The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Don’t listen to the King.
At least, not when writing a scientific paper. There are, to be sure, good times to start at the beginning and continue to the end: telling your child a bedtime story, making flan, singing a song from a treacly 1960s musical.* But writing isn’t one of those times. At least, I don’t write my papers that way; it doesn’t work for me.
That’s actually a slight exaggeration. Once, a long time ago, I wrote a paper by starting with the first line of the Introduction and continuing until I came to the last line of the Discussion. It was this paper, and unfortunately, it worked. I say “unfortunately”, because that was the first paper I ever wrote on my own, and it came out smoothly and easily in a single weekend from start to finish – which set me up in exactly the wrong way for the next paper, and the one after that. Every single other time, I’ve struggled; but I’ve struggled less since I realized that the King’s advice to Alice is terrible advice.
Here’s what I do now: I write the Introduction last. The reason is simple: the job of the Introduction is (obviously) to introduce the paper. But until I’ve written the Discussion, I don’t know what it is I’m introducing! Every piece of the Introduction, in a well-written paper, points to an important question that’s answered, or at least fleshed out, in the Discussion. So, I write the Discussion, and then craft an Introduction (not “the” Introduction) to point straight at it.
So, I don’t begin at the beginning. But I don’t begin with the Discussion, either. Here, for what it’s worth, is my usual sequence.
- I start with the title page and the Acknowledgements. These are trivially easy**, but they suck my brain into thinking I’m making progress.
- Then I take that momentum into the Results, which are a little harder, but not bad, as usually I’ve been playing with the data and I’m excited about it.
- Next comes the Methods section – although that’s in large part a matter of mashing together bits I wrote while actually doing the work. (There’s no better time to write up methods, since while you’re actually doing them, you haven’t forgotten them yet.)
- Now it’s time for the Discussion. Fairly often, writing the Discussion will suggest another analysis that’s worth doing, so I’ll circle back to Results and Methods as necessary.
- With the Discussion put together, I can write the Introduction.
- Finally, remaining front and back matter: an Abstract, a formatted Literature Cited, any Supplemental Materials, and so on. OK, so I guess I don’t quite “write the Introduction last”, but these bits feel more like typing than writing to me. (The Abstract is important! But with a manuscript completed, it’s pretty straightforward to put together.)
Iit took me a while – too long – to figure this out. Once I had, though, it made writing enormously easier, and in hindsight it was a blindingly obvious idea. I’ve been surprised, therefore, to discover that a remarkable fraction of my colleagues still push their mentees to begin at the beginning. This issue rears its head in my scientific writing course. I have my students working on drafts of thesis chapters (mostly), and I ask them to hand in a section at a time. Ideally, I’d have them hand in a Discussion quite early, and an Introduction only late in the semester. But this runs head-on into the students’ supervisors, who want to look at drafts of the same material, and (mostly) insist on starting with an Introduction. Some of my colleagues have an odd attitude to my writing course: they want my students to take it, but not to actually learn what I have to teach them. Sigh.
What about you? Introduction first, or Introduction last? How does your writing sequence differ from mine?
© Stephen Heard May 17, 2022
Image: IMRaD format; own work, CC BY 4.0
This post is partly, and loosely, based on material from my guidebook for scientific writers, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. But you probably guessed that.
*^I’m sorry, but it was in my head, and misery loves company.
**^Especially as I’ll almost always change the title later, when someone who is actually good at titles tells me how. For a recent example, see this post, which only got its title because a reader kindly pointed out the pitch-right-down-the-centre-of-the-plate I hadn’t even noticed…