Outlining Your Manuscript Before Writing It

Getting started writing a manuscript once you have some results you’d like to publish can be difficult. Despite having a general idea of what you want to discuss, the challenge comes in putting that idea to paper and deciding what supporting information to include and what to leave out.

Without any clear guidance, you’re almost certain to run into writer’s block.

This is where creating an initial outline can help.

The brief outline

The idea behind drafting an outline is to make things easy for yourself. Start with a simple set of bullet points outlining the main items you might want to include in your manuscript. This is what we call a brief outline. Use the basic IMRaD structure as your base and flesh it out from there. For example, a basic format might look something like this:


  • Introduce that stress-related diseases are a major contributor to health problems in home-based caregivers
  • Discuss that epidemiological data on the stressors leading to these diseases are limited
  • Describe previous studies that have attempted to identify lifestyle factors that might contribute to the development of the diseases
  • Discuss the lack of information on work-related stressors and that these may go under-reported
  • Identify suspected causes of workplace stress
  • State the aim of the study, which was to determine the workplace factors associated with increased stress-related diseases in home-based caregivers

       Patients & Methods

  • Describe the study population including the eligibility criteria for enrollment

Don’t need worry about making it long; the goal here is to keep it short and sweet.

You can see how we outlined the Introduction, touching on the major discussion points and places where reference to published articles is needed. You would then proceed in the same way for each subsequent section.

For example, under Methods, what methods did you use to conduct your study? Did you perform statistical analyses? Were any patients enrolled? These are all good subsections to include and are a good place to start building the overall structure of your paper.

Think about your Results.

You’ll have had an aim or hypothesis stated at the outset of your study; what results are most important to discuss in relation to this aim?

For your Discussion, are there any related studies that either support or contradict your results? Were there any patterns or causal factors evident in the results that are worth discussing in more detail?

Make bullet points on anything relevant that you think might be worth discussing and don’t be afraid to include too much—the beauty of the outlining process is that it will help you visualize the structure of your manuscript in a very basic form and allow you to reorganize discussion points or remove items easily before you’ve gotten too invested in the writing.

In the end, your brief outline might only be 30–40 short bullet points, but that’s ok; it’s only the shell of what you plan to create.

Proposed display items

As part of the outlining process, you should also consider including proposed figures and tables. These may change as you further develop your draft, but are an important complement to your text.

You may also need to make some tough decisions on the most important items to use if your target journal has restrictions on the number of display items, so it’s best to consider them early.

After this first step, you can gradually expand your basic outline to become a full first draft before revising it. Don’t forget to have your final draft checked for logic and language.

Have the technical content of your manuscript reviewed by an independent expert in your field BEFORE submitting to your target journal. This will allow you to improve the content based on advice and recommendations from an experienced expert and will minimize the need for revisions after submission.

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