recursive revision process for style, cohesion, clarity, completeness, accuracy, etc.
  • Proofreading: final detailed checking for consistency


Scientists spend a lot of time planning their research and experiments, but tend to overlook this stage of writing. Before the writing process begins, and even at the outset of the research project, you should think about the objectives, questions, and audience for your research. Always keep your mind in the “Big Picture”.


Common Journal Article Format

  • Introduction
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • References

The organization of manuscripts and theses often follows a format set by the publisher or by your institution, making it easy to start with a basic outline template (see sidebar). Within these prescribed sections, you need to use knowledge of your research and field to organize your writing.

Later in this module will get into specific format and organization techniques for proposals, manuscripts, and theses. For now, below you will find some general strategies to help you organize your writing.

Tip #1: Use slides to organize your thoughts.
As you saw in the Writing Basics chapter, each paragraph should have a single topic or “key message”. You can use PowerPoint so help separate and organize these topics. Create one slide for each key message from your project, and then organize and combine similar topics by moving slides.

Tip #2: Write a single sentence summary of other work related to yours

Notes on Box on Carolyn's Desk
Chris Campbell, CC BY-NC 2.0

Citation is important for maintaining academic integrity. During your graduate degree or scientific research project, you will find yourself reading dozens of research articles, and you need to keep track of what was done in each and where those ideas came from. It is useful to try to write a single sentence (or two) that summarizes how the research in the paper relates to your own work. This can be done the old fashioned way by printing the paper and adding a post-it note to the first page. Or you can use a citation manager (EndNote, Mendeley) or OneNote to keep track electronically.

Tip #3: Record yourself talking about what you want to write
Sometime’s it’s easier to just talk. Verbal discussion of science is less formal and doesn’t require grammar or spelling. Even if you are talking to yourself, it can help you get your ideas flowing. If you want to capture everything, record yourself or use a transcription tool (e.g., in Camtasia) to turn your speech into text.
Tip #4: “Perfect is the enemy of done” –Catherine Carrigan
Writing is a challenge for almost everyone, and perfectionism can make it nearly impossible to write your first draft. Remember that you can fix your spelling, grammar, the order of your ideas, and format in the Editing stage and just write as much as possible!






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Principles of Scientific Communication Copyright © 2020 by Amanda Bongers and Donal Macartney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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