Before filing a patent application, it’s important to consider what—exactly—you want to protect and why. The kind of protection you get from an issued patent depends on what kind of patent you’re applying for and how the patent application is written.

If your invention has multiple components, it may be to your advantage to apply for separate patents on each part or to consider only the most critical part for protection. You may also want to apply for a patent on the overall design of the invention (apart from its functionality) or the specific design of one or more parts, if the shape—and not the function—is the thing that’s new and different.

A provisional patent application is only filed if you are considering filing a utility application within a year of the filing date of the provisional. Even though provisional applications are never reviewed, the provisional has to include the key concepts that make your idea patentable.

When you have decided what kind of application(s) to file, a registered patent attorney can draft the application(s) to make sure the parts you want covered are described in such a way that they would actually be protected once the patent issues. You could draft the application(s) yourself, but the US Patent and Trademark Office has some very strict and seemingly arcane rules about how applications have to be drafted: precise wording in the accepted style, application parts in a specific order, nothing left blank, etc. Drafting a patent application of any kind is a complex business—and getting it wrong can cost you, not only in wasted filing fees for an application that doesn’t stand a chance of being approved, but also in an issued patent that doesn’t hold water in court if you are accused—or if you want to accuse someone else—of infringement.

Most types of patent applications can be filed online at the USPTO’s website. They have posted tutorials on how to go about filing online. One point to remember is that the online filing form “times out” after an hour, so it’s important to have everything needed to file handy and in the right format before starting the process. Another is that, if you don’t already have an account set up to make payments to the USPTO, you’ll need to pay as a “guest” because, by the time you get to the payment part of the application, there probably won’t be enough time left on the “time out clock” for you to set up a payment account. You can alleviate this particular issue by setting up a payment account and saving your payment information there prior to starting the filing process.

Or you can file on paper. However, if you want to file a pre-grant publication request or submit an application through the Accelerated Examination Program, you must file online.