The essentials of science writing: plan before you write

Writing is a complex activity that needs planning

The planning process prior to science writing is often ad-hoc and focused upon developing content. But there are important decisions that need to be made before you start writing if you want to produce a high-quality document, especially decisions relating to document design and audience identification. If your planning is limited to jotting down a title and a few key points before you start, that is not enough. Careful planning involves thorough decision-making which takes time, even though it might be tempting to cut corners and skip the planning process all together.

An effective plan will help you to be an efficient writer

Not only should planning decisions be made before you start writing, they need to be written into a coherent, separate document plan. This document plan can then be referred to as you write your proposed document.

Getting started is one of the most difficult obstacles to successful writing. If you begin your writing with an effective plan, not only will it help you to get started, it will help you stay on track. A lack of planning can lead to inefficient writing in the early stages; for example, writing too much detail in some sections and not enough in others or spending too much time writing about an idea that gets cut out later. A clear plan will allow yourself sufficient time to think about what you want to write and reduce the risk of producing a document that is difficult to read and understand.

Preparing a written plan may significantly reduce time spent rewriting and redrafting when working with co-authors or if senior staff need to approve your drafts. There is nothing worse than spending hours writing and perfecting your thinking on a topic, only to have this work cast aside because your manager later decides to change the document’s structure or purpose. Once a written plan is agreed to, any changes can be monitored and implemented through regular reviews and updates, if necessary.

Traditionally, document plans focus upon content

Document plans are not new but usually focus upon content preparation (e.g. report templates) and advise the author what to write to satisfy a project’s purpose and objectives. However, an effective document plan should also outline how you are going to manage each stage of the writing process. At different stages of the writing process many people simply think about what needs to be done and jot down tasks on a to-do list or in project management software. Decisions about tasks that involve writing with others are often made through discussions, emails and project management software, while sometimes the writing process might not be managed at all. Rarely are these decisions written down as a separate plan before work commences on the proposed document.

What should be included in a document plan?

A document plan should include all information relating to the design, preparation and production activities needed for you to successfully complete your document. I refer to this type of plan as a Document Preparation Plan that addresses key aspects of document production (Part 1) and document design (Part 2). As with any plan, you should not expect this plan to be perfect as it will not be possible to predict exactly what will be written or exactly what is needed to manage all writing-related tasks. A Document Preparation Plan should be short and succinct and be updated if necessary, depending upon the size of the writing project and whether co-authors are involved.

Part One. Document production

The first part of the planning process involves documenting all tasks that need to be managed in order to successfully complete a high-quality document. It can include how and when these tasks will be completed.

Factors to include:

  1. outlining your purpose (reasons) for writing
  2. identifying your target audience
  3. listing all non-writing activities needed to complete the document and setting appropriate deadlines for each activity
  4. outlining all resources needed for all writing and non-writing activities  

Part Two. Summary of document content & structure

This is the part of a document plan that most writers complete as the first stage of the writing process, but not always satisfactorily; many writers postpone working out the central thrust of their document until the final stages of writing. However, it is crucial to decide what key messages you want to cover before you start writing including your aim or problem statement and key findings. It is ok to change your mind about these key messages as your progress through your writing, but completing this first step in the content planning process gives you a firm framework on which to build your story.

Factors to include:

  1. Draft title and subtitle
  2. The aim and problem statement
  3. Summary of methods & results
  4. Implications of the results and general conclusion(s)
  5. Document type (i.e. science report) & length
  6. Type and number of visual aids (i.e. graphs, tables, diagrams)

Download the Document Preparation Plan (checklist)

To help you design a document preparation plan to suit your topic, I have developed a Document Preparation Plan (checklist) which is available here as a free download (pdf) 

© Marina Hurley 2018


  1. 8 steps to writing your first draft
  2. Two ways to be an inefficient writer
  3. Work-procrastination: important stuff that keeps us from writing

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