How to write a scientific paper

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Preliminary notes

Having no plan, she tries to do everything at once. She opens a blank document in her editor. She stares at the document—still blank—and tries to think of the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph. At the same time, our writer is still—perhaps unbeknownst to herself—in the process of understanding her results and what to make of them. She might even be uncertain of the point that her paper should make.

Whereas reading is usually linear, writing does not have to be. The process of writing should be modular: first, sculpt your raw materials into rough blocks that together form your story, and then start working on the blocks, filling in more and more details until entire sentences begin to appear towards the end of this process.

This top-down approach begins by identifying the key point of the paper and then involves structuring the material that supports this point into a storyline. That’s right: scientific papers are stories. They are not just containers of information!



This top-down approach begins by identifying the key point of the paper and then involves structuring the material that supports this point into a storyline. That’s right: scientific papers are stories. They are not just containers of information! This storyline is then condensed into the abstract of the paper—my advice is to always write the abstract first, not last.

The first choice that you have to make is also the most important one: what is your paper about? What is its key point? What is its conclusion? Your answers lay the foundation for the rest of the paper.

Next, we will develop a super-compressed version of that storyline: the abstract of your paper.

The abstract is the storyline of the paper in miniature form. It determines the rest. Once you have composed your abstract, you have decided what story you want to tell. This makes the paper much easier to write and results in a more focused outcome; you can think of the rest of the paper as an extended version of the abstract.

An abstract that follows this storyline resembles an hourglass: it starts by broadly introducing the setting in the setup phase. Then it narrows down to a specific research problem (confrontation) and its solution (resolution). Then the hourglass widens again as the abstract returns to the broader picture (epilogue). It is not a coincidence that this is exactly how every Nature abstract reads.


Journalists use the term lede for the first few sentences of a news story—presumably spelled that way rather than “lead” for historical reasons that involve mechanical typesetting. The lede is the lead portion of a news story. It gives the reader the gist of the story and entices them to read the rest. While the lede should contain the essence of the story, it should not explain everything—it should raise questions so that the paragraphs that follow can satisfy the curiosity of the reader.


You can only follow the story if you understand the setting and know the characters (context), and you will only feel invested in the story if you care about the characters (excitement). The same applies to any research paper and its abstract: your reader has to understand the context and care enough about your research problem to read on and find out how the problem was solved.




This section reports on findings from the first year of the ... project and on preliminary findings from the second-year implementation.

This paper presents the experience and results of CT4G as a pilot program, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to show its potential for shifting perceptions

Student quotations and vignettes are presented here to describe the CT4G experience, but no claim is made that these data are representative of all students’ experiences with CT4G as a whole.

These brief vignettes show examples of how computing can align with, and leverage, existing student interests and ideas to enable new forms of Making and computational participation.


In the following four vignettes, I will discuss positive and negative scenarios of the implementation of digital fabrication in education based on the categories I just described.


It is usually much faster to write a quick-and-dirty first draft and then edit it several times than it is to attempt flawless sentences from the outset. Editing is much faster than writing and—at least for me—much less painful. So, let’s get started!


Outlining the paper often results in the discovery of new connections and arguments, or you might find holes in your thinking that you need to fill before continuing. If so, great, do it—put your trust in the writing process and let it guide you. You might also find that outlining your paper throws up difficult decisions, but don’t spend too much time dwelling on details: just skip that bit, and see if the process of writing solves your problem later.

But if you have an outline, a plan, you can start writing easily and quickly at any time. With a paragraph-level outline, almost any available slot of time can be used for writing. Pick one of your paragraphs, look at your notes, and just write a sentence or two. Working in this way will help you to complete the first draft sooner than you’d think.

Strong paragraphs

// The process of making SP is alike writing script of movie //

You can make your first paragraph stronger by ending it with some contrast, for example, a sentence like “despite all this, we do not yet fully understand X” or “however, the role of Y remains an open question”. The subject that provides contrast—the thing that is not yet understood—doesn’t have to be the exact research question that your paper deals with. It could be something bigger, providing broader motivation for your question.


Be honest

Therefore, it pays to be honest: if you don’t get it, say so. If there is something odd in a plot, call it out. If you are not convinced by the explanations of others, say it. You might have spotted something that no one else gets either, and that could lead somewhere important.


If your result opens new problems, it is even more valuable—your fellow scientists will be happy to attack those problems and cite you while they are at it. Being a scientist is not about answers but about questions. A scientist without questions is an unhappy scientist—give others good questions and they will love you for it!

Script & Movie

The process of going through your results and deciding what to keep resembles the editing of a Hollywood movie. After the movie has been shot, the director and the editor start working with an abundance of raw materials that are to be sculpted into the final product—the theatrical cut. The goal is to assemble the film from the shots and scenes that best support the storyline while cutting out non-essential footage. Your paper is your theatrical cut. Only use what it needs, and leave out the rest.


A small request: please never, ever use a title of the “Towards Understanding Problem X” variety. Just don’t do it. Pretty please. If your research is worth publishing, you have arrived somewhere. Just be confident and tell the reader where this is, instead of telling them where you would rather have gone! It is OK to say something about the bigger picture in the title, as long as your key point plays a leading role. But to keep your title concise, it may be better to describe long-term goals elsewhere in the paper.


Use words that everyone in your target audience can understand. Avoid subfield-specific jargon. Simply does it! The paper’s title should only contain concepts that can be understood on their own, without any explanation. While there is some room in the abstract for explaining one or two important concepts in brief, there is no such luxury in the title:

How To Write A Scientific Paper: An Academic Self-Help Guide for PhD Students (Saramäki, Jari)

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