8 Tips to Help You Begin Writing Your Paper
For scientists it is imperative to relay your research to your colleagues through published papers. But what if you find the idea of writing overwhelming, daunting even? You struggle to stay motivated despite the many lab (and non-lab) distractions. We reached out to senior doctoral students and postdocs who have experienced and overcome these obstacles. They recommended trying these things to keep up the motivation:
1. Schedule Dedicated Writing Time
Ada Hagan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, suggested that you "Try blocking out time, at least 2 hours long to write." Think about what time of the day you are most focused and get the most done. If you don't know what works well for you, try writing in 2 hour blocks in the morning, afternoon, evening, and nights on different days, and evaluate your focus and progress after each session. Divya Kamath, a doctoral candidate from the University of Missouri, commented, "I prefer to get my writing done in the morning, as it helps me focus on other things in the lab, without the nagging feeling of having to find time to write at end of the day."
2. Find the Right Location
Natalie Wheeler, a graduate student from Virginia Commonwealth University, advised that "Finding the right location to write is key. Find a private spot where you have no distractions, and don't have to fight hearing your thoughts over the voices of others." Sometimes finding the right location means being away from the lab. However, if you don't have that choice, try to find a quiet area in the lab away from others, arrive during off-peak hours, or use noise cancellation headphones. To avoid further distraction, Ada suggests turning off your WiFi to prevent you from checking emails, or browsing news and social media sites.
3. Have the Essentials
Natalie said, "Though it may seem trivial, a location with access to water and a bathroom is a necessity. As most of us know, writing takes time and with time comes thirst and bathroom breaks. In line with this, food and snacks are needed to get you through the day and keep your motivation on track. Some may choose to drink coffee or tea to keep focus on the project at hand."
4. Start Writing Unfiltered
Before starting a manuscript, look at other papers, preferably from your own lab to get an idea of how the content was structured. Shilpa Gadwal, an ASM postdoctoral fellow, suggested, "Look at the papers from your own lab because you know the research and can assess the level of detail, how the story was framed, and the common scientific concepts." Next, develop an outline and then start writing using the terminology you would, if you were explaining your research to a colleague or for an oral presentation. Be sure you are writing whatever comes to you without thinking about punctuation, grammar, and phrasing; all of those can be fixed later in the editing process. Ada recommended, "Depending on how you work, you can save the citations and figures for later, until you have the meat of the paper done."
5. Set Goals and Practice Accountability
"Unless it's for a grant, there are no deadlines in academia, making procrastination very easy," said Ada. To overcome this obstacle, Natalie recommended setting a goal for each day and achieving them in the time frame you are given, stressing "each goal should ultimately be viewed as a deadline." Divya commented, "Having small goals, like writing up the methods section in the first week, followed by writing the initial part of the results the next week, and so on, will keep you focused and create a balance to do things you enjoy more." If deadlines are hard to keep, Ada advised to find a writing buddy, "Tell them exactly what section you will have written, and when. Let them hold you to it (no excuses!) and return the favor when they're writing." Shilpa recommended joining a writing group so that you have someone to write and bounce ideas with.
6. Take Breaks
Natalie suggested taking breaks throughout your writing. "These breaks should be small, but enough to reboot energy. After hours of staring at a screen or reading material, you can become fatigued and lose motivation to continue. With little breaks, preferably 10-20 minutes every hour or two, you can start fresh multiple times throughout the day."
7. Edit Last
"Instead of focusing on attaining perfection at the first attempt, writing down a rough draft and then working on it to get it to perfection has given me better results," said Divya. Once you have a rough draft, start editing it for grammar, transitions, and phrasing. Next, take out extraneous information by reading every sentence and assessing whether the information helps your reader understand the story and addresses the relevant issues. Spend time away from the manuscript to get a fresh look if needed. Shilpa recommended printing out your manuscript after you've finished editing and reading it out loud to catch any grammatical mistakes and phrasing issues.
8. Start Early
It never hurts to start writing your manuscript early, even if you don't know what your story will be just yet. Writing early forces you to read the literature in your field and helps you identify gaps in your research. Many find themselves wanting to set up experiments to address those gaps, but discover there's not enough time. Once your research project becomes more defined, you can always take away paragraphs and save those for your dissertation. Divya added, "Success comes through consistency in daily activities."
With these tips taken into consideration, you will be able to stay focused and motivated when writing. Good Luck!
Ada Hagan is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan in the department of Microbiology and Immunology where she founded the graduate student writing group, MiSciWriters. As an ASM Robert D. Watkins fellow, she investigates the unique features of iron acquisition by Bacillus anthracis. Originally hailing from the mountains of East Tennessee, Ada earned her B.S. in Microbiology and Biochemistry and her M.S. in Microbiology from East Tennessee State University. To follow her contributions to science communication find her on Twitter (@adahagan).
Natalie Wheeler is currently a fifth year Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on the role of Autotaxin on oligodendrocyte differentiation and how to recover from the loss of myelination found in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patients. She received her BS in Biology and Psychology from Virginia Tech.
Divya Kamath is currently a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her research focuses on understanding the role of certain ribosomal proteins and rRNA in maintaining translation accuracy in bacteria. She is a fellow in the leadership development program, a board member of the doctoral student council and a student representative of the research advisory council.
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Advancement Fellow at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), where she created an online career resource, assessing the career needs of members, and facilitates ASM's career blog. She received her B.S in the Biological Sciences from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.