The late A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former physicist, aerospace engineer, and president of India once wrote, “Writing is my love. If you love something, you find a lot of time for it. I write two hours a day, usually starting at midnight; at times, I start at eleven.” For me (Ray), this sounds about right… well…. not the first half of the quote… or most of the second half actually… well, really just the starting at midnight part is spot-on. My association with writing during graduate school may not be quite so romantic. Hours of fumbling over sentences, second-guessing work, and responding to endless amounts of track changes, red pen scribbles, and obscene suggestions made by Reviewer 2 (it’s always Reviewer 2) has, at times, left me considering the option of hurling my laptop out of our third story laboratory window.
However, developing skills as an efficient writer is of the utmost importance for a young scientist. It is the goal of this blog post to detail some writing “tidbits” to help young scientists become disciplined writers. Honestly, our goal could most easily be accomplished by telling you to read Dr. Paul Silvia’s book, How to Write A Lot. His book details common misconceptions about writing and important characteristics of highly successful writers. Our hope is to cut some of Dr. Silvia’s thoughts into easy-to-digest chunks, as well as add some insight of our own.
- Schedule your writing time and guard it ferociously. Schedule when and where you will write. Although this simple scheduling can help you stay more disciplined (even if only 15 words make it onto your Word document), this tip is only helpful if you guard your writing time. Treat it like a meeting with your laptop that simply cannot be rescheduled. Would you cancel a meeting with the Dean? Nope! Heck, name your laptop Dean if that helps. Just guard this time.
- Writing does not always need to occur in one sitting or during large periods of time. It is easy to get in the habit of saying things like, “I do best when I can sit down and just write the whole paper.” This may feel true, but likely is not. Writing every day, even for 10, 15, or 30 minutes helps keep information fresh in your mind and prevents the dreaded procrastination writing binge that can negatively impact the quality of work produced. Dean Laptop will appreciate more consistent, short periods of attention in comparison to sporadic, long work dates.
- Know that you are likely to inaccurately predict how long your writing task will take you to accomplish, and just write when you can. This definitely goes along with the previous point, but does expand by noting that predicting time needed to complete a writing task is an imperfect science. One way of behaviorally avoiding a writing project includes feeling like it will take forever to finish and that you need to block off a large chunk of time to write. The opposite can be true. Putting off a writing project because you believe it will only take an hour or two may be another way to avoid buckling down with Dean Laptop and crossing off a project on your to-do list.
- Be prepared for additional writing time. If you are a graduate student, you know the life of 101 meetings with professors, mentors, clients, and supervisors. These meetings are with pretty busy people which result in them occasionally getting canceled. Always take your writing to meetings or times you work with a client in case you wind up with some unexpected free time. Dean Laptop is highly mobile and enjoys your unexpected company.
- You learn to write from BOTH writing and reading a lot. This is a sentiment that has been expressed to me (Ray) by advanced graduate students and leaders in the field. Of course, you learn from receiving feedback on your work, but you also learn to write by reading the works of others, especially those who are more advanced than you. I especially appreciate Dr. Thomas Joiner’s advice to make a habit of reading outside of your discipline. This not only helps you develop innovative research ideas, it potentially exposes you to very different writing styles. Read outside of your discipline, not only for content, but for writing structure and style. Dean Laptop is not only a great place to save your written work, but pdfs of others’ works as well.
- Know that writing distractions can take many different forms. Writing procrastination is definitely a shape-shifter. Sometimes its disguise is fairly easy to see through, taking the form of Netflix binges, texting, and knee-jerk tweeting, pinning, Facebook creeping, and Instagramming. These distractions/procrastination vehicles can be pretty easy to spot. Sometimes the writing procrastination shape-shifter brings its A-game. Nitpicking outlines, fiddling with fonts and formats, and believing that you have not read enough yet to begin writing are all potentially shapes of this behavioral avoidance of the nitty-gritty task of writing. Reflecting on how you might avoid writing can be important. Below are some of our personal ways of avoiding quality time with ol’ Dean Laptop:
- “I write best when I am at the coffee shop. I will have to go there to finish this.”
- “I can definitely write with Orange is the New Black on in the background.”
- “I don’t feel inspired to write.”
- “My laptop is almost out of battery.”
- “I haven’t printed out the Gordon et al. (2010) article yet.”
- “I will write this weekend.” HA!
- “I am feeling (insert psychosomatic complaint). This wouldn’t be my best work.”
- Understand that struggles during the writing process are common and that perseverance is key. It’s important that you don’t misinterpret the experience of having difficulty with writing as an indication that you are incapable of writing well. To the contrary, many award-winning, accomplished writers have openly discussed the challenges they have faced. For example, Felicia Day wrote about the process of writing her award-winning web series, The Guild, in her New York Times bestselling book You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).
Every second of writing that script felt like walking barefoot over shards of glass. I would write a bit and then I would sob, wanting desperately to erase what I’d just written…Then I would force my fingers to type more, every word feeling like I was bleeding from every orifice. I was engulfed with fear of making mistakes, of writing something stupid…I was, in short, terrified of the process. It was not fun. What drove me to continue? Sheer obstinate grit. (pp. 142-143)
Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates said that during the process of writing Between the World and Me, he felt “total despair” and thought, “I am about to fail and everyone will know it.” He stuck with it, and Between the World and Me went on to become a New York Times #1 Bestseller and earn a National Book Award in 2015. Coates also won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015 for his work. Coates shared more of his advice on writing and struggles with the process here and here.
- Remove obstacles caused by perfectionism. There is an old saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” I (Katie) try to keep this in mind as I write. In particular, this means that I start typing what I am going to write well before the sentences are formed “perfectly” in my head, knowing that effective writing is typically the result of a process that involves multiple revisions rather than the first thing that comes to one’s mind on a topic. Secondly, I set time limits on my other tasks (preparation of teaching materials, responding to e-mails, blog posts) that allow for high quality (but not perfect) work, so that I can protect and prioritize writing time.
- Use exposure to overcome writing anxiety. Worry about writing can come from multiple sources. The biggest areas of anxiety for me (Katie) come from a concern about being unable to complete a project and worry about other people (e.g., co-authors, reviewers, etc.) not thinking my work is good enough. When anxiety strikes, our urge is usually to avoid – avoid writing, avoid sharing your work with others, etc. The most effective way I’ve found to counter this anxiety has been to treat it like I would clinically – repeatedly put myself in these situations until they don’t feel as scary. Putting myself in positions where I need to complete projects with tight timelines and share my work with others teaches me that I can, in fact, handle these aspects of writing, even when it means receiving criticism of my work and other types of pressure.
- Create interpersonal accountability for your writing. Publishing is often viewed as one of the main responsibilities for academics, and yet, it can be the hardest activity to get to in light of the clearer expected timelines for other responsibilities (e.g., meeting with students, teaching). For me (Katie, again), one of the most helpful strategies has been to work collaboratively with others who are expecting writing from me within a specific time frame. Setting these dates and goals, particularly when others are aware of them, increases my motivation to find the time to write despite all of my other responsibilities. This group can be other grad students, professors, co-authors, or just other individuals who have projects where they benefit from checking in with others. I often use this strategy with my lab group.
By no means are all of these suggestions easy to accomplish. Just like any good skill, practice is key. We hope you can test drive some of these tips and see what helps you become an effective and disciplined writer. We wish you the best of luck in your academic pursuits!