Outline Your Manuscript Before You Start Writing (and save loads of time)

Research outlines – Edanz

Getting started writing a manuscript once you have some results you’d like to publish can be difficult. When you have this trouble, creating an initial outline can help. Manuscript outlines give you a roadmap to follow.

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 sure to run into writer’s block. Using an outline, you can avoid that block before you hit it.

You can employ a brief outline or extensive outline. Read on to find out how to do each of these.

The brief manuscript 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 technique is called 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 worry about making it long; the goal is to keep it short and sweet.

You can see how we outlined the Introduction, touching on the major discussion points and places where citations are needed. You’d then proceed in the same way for each following 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 had an aim or hypothesis stated at the outset of your study, so then what results are most important to discuss concerning 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 worth discussing in more detail?

Make bullet points on anything you think might be worth discussing. And don’t be afraid to include too much. The beauty of the outlining process is that it helps you visualize your manuscript’s structure in a very basic form and lets you reorganize discussion points or remove items easily before you’re too deep into the writing.

Your brief outline might only be 30–40 short bullet points when you’re done.

That’s ok because it’s only the shell of what you plan to create.

Figures and tables

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

You may also need to make some tough decisions on the most essential 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. And have your final draft checked for logic and language.

The extensive manuscript outline

As you might expect, the idea behind an extensive outline is to make it longer. To do this, you’ll expand on the points you listed in your brief outline – add more details, relevant reference links, and transitions between ideas.

This process is also the final stage in which you can still alter the structure if you don’t like it.

Once you begin a full draft, you should already have all of the key structural and content components in place. That makes things efficient.

As you expand each bullet point into full sentences and additional bullet points, start creating subheadings. Get your outline to look as close to what your finished manuscript will look like, but in point form.

For example, your methods section could look something like this:

Patients and methods

While the manuscript is still a little low on the detail that readers would want to see, the bullet points are much more specific and are now similar to the phrasing you will use when you turn this into a full draft.

As you bulk up the content in this way, you’ll start to notice where extra details will be needed, what text might be a bit extraneous, and how it will all come together as a final package.

Key benefits

  • You get an idea of length. Many journals have length restrictions for articles, so if your extensive outline is already approaching that limit before you even get to the full draft, you may need to look at where you can cut back.
  • Easier reference organization. Leaving references in comment bubbles next to the text they refer to (shown above) allows you to rearrange the material as much as you like without worrying about updating the reference list every time.
  • Refine your figures/tables. By expanding your outline, you will see which proposed figures/tables are essential, decide what to cut, or realize you might need new ones.

Once your co-authors have approved the expanded outline and you’ve rearranged it as much as needed, you’re now ready to start a draft!

By the way, some researchers ask, “What’s the difference between an outline and a manuscript?” They’re totally different. The outline is the skeleton. The manuscript is the whole body. Simple. Start with your skeleton and add meat, and life, to those bones. You’ll write more, and better, and you’ll publish more.

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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