5 Things That Help Me Write
I remember a seminar that I organized when I was a postdoc. The speaker was a science communicator with a PhD in biomedical science, who also had published a novel. She started the seminar by asking the audience “Who considers themselves a writer?” A few hands went up. Next, she asked, “How many of you have published three or more papers?” A lot of hands went up. She smiled and said, “Well, like it or not, you are a writer.”
Writing is an integral part of academic life, yet many academics struggle with it. In this article, I reflect on what helps me write. Even if my approaches don’t fit with your academic life or writing personality, I hope it encourages you to reflect on your own writing. If you supervise postgraduate students or staff, maybe this article can start a discussion on writing routines.
- Not all writing tasks are created equal
In my experience, people are most effective when they are in the right environment that supports the task at hand. The same applies to writing. How, when and where do you write most effectively? Thirty minutes every morning or in a three-day writing marathon? Early mornings in a silent library or afternoons in a buzzing café? Academic life comes with a lot of freedom. Use it to experiment with different routines and environments to find out what works for you.
I am a process-driven person, so I think of writing as a collection of different tasks. Each of them requires varying levels of concentration and creative thought, and thus different settings. Over the years, I’ve noted that the biggest frustration with writing often happens when I try to do a task in a setting that is not suitable.
The first task is the most demanding one: Writing new material. This includes a funding application for a new project or a first-author manuscript where I have to start from the dreaded empty page. For this type of writing, I am most effective if I can put aside at least half a day, or even a few days. I hide from the world and immerse myself in the material. If I can’t afford such luxury, I make sure that I set aside at least two hours in the morning before I start any other work. If I write an article like this, I love sitting in my favorite book café.
The second task is editing existing material. This includes re-arranging entire paragraphs or editing to improve clarity. For this, I still prefer to get away from my desk and hide in a meeting room or the library, even if I only have 30 minutes.
The third task is the least demanding to me, and involves the more technical aspects of writing such as editing citations or formatting to journal requirements. This I can do between other work tasks and even deal with a certain level of disruption.
- Find tools that work for you
During my PhD, I had the privilege of attending two writing retreats, where a professional writing coach taught us different writing exercises. Some of them I still use today.
The first one is free-flow writing. There are different variations, but the most crucial part is that you keep writing. Set the timer to 15 or 20 minutes and start with a blank page. Then write without editing or stopping. If you don’t know what to write, write “blah blah blah” or “I don’t know what to write and why am I doing this anyway…” But don’t stop writing. In my experience, your thoughts start organizing themselves. If you find yourself using the backspace button, switch off the screen or use pen and paper. I use this tool at the start of new manuscripts or funding applications when I need to organize my ideas rather than to create “useful” material. I often start with the sentence “The take-home message of this paper is….” or “the central idea of this application is…”
The second tool is almost the opposite of free-flow writing, and I use it when I struggle to get a coherent storyline or logical argument. I use PowerPoint slides, and each slide needs to have a single take-home message. This forces me to divide the story into separate pieces of information and create a logical flow of arguments. If I work on a manuscript and I already have plots or graphs, then I add them to the storyline. This way I can integrate my data into a logical argument without the pressure to write that perfect sentence.
- Trick yourself to not be distracted by the technical aspects of writing
This third point is related to thinking of writing as different tasks. I find it helpful to not worry about citations, formatting, style and grammar when I write new material. This separation also helps to limit the interruptions to my creative thought processes. To facilitate this, I keep my notebook or a piece of paper close by and write down all the things that come to mind. When I notice something that needs fixing or I have an idea, I jot it down and try to get back to writing. On days I find myself distracted by editing citations or fixing labs on graphs, I use a basic text editor (e.g., TextEdit or NotePad).
- Feedback and working with co-authors
Whether you’re writing a manuscript, book, or funding application, at some stage, writing involves working with other people. Something I learned from a collaborator is that the most effective way is to be clear about what you need from others. If you ask a person for feedback, be specific about what type of feedback. At the early stages of a manuscript or funding application, you might want feedback on the overall structure or clarity of your argument. Later you might ask for feedback on grammar and style. Similarly, if you work with co-authors tell them which part of the manuscript they should work on. Do you want them to write the methods, add their figures and results, or do you just need some bullet points on how their work will integrate with your parts?
Being clear about what you are asking of others not only prevents misunderstandings and frustration but also makes sure no one is wasting their time.
- Everyone loves a good story
There might not be villains or secret lovers, but academic writing can still be a story. I love a good crime novel, so I am familiar with the concepts of narratives, plots and characters. Until recently, I did not think of scientific or academic writing as stories, but I am starting to see the benefits. Some of the best papers I read had a clear narrative. These papers took the reader on a journey and guided them through the arguments. In science, a good paper addresses a well-defined problem or tests a specific hypothesis. This becomes the main story or focus, and every piece of data and every argument feeds into that story. I am still experimenting with these ideas, but I think it is worth looking at academic writing through the lens of stories. This is particularly helpful if you write for a non-expert audience. You can even think of the characters.
Finally, among all the tips and tricks for academic writing, never forget to be kind to yourself. Writing is hard work. Sometimes your brain is just not up for it or life interferes. We all have days (or weeks) where writing just feels like a slog. That’s ok.
Keep writing and trust the process.
Becoming a More Productive Writer
How to Really Manage Your Time
Creator: Nick Morrison on Unsplash
I have tried using free flow method and sometime it works. But the main problem is not even starting with that. But as you mentioned, even starting with “blah, blah, blah” and “What am I doing here writing this..” helps to get in the flow.
Thanks for writing this. It is giving me some hope in taking the challenge of writing and being consistent with it.