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The Importance of Thinking Before Writing

March 21, 2015 Filed under Blog, Featured, Publishing, Writing 


I was helping a student with a paper he was writing. He said a lot of interesting things, just not being very effective at what he was trying to convey. Here was my advice to him.

If you can write down 1–3 bulleted sentences that convey your principal results or points that you want to communicate to the audience, then the paper is mostly written. The rest of the work is structuring the paper to address those points. Sitting where I do as Chief Editor [of Monthly Weather Review], I’ve seen way too many papers from authors who haven’t decided what they want to communicate or made it clear to the reader. If you don’t have those main points explicit, then there’s usually little point in starting to write a paper. The outcome will be just as you’ve seen it [with your own paper]. If you’re unsure about what you’re trying to say, will the reader be any more sure? 😉

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2 Responses to “The Importance of Thinking Before Writing”
  1. Mark Leonard says:

    Good advice David!

    I often try to get my scientific English students and editing clients to outline before they write, but most of them are skeptical of its worth (“What is this crazy English teacher doing? He should stick to grammar.”) or say they don’t have the time. However, outlining has worked well for those who have tried it.

    As a sort of mini-outline, I often follow Peter Woodford’s (1968) advice and ask students/clients to write down, or at least tell me, what the research question/hypothesis was, and what the main conclusions are. What strikes me is how many, including university professors, then start to summarize their methods: “these samples were taken in this way, and we used all of our equipment to test/measure them in every way we can…” OK, I’m exaggerating a little there at the end, but if I ask them, “Why did you do this? For what? What do these data show?” some seem to be considering these questions for the first time.

    In any case, I’m looking forward to showing them that a real scientist—and journal editor!—agrees with me on this one.

    Woodford FP. 1968. Scientific Writing for Graduate Students: A manual on the teaching of scientific writing. New York (NY): The Rockefeller University Press. p. 10–12.

  2. Prof. David M. Schultz says:

    Hi Mark, and thanks for your comment. Indeed, I see many manuscripts as Editor and reviewer where the point of the paper (or hypothesis) is not made clear. Keep asking those questions of your students/clients! It’s a crucial part of writing, as you know.


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