Outlines are like vegetables, most people agree that an outline is an important preliminary step in writing, whether it’s for an essay, a novel, or a technical article, and yet when many people sit down to write they skip this step. Some peoples have been scared off by the complicated formal outline taught in high school and some denounce the use of an outline because they believe that writing that arises organically is better.
An outline is meant to provide structure to your paper. Scientific papers are stories of how an idea led to some experiments which resulted in a discovery. Without an outline to keep things organized, many technical publications quickly devolve into a series of semi-related facts that leave the reader confused rather than enlightened.
So what are the elements of a good outline? For the bare bones of an outline, look no further than the main headings of a journal publication:
2. Materials and Methods
These sections on their own don’t offer much in the way of structure, but they do serve an important function of deciding where each of your facts belong. The real outlining starts when we break each of these sections down.
Start by introducing what is being studied (such as a protein), its function, and why it’s important. Next, a basic overview of what is currently known, this is probably the hardest part of the introduction to write because it can be difficult to decide what to leave out. Finally, you want to tell your reader what your hypothesis is and why it’s important.
Materials and Methods
This section is a good way to ease yourself into writing. Each experiment is a small section on its own and contains all the steps you did to perform the experiments This is less explicit than a lab notebook but still explicit enough that anyone with similar scientific knowledge could use your paper to replicate your experiments.
This is where it gets tougher. Though a simple method is to break up the results section in the same way as the methods section, it doesn’t tell the story very effectively. So the results section is often divided by what the results revealed. For example, in a given study a protein proves impossible to purify requiring the creation of different mutants. The mutants display different characteristics which lead to further experiments. The results section of this paper could be divided into one section per characteristic.
The important thing to remember is to decide which story you would like to tell and put the details in such an order that your story gets told. It’s also important to remember that negative results do not drive a paper so they are only mentioned in passing and only in relation to how they drove later successes.
The discussion is where you tie all the results together. Many people confuse the results and discussion sections (further confused because some papers combine them), so it is important to keep in mind which information goes where. The results section includes only the direct results of your experiments, nothing more. The discussion section is where the meaning of these results is explored. For example, in the aforementioned protein purification problem, the different characteristics of each mutant could be discussed and how it affects protein function, why these different characteristics exit, and how they relate to mutations seen in other species.
Simply, the results are just the facts, the discussion goes beyond them.
Finally the end of your paper has come! In here you give a short summary of your work, a line or two on why it’s important, and a suggestion for further research direction. It’s usually straightforward, just avoid hyperbolic references to your own work being the most important discovery of all time and you’ll be fine.
Bonus section: the abstract
While the abstract does appear first in the paper, it’s best to wait until the end to write it. The abstract is both a summary and an advertisement for your paper, since people will read it to decide if they want to read the rest of the paper. The abstract should include one or two lines of introduction, your hypothesis in some form, a mention of your most important experiments, and a line that covers the take home message of your paper. It can be difficult to write because it’s hard to distill so much information down to one page or less, but it’s worth getting it right.
I hope this takes some of the mystique out of writing an outline and that you’ll be encouraged to try it on your next writing assignment.