Workshop: Scientific Work — Writing #1 Getting Down to Write

“Serious writers write, inspired or not.
Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration.”
Ralph Keyes

When it comes to scientific work, you can go by this easy rule: If it is not published, it did not happen. Seriously. No matter how great your ideas are, no matter how exciting and eye-opening your study was, if you do not share it with the scientific community, it might as well not have happened.

So, you have to write about what you did, how you did it, and get it published in the proceedings of a conference (easy) or — better — in a scientific journal (hard).

This requires you first to sit down and write — something with which many scientists have their problems.

There is a common misconception about technical and scientific writing, which is that writing requires inspiration. It does not. Reason being, you have already done everything worth writing about. You did the literature research, you found an interesting research question, you did the study, you analyzed the results. Now, you “only” need to write down what you did. And many scientific disciplines will tell you exactly how you have to write it down. It is not a matter of inspiration, like writing a poem, it is a craft.

That is the good news — a craft is something you can learn, you do not need a muse for it (and even if you did, Keyes quotations hold true here as well).

Silvia reports a nice study where there were three conditions, a) people who should write only when inspired, b) people who should write no matter how inspired they were, and c) people without any instruction. The ones who should write no matter how inspired they were not only wrote more, they also generated more ideas (= had a higher quality) than any other group.

Scientific writing is a craft, not a matter of inspiration, and the worst you have written is better than the best you have not written.

I strongly recommend both the book of Silvia (“How to write a lot”) and the book of Alley (“The Craft of Scientific Writing”) as standard literature when it comes to academic writing. If you are looking for quick tips, the following tips from various sources might help:

  • Make writing a continuous habit
    Do not wait upon “free time” to write, just make it a normal part of the day. Persistence over days is more important than hoping for the rare phases of “all time writing” (even if you can pull it off).
  • Use a ritual for writing
    For example, always starting a writing session of an hour with getting a coffee (or tea) first might help you to get ready for it.
  • Downward slope
    When you write, stop in the middle of a paragraph when you know exactly how to continue (make a couple of quick notes here). It will help you to resume writing when you can just sit down and finish up the paragraph. Hopefully, at that time, you will be in the writing flow and continue beyond the paragraph.
  • Writing is what keeps you alive as scientist, regard it as you would regard teaching duties
    A brilliant recommendation from Silvia (I think), regard writing with the same importance as you would regard your teaching duties. Imagine what would happen if a colleague (or even your supervisor) would appear during your teaching duties. No matter how important, you would likely ask him/her to come back later, because there are students in the room who have a right to be taught. Use the same criteria for your writing time. You invisible audience has a right too, so do not accept any disturbance during your writing time. It takes time to convey this message, but once you have driven this fact home (“I am glad to lend my expertise or help you, but not during the time I am writing.”) you will get a lot of more stuff done.
  • Implement a door policy
    Some institutes have a clear door policy: If the door is open, you can enter any time, but if the door is closed, you should have a good reason (i.e., it is time critical and/or very important). Some have a “nearly closed door” policy as an in-between stage. It can help to ensure that you are not disturbed for “social” conversations when you focus on your writing.
  • Lock the door / write elsewhere
    I did my dissertation thesis writing in the university library in another part of town than the institute I was working for. I was never disturbed when I wrote on my dissertation thesis. Not once. Locking the door would have helped too (unless you are working in an open plan office or share the office with colleagues), but going to a different place was really helpful to focus. Stephen King probably said it best as quoted by Silvia: “The only thing that a writer’s room needs, according to Stephen King (2000), is “a door which you are willing to shut” (p. 155).”
  • Go online after doing your writing duties
    Electronic communication is great, but it can really distract you from writing. If you write in the morning, then really do write in the morning and check you eMail only after you have finished writing. Otherwise you will write — eMails — but not what you really need to write.
  • Set writing goals
    You can work for ages on a text and still not finish it. When you are writing, especially in the beginning, you are developing your skills fast and you will always find things you can improve in the text you wrote yesterday. Set clear writing goals to keep you on track and avoiding being stuck with a specific text. Programs like Scrivener have the option of setting writing target — which you should use.
  • Document your advances
    Related to the previous point, document your advances. It might seem that you get nowhere, especially when writing a larger text like a monograph, but logging how much you write will give you the (righteous) feeling that you do advance.
  • Make sure you see the structure
    Especially when you are writing longer texts (e.g., a dissertation thesis monograph) it is very easy to lose track of the overall structure. Use a writing program like Scrivener where you can determine the structure in the Binder.
  • Imagine your Audience
    You always write for a specific audience, e.g., your community, the reviewers, your advisers. Image how they react to what you are writing. This is easier if you know them better, but like in any good presentation, it is very helpful to imagine yourself in a communication with your audience. You convey what you have learned and why it is important — so talk to them in your writing.

That’s it for the first part in this writing series …

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