so they forgot to tell you how to write a paper


This workflow is broken into three parts. Pre-writing is all the stuff that I need to do before I can write. Writing is, you know, the part where you make blank pieces of paper less blank. Post-writing is all the stuff that I need to do after the pieces of paper are quite full. I don’t necessarily complete the stages fully before moving on — sometimes I do Stages 1 and 2 on a section, then do stages 1 and 2 on another section, and so forth until the whole piece is done and I can do stage 3. In general it is hard to do stage 3 to something I haven’t done stage 2 for at all, though (because, like, it is hard to edit before I’ve written anything).

Stage One: Pre-writing

It would be helpful, before you start writing, if you knew what you were going to write.

  • It would be helpful if you have collected and analyzed data (if that’s the sort of thing you’re into)
  • It would be helpful if you knew what length or form requirements you are subject to (to know the scale of the project if nothing else)
  • It would be helpful if you knew genre expectations for this particular piece (e.g. specific journal preferences, trends, flavors that aren’t explicitly part of their style guide but are just tendencies)
  • It would help to know what parts will go in what order.

Pre-writing stage 1a: what is the finished piece for?

Hopefully you know what kind of thing you are writing. If you are writing a research paper for you graduate program requirements, or writing with the intent to submit to a particular journal, or writing with the intent to publish outside the academic literature, those all have format and genre expectations.

  • What’s the minimum/maximum length?
  • Do you need a lit review? How robust an introduction? Abstract?
  • Who is the audience for this? (Is it undergrads, or three specialists on the planet, or your parents, or your twitter followers, or what?)
  • your program/department web site may have requirements
  • your advisor might have opinions
  • you should definitely ask peers/graduates of your program if you can read theirs. (This assumes that you are not the first person to ever do a thesis/paper in your department, which for your sake I hope is a safe assumption).

Pre-writing stage 1b: what is the finished piece going to be about?

It would probably be helpful to figure out what you’re writing about before you start writing. If you’re writing about ~science~ (like I usually am), these are the things I would recommend knowing:

  • What is the core research question? It would probably be good to know this before trying to collect data… also, what is the hypothesis you’re testing? (If you’re into that sort of thing)
  • What data will you be talking about? Did you collect it yourself? Are you… going to collect it yourself? Go collect your data at this stage, please, and not any later stages.
  • What does ~the literature~ say about your thing? How to write a lit review is its whole own separate guide (and I will write one! Eventually!) but you should at least have a general way of organizing information you have gleaned from other authors on this topic.
  • What’s a rough idea of your conclusion? Yes, you should know this before you start writing. (Yes, you’re allowed to change it later.)
  • What is the core argument or insight you’re bringing to the piece?
  • What is the structure of your argumentation?

Pre-writing stage 1c: what will the finished piece say?

This is the outline stage! You should make an outline. Here’s WHY you should make an outline:

  • Structuring an overarching argument is easier when you’re doing it in bullet-point format, rather than just sort of discovering it as you write.
  • If you are writing for the approval of an advisor or editor, you can make them look at the outline! This means they’ll tell you to cut Section 3 before you spend three human weeks writing Section 3. You will be so, so glad you didn’t spend three human weeks writing a section that you were just going to cut, anyways.
  • The outline makes it a lot easier to conform to genre conventions (such as Journal Article)
  • Writing an outline will force you to admit, on paper, in writing, that you totally have not finished collecting or analyzing your data yet, have you?
  • The outline functions as a to-do list for basically everything else that happens.
  • Start from the coarsest-grained divisions possible. Journal articles in my field usually have five-ish sections (Introduction, Lit Review, Methods, Results, Discussion/Conclusion). You can do this part of your process completely templatically by looking at papers in your field and literally just ganking their section structure.
  • For each of the top-level sections (except, sometimes, the Intro and Conclusion), break them down into reasonably-large chunks. For example, the Lit Review Section tends to be organized (in my field) by major threads. So you’ll get three-ish sub-sections in the lit-review: Approach A, Approach B, Mixed A+B Approaches.
  • Once you’ve broken down all the top-level sections into the first subsection division, you can break them down one more time if it’s helpful. For example, if I were breaking down the subsections of the Lit Review, I would break down the Mixed A+B Approaches section to major features. It’s hard to come up with subsubsection names (and I often don’t include them in the final document organization), because they’re named things like “This is why So-and-So hates the Approach A, but Such-and-Such’s (2018) reply argues that it’s fine actually” or like “Xyz realized that approaches A and B are in no way mutually incompatible so here’s what their mixed version looks like, but here’s Abc’s alternate version of a mixed approach.”

By the end of the pre-writing stage, you should have basically all of the thinking done.

By the end of the pre-writing stage, you should have basically all of the thinking done. Your data should be collected, all your stats and analyses figured out, your conclusion pretty much decided. Why? Because writing is hard enough, and it’s even harder to think as you write.

Stage Two: Write!

You do have to write the paper, in order for it to become written.

Option A: Mad-Libs style

This is a way to even more intensively separate the act of writing from the act of thinking. Basically, there are two phases of this style:

Option B: Bedtime Story style

This is a very popular method, even in fields like mine where there’s lots of data and diagrams and LaTeX typesetting. I genuinely do not know why, but it definitely works for some people. Basically, just, like… tell the story. Use your outline to guide the general direction, but write it as you would tell it to a friendly colleague over drinks.

Option C: Style of painting a wall neon yellow

This is the style I recommend if you’re really struggling to keep in mind the full organization of your paper as you write.

Option D: Style of brain-dumping and then translating

This is as much a style of getting “unstuck” as it is of actually writing. I’ve never written an entire paper this way, but I have written huge sections this way. I do this when I feel like I know what I want to say, but the act of turning the ideas into sentences is really hard. Here is the strategy: open a new document (a textpad or other very low-distraction program, or, literally, a text message to yourself or a friend) and just explain what you’re trying to write. Use text-message writing, emojis, keysmashes, don’t fix misspellings, just spew all your ideas in there! This is especially fun if you do have a patient friend who is willing to endure you sending them 6900 texts in a row about, like, plant sex or whatever you’re writing about.

Stage Two point five: decorations

I waffle about whether this stuff properly counts as “writing” or “post-writing.” It does mess up my neat three-stage thing, but so goes it. Here are decorations you might need to consider — either during your writing, or after:

  • Figures: are they good? Are they in there? Are they captioned? Did you, like me, spend a week relearning R (every single time) so you could make really nice plots? Are they colorblind-friendly? Do they fit on the page? Do they have the right axis labels? Make your figures good!
  • Formatting: are your margins and spacing and fonts and page numbers how they should be? If you’re a linguist like me, you also need to make sure your examples are numbered and typeset correctly, and referred to correctly in-text. Make the page look good!
  • Metatext: do you need a title, abstract, keywords? Author order and appropriate related stuff? Table of contents? Section headers?
  • Bibliography: DO NOT DISCOUNT how long it might take, even if you’re wisely using bibliography management software. You will need to make sure all citations are in there, and correct.

Stage Three: Post-writing

OKAY, good job, you wrote it! It’s now a large document with words and maybe even a few pictures! Please give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve done an enormous feat, and you’re two-thirds done now!

Option A: Someone else gets to have opinions

Let’s say what you wrote was a qualifying paper. Good job! You’ll probably turn that in to your advisor, and they’ll have some opinions. This might be a cyclic process, actually — you might have been sending them one finished section at a time, and revising it as you go. I did this with chapters of my dissertation.

  • I’m not sure if the organization of the sections flows nicely, could you comment on that?
  • How accessible is my prose? Are there parts of my writing that get really convoluted or confusing?
  • Does the framing of this argument make sense? I have a few other ideas about how to go about it, but this is my first attempt.

Option B: It’s all you, baby

If this is a term paper you’ve written, or you want to give it a good read-over before showing it to someone else, you can do this step for yourself! This is a little tricky, because our eyes tend to glaze over when reading something we’ve just written. Here are some strategies for giving yourself meaningful edits and critique:

  • Wait a bit before doing this! At least 24 hours, ideally give your brain a few days to rest before attempting this.
  • If possible, print it out and mark it up in pen or sticky-notes.
  • If you can’t print it, make a duplicate of the document and comment it (in DOC or PDF form, whatever) as if it was someone else’s paper you were commenting.
  • Read it aloud to yourself!!!!!! CANNOT recommend this enough — I always find my weirdest typos and issues this way.
  • If your computer has this ability, get the computer to read it aloud to you. (My version of Word does this, and I love it.)

Other parts of Stage Three

Besides the “getting comments and then addressing them” part of writing, other important post-writing work might include:

  • Figuring out how the manuscript management thing for a journal works so that you, like, actually submit the thing
  • Posting pre-prints somewhere, if you’re in a field that does this
  • Writing acknowledgements
  • Dealing with any copyright or publishing stuff, if it’s a journal article or dissertation or book/chapter
  • Filing the appropriate paperwork if it’s a qualifying paper or dissertation required for your program
  • Tweeting triumphantly about it?

Okay, now you get to call it done!

Good job! You wrote a thing! This might have taken a month or several years, depending on the size of thing you wrote and what else you’ve been up to — either way, please give yourself appropriate accolades, this is a wonderful accomplishment! Stage four is to party down and/or clean one million sticky-notes off your desk or close a bunch of tabs. Feels good, doesn’t it?


Writing something like a qualifying paper or dissertation has (at least) three stages:

  • Pre-writing, where you figure out what you’re going to write. Do your experiments and stuff, figure out what the paper’s about, make an outline, etc.
  • Writing, where you make there be words on the page.
  • Post-writing, where you do stuff to the words on the page.



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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod


Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.