Category Archives: Writing research papers

8 steps to writing your first draft

Many writers find it hard to start writing, and once they do start, after writing a few sentences, they stop and immediately rewrite these sentences until they are perfect. This is a type of procrastination but because it involves writing, it's a hard habit to recognise and then break. Following these 8 steps will help you complete a content-rich imperfect first draft and avoid the trap of getting side-tracked by perfectionism. 


1. Outline your core topic


If you are writing a paper or report, start by outlining the key problems you seek to solve with your project. Briefly outline how they will be (or were) solved, then list the main findings. Develop a broad framework that you can modify and add further detail in later drafts. Write a summary of the what, who, how, where, when, and why?

Don’t try and write perfectly: stick to just writing notes, headings and bullet points that help you understand what direction you are going with your writing. 

2. Identify your audience

What you write and how much detail you provide depends upon who you are writing to, so clearly identify your target audience.
  • What is their background? 
  • Why are they reading your document?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Do you have more than one target audience?
3. Plan with pre-writing

Pre-writing is the thinking, note-taking, outlining, summarising, mind-mapping, brainstorming and question-asking needed to plan and develop your core topic. Pre-writing is where you focus on the big picture while writing your first draft and can include hand-writing and drawing diagrams on a whiteboard or large piece of paper.

Try recording yourself talking about your project or use voice-recognition software to capture additional thoughts and ideas.
4. Make a mess and clean it up in later

The first draft should be messy, rough and amenable to change, allowing you to remould your structure with successive drafts. Write bullet points, sentence fragments, and temporary paragraph headings. Avoid trying to write perfect sentences and paragraphs (polishing). Don’t worry about being repetitive or boring. Avoid making your writing eloquent, stylistic or succinct in the first draft: you can revise and improve your writing as your rework later drafts.

5. Avoid adding minute details

Adding minute details to a specific sub-topic in a first draft can be a form of procrastination from writing about your key points. Aim to produce a first draft that reflects your main ideas without explaining them in minute detail. There is no point adding too much detail in the first draft as you may change your mind about what you want to say. Allowing yourself to change your mind about what you write is another important reason why you should avoid writing perfect sentences in your early drafts.

6. Start writing without engaging your inner critic


Don’t worry if your first draft doesn’t make complete sense. Don’t worry about the reader in a first draft. Don't worry if you're not completely sure about what you want to say or what your final conclusions will be. Give yourself time to develop and improve your thinking as you work through successive drafts. By not writing perfectly in your first draft you are allowing yourself to easily to chop up, delete or dramatically change what you have written. 

7. Don’t stop to do more research

While writing, don’t stop if you are unsure about a particular fact or if you realise your need to look something up. Instead try writing reminder notes to yourself directly in your draft in hard brackets and make time to follow this up later. For example, [I remember that there was a recent report that looked into topic X - look this up] or [ask Luke about those review papers he mentioned during his talk]. Try to do your research before and after each draft. When you allocate time for writing, just write. When you have finished your first draft you can review what you have written and identify topics that need further research.

8. Seek appropriate feedback


When you finish your imperfect draft, seek feedback that is appropriate for what you aimed to achieve. Seek feedback on your key ideas and summary points that outline your core topic. If you follow the protocol of not writing perfect first drafts, ask your colleagues to ignore punctuation, grammar, sentence structure and any lack of details or thorough explanations that can be tackled in later drafts.

and remember...

  • If you give your draft to more than one person for feedback, give the same version to each person and get them to give their feedback separately. Not only is it confusing to read multiple comments and editing on the one document when there is more than one reviewer, some reviewers' opinions may be unduly influenced by someone else's comments.
  • Before you make changes to your first draft, print it out, take it to a cafe and edit it with a pen or pencil. Editing a paper copy of your document can give you a fresh view of what you have written and also break the cycle of making continuous small changes when writing or editing  on screen. It's also easier to view a document as a whole when printed out.
  • Keep both digital and printed copies of each draft so you can quickly retrieve writing that has been previously culled.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Work procrastination: important tasks that keep us from writing


There is a lot of angst with people who want to write, yet cannot seem to. This is commonly referred to as writer’s block. Often the cause of writer’s block is procrastination.

There are a lot of blogs about procrastination; lots of advice and many very humourous blogs and skits (remember when Bernard from Black Books (Series 1, Ep. 1) gladly paired his socks and welcomed in the Jehovah’s Witness to avoid having to do his tax?). We could procrastinate by reading about procrastination: It’s very easy to procrastinate by learning how not to procrastinate. It’s also easy to recognise most types of procrastination: playing computer games, snacking, walking the dog, doing the dishes, chatting to your work colleagues and generally allowing yourself to get distracted by anything colourful, shiny, noisy or interesting.

A less obvious type of procrastination is simply keeping busy, also known as busywork: “work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but actually only keeps one occupied”. What is even less obvious is what I call work-procrastination; this is when you are working on a task that is very closely related to, but is not actually, writing. For example, sorting computer files; doing that extra bit of background reading on a topic you are already familiar with; editing the reference list of your report; looking up the perfect definition of a concept; proofreading; re-reading; or spending 40 minutes rewriting and polishing a nearly-perfect paragraph when you haven’t yet considered what might be the major points in your first draft.

You tell yourself that working on these related tasks will ultimately help complete the task; you convince yourself that they are important and necessary and that they must be completed before you write. Because we know these related tasks still have to be completed at some point, we procrastinate by doing them instead of writing.

How to realise when you are work-procrastinating?

When you stop writing and allow yourself to be distracted by other important tasks.

How to avoid work-procrastination?

–        Block off time on your calendar where you are only writing.
–        If it’s a first draft, just write. Write messily and incoherently and incompletely. Get your main ideas out first.
–        Don’t stop and worry if you are making sense – leave that for when you tackle the second draft.
–        Don’t stop and re-read and edit what you’ve just written– leave that for when you tackle the second draft.
–        Set up a zone of silence to reduce distractions. 

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

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What goes into a document’s Appendix?


In a nutshell: Any additional information or data that supports the main document or report.

Appendices (singular; appendix), supporting information, and supplementary data are terms that describe information presented as an attachment to a report, paper, article or thesis. The term used depends on the type of communication being prepared; appendices are usually used in theses and reports, whereas supplementary data or supporting information are often terms used by scientific journals.

Scientific journals place constraints on the length of published papers and actively encourage the use of supporting information to keep papers short and concise. Supporting materials are also peer-reviewed and their inclusion should be scientifically relevant.

In general, supporting information is:

– Relevant to the main report and provides extra information that will expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

– Not strictly necessary or essential; the report should include all of the information required to address the research problem and still be understandable to the reader without referring to the supporting information.

– Too cumbersome for the main report.

Examples of supporting information include:

– Extra information about methods used in the research project; for example, details on reagents, specific conditions used, and detailed descriptions of measuring instruments.

– Large and complex datasets, with a summary or subset of the data included in the main report. Large spreadsheets using software such as Excel can often be inserted in supporting information.

– Detailed drawings, maps, diagrams or charts.

– Sample calculations or detailed mathematical derivations.

– Questionnaires or surveys.

– Raw data or analytical data (e.g. data produced from instruments), with a summary of the processed data included in the main report.

– Detailed text, such as transcripts of interviews and excerpts from surveys.

– Summaries of other reports that expand the reader’s knowledge of the topic.

For studies with large datasets, the use of a public data repository could be appropriate. Check the journal you are submitting to as they usually provide information on the types of data repositories that should be considered. Lists of data repositories are also available (see Further Reading).

​Structure guidelines

Divide the information into appropriate sections, with each section on a separate page. Each section should have a title that clearly explains its content.

Label the sections; appendices are usually labelled Appendix 1, 2, 3 (or A, B, C) whereas as supporting information is often labelled according to its type; for example, Supplementary Table 1, Supporting Figure 1, Supplementary Movie 1. As with figures and tables in the main report, supporting information is numbered according to the order it is mentioned in the text of the report.

The page numbering should be continued from the last page of text in the main report.

Always remember to check publisher’s requirements and editorial guidelines. Figures and tables should be carefully formatted as per editorial requirements, ensuring appropriate file formats are used. Also look at different formats presented in documents specific to your field.

​Citation

Insert appendices at the end of the report, after the bibliography. Ensure all supporting information is appropriately cited in the report; it should be easy to find. Also ensure it is listed in the table of contents (if used).

Critically evaluate your supporting information; Is it relevant and does it expand the reader’s understanding?

Further reading

Organising your social sciences research paper: Appendices

Data repositories

- Registry of Research Data Repositories

- List of data repositories

Example Instructions to Authors

- Science: preparing your supplementary materials

- The Veterinary Journal Guide for Authors: Supplementary material

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: Supplementary Materials and Data Deposit 

© Dr Liza O’Donnell and Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au

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How to maintain high-quality images for publication


How to ensure your photos, graphs and illustrations are of suitable quality for publication

Digital images are stored in different formats, depending upon the software. Common examples include TIFF, JPEG and EPS. Before preparing figures for the web or for print, it is vital to ensure that the appropriate resolution is used.

Resolution describes the number of pixels within an image and image quality increases with resolution. A pixel is the smallest unit of digital information that forms an image. Resolution can be expressed as the number of pixels per dimension (e.g. 1200 pixels wide by 750 pixels high) or as the number of pixels within a specified area (pixels per inch or ppi). An image that has a resolution of 300ppi and is 4 x 2.5 inches in size, will be 1200 pixels wide (4 x 300) = and 750 pixels high (2.5 x 300). In general, the more pixels you have per unit area, the more detailed the image will be and the larger the file size. Some software (such as Photoshop) allows you to change the units to pixels per centimetre; however, the publishing standard is usually ppi.

The resolution of an image for viewing on a monitor is described in ppi, whereas the term dots per inch (dpi)describes the resolution of a printed image, as printers print dots and not pixels. The terms are used interchangeably but for most purposes, ppi and dpi are essentially the same thing to describe resolution. To view an image on the accepted resolution is 72ppi as most LCD monitors display 67-130ppi. When submitting figures for publication, 300 ppi is the generally accepted resolution for print images.

    High quality (300ppi)                                                                      Low quality (50ppi)

If your image needs to be 300ppi, then you need to consider the size of your image in the final printed form and the number of pixels in your total image. A photo that will be 4 x 2.5 inches when printed will need at least 1200 x 750 pixels to achieve the desired print-quality resolution of 300 ppi. If you have fewer pixels, then the quality of the image (i.e. the resolution) will be reduced. You can also quickly check whether the resolution is sufficient by zooming your image to 400% and if it is blurry (pixelated), then the image may not reproduce well when printed. For more information on image resolution, and another way to check if the resolution of your image is appropriate, see https://www.thecanvasprints.co.uk/image-resolution-for-printing. ​

When re-sizing an image, some software programmes automatically change the size of the image without changing the number of pixels. For example, if you re-size a 1200 x 750 pixel image from 4 x 2.5 inches to a 12 x 7.5 inches the number of pixels will remain the same but the resolution will drop from 300ppi to 100ppi . The larger image will look OK on the screen, but the image quality will be poor if it is printed. Whatever image size you require, ensure the final version is at the desired resolution.

Additional terminology

Colour space is the way colour information is stored in a file. Grayscale refers to black and white (and grey!) images which use a single colour channel. RGB is a commonly-used colour space that divides colours into 3 channels: Red, Green and Blue. RGB is used by computers and digital devices and is commonly used by publishers who want to make sure their documents are properly displayed on their reader’s devices. CMYK is a four channel colour space (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) commonly used during the printing process. An RGB image might need to be converted to CMYK if it will be printed. Some publishers will do the conversion themselves, so you need to be aware that the colour of RGB images may look different when converted to CMYK.

Re-sampling changes the number of pixels in an image. Re-sampling is different to re-sizing. Down-sampling removes pixels and creates a smaller image, whereas up-sampling adds pixels using algorithms. Because re-sampling adds or removes pixels, a loss of image quality could result. This could be particularly important if you are presenting images that are taken from a microscope; it is imperative that re-sampling does not change the specific features of the data within the micrograph. As a general rule, create your images at the highest resolution possible to avoid the need to re-sample. However, re-sampling may sometimes be necessary; for example, when converting a very high-resolution image to a small size (2 x 2 inches). Always keep original files and ensure that the re-sampling process only happens towards the end of the figure creation process, so that you can go back to the original image if needed.

​Image compression: Some file types (e.g. JPG) compress the pixels in the image to reduce file size. Be aware that different compression methods can affect image quality. Pay attention to the publisher’s requirements for compression and whether your software compresses by default.

Raster vs vector images: Raster images use raster data that is stored as pixels, for example, digital photographs. Because raster images use pixels, the quality is highly dependent on resolution. Vector images use vector data comprised of lines and curves, for example, line graphs. Because vector images do not use pixels, they can be re-sized to a very large size without becoming pixelated and losing quality. If you are publishing images that are line graphs only, consider using vector format files such as EPS. However, if you are assembling a line graph into a larger figure that includes digital images, the entire figure will become rasterised at some point; meaning that your vector image will become a raster image and need high resolution.

Additional reading on this topic

Introduction to Digital Resolution.
Image resolution and print quality.
How to create publication-quality figures.
The difference between image re-sizing and re-sampling.
Science: preparing your art and figures.

© Dr Liza O’Donnell and Dr Marina Hurley  2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


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The essentials of the Executive Summary (FAQ)


In my writing workshops, I am often asked how to write or structure an executive summary. In this blogpost I list seven frequently-asked questions and my answers. Please note that I provide general advice here and that the exact nature and structure of any report or report sections, including the executive summary, may depend upon many factors including industry or discipline, report type and purpose and target audience.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is the section of a technical, scientific or business report report that summarises key features of the project or proposal.

What is the purpose of the executive summary?

The target audience of a report should be able to fully understand, and be able to act upon, the key findings written within the summary without having to read the rest of the report. Readers that rely on a clear, accurate executive summary are often those people who make funding, personnel, or policy decisions and need to assess information quickly and efficiently.

As the executive summary is often the first part of the report, it also has a role of engaging the reader and immediately informing them of the purpose, procedure and findings of the project. If the executive summary fails to engage the reader, the report could be discarded and left unread.

What are the essential components of an executive summary?

An executive summary should contain the essential outcomes or findings of the report that have direct relevance to the practical, operational, managerial or reporting requirements of its target audience. An executive summary should explain the scope of the study, the problems or issues that need to be addressed, how they were assessed and provide the findings and conclusions and recommendations arising from these conclusions.

How should an executive summary be structured?

The executive summary should stand alone and be independent of the report. Firstly, determine if there are guidelines within your organisation or industry or with your stakeholders that dictate the content and structure of an executive summary.  The structure could mirror the structure of the full report, but whether this is necessary might depend upon the type and purpose of the report.

The executive summary should include a brief summary of every section of the report. Depending upon templates and industry guidelines, and upon the length of the summary, headings and bullet points can be used. Avoid presenting too much information as bullet points as this can unnecessarily increase the length of the executive summary.

Depending upon the type of report, the executive summary might include a summary of the following:

  • Project description: project aims and objectives, issues or problems that need solving, outline of who the report is designed for and the client requirements or deliverables.
  • Background:  factors that lead to the development of the current project. What partners or stakeholders are involved and an outline of their requirements.
  • Process or methods: procedures or actions that were necessary to complete the project. How data was collected and assessed or analysed.
  • Findings and conclusions. How, or if, the problems were addressed or solved.
  • Implications and recommendations of findings and conclusions.
  • Who is responsible to undertake recommendations and how outcomes are to be communicated or acted upon.
  • Implications for future work and development of policies.

How much detail should be included in the executive summary?

As key decisions are often made by only reading the executive summary it is imperative that all relevant information is presented. Ensure that any generalisations do not mask important points. In the process of summarising the key findings, it is essential that crucial caveats, stipulations, qualifications or limitations are not omitted. Nevertheless, the executive summary should be as concise as possible yet still provide the minimum amount of information or evidence needed to support the report’s findings, conclusions and recommendations. All conclusions and recommendations presented in the executive must be fully explained in further details in the body of the report. This is especially important in case your reports and other documentation need to be audited in the future.

What information should not be included in an executive summary?

Do not introduce any new information that is not in your report. Avoid using acronyms, in-house terminology or any other words or phrases that your target audience will not be familiar with. Avoid copying sentences and paragraphs from the report into the executive summary: this is not summarising.

What is the optimum length of an executive summary?

The length of an executive summary depends upon the length and purpose of the report. If the report is short, the length might be less than half a page while executive summaries of large reports could be 5-30 pages in length.

How is an executive summary different to an abstract?

Executive summaries are found in all types of reports, including non-scientific documents, whereas abstracts are summaries of scientific or academic peer-reviewed research papers. Readers of reports may act upon the information presented in an executive summary without reading the rest of the report, whereas the abstract of papers provide an overall summary and readers should read the entire paper before making their own interpretations of the study’s findings. This is especially important when citing information presented in a research paper. One should not cite the findings of a research paper after having only read the paper’s abstract.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020


SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

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