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Staring at a blank piece of paper hoping that writing appears by magic on the page is not a good way to start. However, here are some ideas to help you plan/start to write.

Write up the methods first. Many argue this is the easiest section of a paper to write because you are simply describing what you did.

Begin by preparing your key figures and tables. Usually, these illustrate your main messages. For each, prepare a sentence or two that summarises the findings. Together, these will summarise the messages you intend communicating to your readers. They will also form the basis of the conclusion at the end of the paper and the conclusion in the abstract.

Write a ‘problem statement’ (sometimes known as an ‘elevator pitch’) before tackling the introduction and discussion. This is a short paragraph with a sentence or two that describe the general problem area, the specific problem addressed and the extent to which your research has addressed the problem (the contribution). Here is an example:

General problem area… Within UK hospital information networks, around 5,000 data breaches were reported in 2017. Specific problem addressed… However, it is not known to what extent the lack of employee awareness about data security contributes to such alarming figures. We report the results of 100 interviews with healthcare staff within a large NHS trust. Contribution....Many areas of ignorance about data security are uncovered. We provide recommendations to help network administrators increase awareness and reduce the risk of employee-initiated data breaches.

Unless you are able to write such a summary, you may not be sufficiently clear about what you want to tell your audience. It certainly concentrates the mind if you have a go at this.

Use an electronic mindmap. Even if you are only at the beginning of your research (but as early as possible), enter the four sections of a manuscript on your map: introduction, methods, results and discussion.

  • Add or edit your mindmap whenever you wish to add or change anything in the final manuscript. For example, state the question, use a method, report a result, group ideas together, change the order of ideas or have an idea about how your findings relate to another researcher’s work.
  • Crucially, write your notes in sentences or at least include a verb when expressing an idea. Verbs bring meaning to a sentence and every sentence in your final document will need a verb!
  • Copy citation fields from your reference manager and paste them after entering ideas that cite other authors.

Your mindmap will grow and you can move ideas around as you wish. A mindmap does not look anything like a manuscript, but modern electronic mindmaps can finally be exported to Microsoft Word and LaTex. When linked back up with your reference manager, you have your first draft: sections, groups of related ideas in sentences (or at least including a verb) that will become your paragraphs, citations and reference list.