Where to go from the first blank page: Finding joy and productivity in academic writing
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
—Gene Fowler, journalist, script writer, novelist
You may dread writing—working in the laboratory or in the field is far more exciting—but sooner or later, you must write up the results of your research in the form of a research paper. You also have to write proposals for funding, progress reports of projects currently in hand, reviews of manuscripts sent to you for comments, . . . the list is endless. Few academics realize how much of their time is claimed by writing and yet, they would rather do anything else other than write: they keep postponing the task of writing and when they can postpone it no longer, take it up with reluctance; continue it with indifference; and complete it with relief. If that sounds like you, here are some proven tips on how to tackle the task of writing.
If you think you do not have time to write, think again: you do find the time to work in the laboratory or in the field, to attend meetings, to eat, to sleep. Every one of us has 24 hours in a day, and you have to find the time to write1. Set aside, for example, an hour each Tuesday, 7 to 8 p.m. On the first such Tuesday, you may not write a single word; that is OK: what you must refrain from doing is to use that time for something else. The second such Tuesday, you would be able to write a couple of hundred words—fine, you are progressing. The point is to form a habit.
Most academics suffer from writer’s block. They freeze into inaction because of the chasm that separates the present reality, namely, the blank screen of their computer, from what they see in their mind’s eye as the product of writing: a crisply worded research paper, free of errors, correctly formatted for the target journal, and complete in all respects, including tables, figures, and references. It is like looking up from the base of a mountain at the peak you have to ascend—the entire long, arduous, and cheerless journey is ahead of you, and you have not taken even one step.
The trick, therefore, is to divide your task into manageable chunks and set up a clear goal for each. Writing a research paper is not really a helpful description of your task; instead, say this to yourself, “I am going to write a detailed account of my research in 25 to 30 paragraphs, structured as follows.”
- Introduction: 1 page, maximum 400 words in 2–4 paragraphs
- Methods: 2–3 pages, about 750 words in 6–8 paragraphs
- Results: 2–3 pages (text, figures, tables), about 1,000 words in 4–8 paragraphs
- Discussion: 3–4 pages, 1,000–1,500 words, in 8–10 paragraphs
The above numbers2 are flexible but should give you some idea of what you are required to do. In fact, the great advantage researchers have over creative writers is that the structure of what they have to write is already established and that too far more clearly than the advice often given to writers of stories, namely, make sure that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end!
Now that you know what it is that you really have to do in writing a research paper, the prospect will look less daunting to you. Here are some helpful tips on how to accomplish your task.
- Start writing early. You don’t have to wait until you have analyzed your data and, on the basis of that, you have reached some conclusions. In fact, you don’t have to wait even for all the results to be in: write the Methods section as you go along, as you are carrying out the particular experiment—when the details are fresh in your mind. This makes the section more accurate, and you will have already written part of your paper.
- Draft an outline first, comprising the main headings, subheadings, and minor headings (if any). Compiling an outline is not difficult and it also forces you to think about the organization of your paper. Also, such an outline is easy to revise.
- Talk about what you are going to write. Discussing what you intend to write with your colleagues or friends primes your brain: once you sit down to write after such a discussion, you will find that writing comes easier to you.
- Set aside larger chunks of time for building on the outline. Once you have the scaffolding, you can start building. This is perhaps the hardest part, because you now have to generate blocks of text: you have a skeleton, but you have to start putting flesh on it. This is hard work, and you must eliminate all distractions as you tackle it. You will have experienced that the first few sentences of a block of text are the hardest to write; your progress is slow and painful. Then words begin to flow faster as you hit your stride and they keep flowing as the ideas in your mind, your thoughts, take concrete shape. And you don’t want to be interrupted while you are “in the flow”3.
- Set targets in terms of number of words. When it comes to writing, setting aside a block of time does not make sense: you can spend an hour and not write a single word. Instead, set a target (500 words, for example) and do not get up until you have achieved the target. At this stage of writing, you have to write as much as possible. Think of this task as getting enough clay for a flower vase you have in mind: first, you need enough volume of clay; you will shape it, paint it, and bake it later.
- Treat writing, revising, and refining as distinct tasks. Although all good writing is rewriting, it is a mistake to start revising too soon. While writing in the “flow” state, it is important not to let yourself be distracted. If you are stuck for the right spelling or a particular factoid, do not stop; insert a placeholder (an exclamation mark or a pair of plus signs, for example) at that point and carry on. Later, while revising, you can search for the placeholders and replace them with appropriate text. Set aside what you have written for a day or two if possible—you can write something else in that time or get back to lab work or to the field—and only then attempt to revise it. You could also ask your colleagues to read what you have written and mark places where the text seems unclear to them or to point out other errors. Refining is the final stage, where you make the manuscript conform to the style of your target journal: Figure 1 (spelt out) or Fig. 1, numbered or unnumbered headings, title in bold or normal and centered or left-aligned, and so on.
- Develop the habit of reading. Lastly, remember that all good writers have been good readers. Read books by those known for their quality of writing, and your writing will improve automatically4. The Royal Society, for example, has an annual award for the best-written science book for the general public, and the award winners and even the books short-listed for the award offer a rich fare. Yes, reading does consume time, but consider that time as an investment.
Remember that your research is incomplete until it is published. Also think of the rewards that await you as you publish more and more and make a name for yourself—none of that is possible unless you write!
- Silvia, P. J. in How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing 146 (American Psychological Association, 2019).
- Araújo, C. G. S. de. Detailing the Writing of Scientific Manuscripts: 25-30 Paragraphs. Arq. Bras. Cardiol. 102, e21–e23 (2014).
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. in Flow: the psychology of optimal experience 303 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1990).
- Joshi, Y. A systematic approach to improving writing skills. Curr. Sci. 92, 1343–1344 (2007).
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