Monday, April 16, 2012

How to write a paper in two days

On my most popular post "How to write an abstract in 30 minutes" I was asked if I could come up with something similar for writing a paper.
Recently, I've noticed that I need to hack my way through getting a paper written in the least amount of time possible, as things have been getting more and more busy. Here's my method for getting a first draft of a paper to discuss with my advisors in two days (and it also involves answering questions to myself):

1. The masterplan

I never start by staring at a blank page on my computer screen. Instead, I pick up pencil and paper and start to answer the following questions to myself:

What's the target audience?
Is this paper going to a bridge engineering conference, a bridge maintenance conference, a structural engineering conference, a concrete conference or is it going to a journal? Do I have examples of proceedings of this conference from past years or do I have a paper I enjoyed reading from the journal to give me some ideas?

What's my key message?
Around which argument or idea do I want to structure my paper? This key message needs to be related to the target audience.

How do I structure my argument?
Different approaches are possible: I've been using two main schemes in the past:
1) Introduction - Experiments - Results - Conclusions
2) Introduction - Statement - Proof of Statement - QED and conclusions

What do I have?
Which material is ready, what needs to be prepared? Don't make it too detailed. It is important to know which parts of research you have that you can use here, and which parts you have written out somewhere else.

2. Filling up

Now it's time to turn to the computer again, with the masterplan as a starting point. If there is a format provided by the organizers or printers, I immediately start writing in the right format; that helps to get an idea of the length of the article.

The structure
I start with writing out the headings of the paper - depending on how I am planning to structure my argument. At this moment, subheadings (if necessary) are added as well. Sometimes I start with more subheadings, but then in the editing stage leave them out and turn them into the consecutive paragraphs of a section.

The fill
I like to dump all material I have ready into the document at the right section. I pull a few sections from a previous paper, or from a report, or from some word document which holds references and graphs from the literature. All this information gets pasted into the document. Next, I write the missing sections. This typically amounts to more than the double of the number of allowed pages.

3. Editing 

Now it's time again to walk away from the computer. I like to print out this mass of half structured information and sit down with pencil and paper again. I then start to scratch out the information I don't need, condense the text, make the argument stronger and rewrite sentences. Finally, I change the images or I draw additional sketches - only the ones that are necessary to support the argument.

I like comparing this process to making (tomato) sauce: in the "masterplan" stage, I take my recipe and see what I have in my pantry or what I need from the store, in the "filling up" stage, I throw all the ingredients together; in the "editing" stage I make it simmer on the stove for a few hours so it becomes denser and richer and add some spices.


  1. Great post. Stepping away from the computer at first is a really good start. You can and you should plan everything and then writing is not only much easier and lightening fast. Editing on paper is a nice touch as well, I think I'll try this out.

  2. Thanks Ben! I typically do the editing at home, either on the sofa or on my bed, being all relaxed and enjoying the quiet - and then it works really well to keep concentrated and see if the argument holds together.

  3. i'm sorry... what is "QED"?

    thanks for this post, overall; i'm about to use this format on a thought paper. i spent part of this year coming up with a system that i was going to blog about (but not a 2-day method). ultimately, i figured out it wasn't very helpful, after all, lol! i think it was just too cumbersome.

  4. Hi Amanda,

    QED stands for "Quod est demonstrandum" and is typically used at the end of a (mathematical) proof, meaning "which is proven".

    Let me know how you like this approach, and I sure would like to read about the approach you are thinking of using.


    1. ah, thank you! so i think i've finally pulled together something that will work well for me. i don't have enough work completed to cut my writing time down to two days, but it's definitely helped me get more organized. check out what i've done! ~>

      ~amanda michelle

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  6. Thank you so much! It is very helpful for me to archive a conference proceedings on a fast track.

  7. Thanks Eva for this post. To be ready to start writing, how long time did you need to prepare the materials you need?

    1. That really depends on the contents of the paper. Experimental work obviously takes a fair amount of time.

  8. It very informative post. I liked the idea of planning in a classic way and far from computer. I may try this out for a short conference paper.

  9. You didn't say anything about the research itself - that is, how and where to get materials and information that you don't yet have - that you have to search for, and that may be difficult to come by. I believe that's the most difficult part of writing a paper, most especially when the subject has not/rarely ever been treated before.

    1. How do you mean? You mean the actual research itself?


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