Academic Writing

How to Outline a Manuscript

Outlining a manuscript for your target journal is a prewriting technique to begin writing a manuscript. This technique helps you to understand how successfully published manuscripts are composed so that you can easily and effectively structure your own manuscript. This technique also helps to increase the likelihood of journal acceptance. 

10 Steps to Outlining a Manuscript

  1. Select 2-3 published manuscripts from your target journal. These articles should have been published within the last year, are close to your niche target topic, are the same manuscript type as your manuscript, and closely resemble the way you would like to structure your own manuscript.
  2. Draw rectangles around each major section. For example, in an IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) manuscript, these sections would be Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion.
  3. Note commonalities and consistencies across all articles. For example, how big are the sections? How many paragraphs are in each section? Are there subheadings? Is there a separate Conclusions section at the end of the article?
  4. Write down key themes and central points for each section in the margin. For an Introduction section, you might note that: “provides background on significance of problem,” “defines key terminology,” “identifies gap in research,” “describes aim of study.” Draw smaller rectangles around each of these key themes. Pay special attention to any specific phrasing that is used to introduce key points and sections. For example: “The purpose of this article is to…” or “In conclusion…” and make a note.
  5. Look for patterns in how arguments are constructed within the articles. Do the articles introduce the significance of the problem in a similar way? How much literature review is included in the Introduction? What types of studies are cited? How much detail is given in the Methods? In the Discussion, how are the findings placed within the context of the literature? How are the limitations of the study addressed?
  6. Write your research question on the top of a separate piece of paper. Then, using the target articles you just outlined as a guide, outline the major sections of your own manuscript. For example, if the 3 articles you outlined are in the IMRaD format, they all have 5 common sections: “Introduction,” “Methods,” “Results,” “Discussion,” and “Conclusions.” On your paper, you should include 5 sections, labeled with these same headings.
  7. Make smaller sub-headings for each key point that you want to address in each section. At this point, your entire project should be outlined, or mapped into sections. If any large component is missing, rearrange or add sections. Don’t worry about how the sections are ordered yet, simply get them onto paper.
  8. Save this outline. Set this work aside for a few hours and then return to it. Revisit. See how your sections relate to the main research question you wrote at the top of your paper and to the other sections. Have fun arranging them into a coherent argument. If any of the sections don’t fit, decide whether you really need to include those points in your manuscript.
  9. Outline your manuscript again before you write, ensuring your argument is sectioned the same way as the sample articles you outlined earlier. If you construct your sections well and keep working within them, even if you change them, your narrative will make sense (flow logically), and your argument will be clear and persuasive.
  10. Write the first draft.


  1. Audisio RA, Stahel RA, Aapro MS, Costa A, Pandey M, Pavlidis N. Successful publishing: How to get your paper accepted. Surgical Oncology. 2008;18:350-356.
  2. Kotz D, Cals JWL. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers—part I: how to get started. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 2013;66:397-397.
  3. Cals JWL, Kotz D. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers, part VI: discussion. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 2013;66(10):1064. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.04.017
  4. Kotz D, Cals JWL. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers, part V: results. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 2013;66(9):945. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.04.003
  5. Kotz D, Cals JWL. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers, part IV: methods. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 2013;66(8):817. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.01.003
  6. Cals JWL, Kotz D. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers, part III: introduction. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 2013;66(7):702. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.01.004
  7. Cals JWL, Kotz D. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers, part II: title and abstract. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 2013;66(6):585. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.01.005
  8. Kotz D, Cals JWL. Effective writing and publishing scientific papers–part I: how to get started. J Clin Epidemiol. 2013;66(4):397. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.01.002

Further Reading

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