On Scientific Writing
There are two parts to science. The first is conveyed nicely by the scientific method. This is where hypotheses get tested in laboratories with fancy equipment like lasers and test tubes. The second is conveyed by text and figures, in documents designed to acquire research funds or communicate research results. No question—writing is central to the scientific process. Yet, writing is a roadblock for science trainees. The reasons for this are complex. Perhaps junior scientists are focused on acquiring new research skills. Perhaps they already “know how to write.” Or it’ll be easier than experiments. Maybe, they’d rather be doing anything else on Earth.
Whatever the cause, trainees face a writing mountain. Writing is hard work. We hope it’ll be easy. That it’ll “come to me.” But it’s hard. First you write. Then revise. Experiment with sentences. Start over. It’s messy. It’s moody.
We procrastinate because it’s hard. With a lack of a deadline, this goes on forever. With a deadline, we binge write—usually getting serious at the last possible minute so the piece will be finished in time. But just barely. Neither scenario is ideal.
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There is this popular culture around writing that imposes a sense of guilt if you’re not doing it. “You should be writing.” This is a path to anxiety, feelings of shame, insecurity, and unworthiness. Not excellent prose.
Like laboratory procedures, writing is learned by doing. If you are not writing, you are not learning how to write. Learning how to write is a lifelong process. Just like your first experiments in the lab were messy, so too with writing. Your skill will improve with time.
Over the years, I’ve shared my own tricks (below) with trainees and colleagues. This is a system that I designed to promote writing success on my worst days. (On my best days, I don’t need help writing).
Writing is hard work. You can do hard things. Once writing is appreciated for the hard work that it is, your relationship to it will change. Instead of loathing it, you’ll learn to approach it systematically like any other problem. You might even learn to love it. (But it’s OK if you don’t).
Writing is a laborious form of communication. Most of us don’t need time to think before words come from our mouths during conversation (arguably some of us should). Writing is different. We need to play around with how the words work together. What preceded the current sentence? What comes after? Does it flow? Does it have rhythm? All of this makes writing hard (see point 1).
Push through the messy phase. There is a messy phase to writing. It usually occurs early on—but not immediately after starting. It’s the period when trying to identify the unifying thread that captures the essence of what you’re trying to write. This is sometimes conceptually presented as “your first draft will suck.” But it’s not really about the draft, per se. It’s more about the creative process of writing. There’s this idea that you should know what to write before you even sit down. This is nonsense! What you write is the result of an interaction between your mind, the page, and the data. Write. Read. Revise. Repeat. Let it evolve.
Schedule it. Stick to it. Do not double book writing time. This time is non-negotiable. If you’re new to writing, start by blocking off 20 or 30 minutes daily for two weeks. After two weeks, increase to one hour. Over the next several weeks try to work up to two hours daily. This is my maximum time limit, and I (learned to) like writing. A consistent two hours of writing per day is probably all you’ll ever need. I promise. Schedule this first and fit your remaining commitments around it.
Prioritize it. Don’t stick your writing time at times of the day when you’re low-energy (like after research time or meetings)—when you’re tired or hungry or bored. I schedule my writing time when I’m at or near my peak. I used this Chronotype quiz to help me find my appropriate time.
Block distractions. Writing requires entry into a deep work phase. It’s impossible to do that with phones or computers pinging you. There are numerous apps designed to block access to distracting websites on your laptop. I block all social media, email, (un)productivity software (Slack, etc), YouTube, reddit, news sites, sports sites, etc. with the SelfControl app. Put your phone away. Seriously—silence it, turn the vibration off, and physically hide it.
Scope appropriately. A paper can’t be written in two hours. A paragraph can be. Instead of outlining an entire paper, spend a few minutes defining what to accomplish in the current writing block. That’s it. There’s no need to reach further into the future than the current time block. The paper emerges as blocks are stacked over time.
Track it. In the beginning, track how many words you write. Below is a snippet of the spreadsheet I use to track my writing. If you’re data savvy, you can plot this data to determine which day-time combinations are your most productive.
What’s in bounds? I use my writing time to analyze data, generate figures, write, and edit research proposals and manuscripts only. Yes, there are a lot of other things to write. But my writing time is strictly limited to these items. For example, I schedule a separate recurring time block for the Un-Cultured newsletter.
Find your voice. Often scientific writers try to sound a certain way on paper—the way they “should” sound. Don’t try to sound how you should sound. You should sound like you. How does your unique identifiable writing voice sound?
Read more. Pay attention to how the author writes. Analyze their paragraph structure. Contemplate what the author didn’t write. Why did they choose to write a sentence the way they wrote it and not another way?
Read about writing. There are numerous excellent books about writing (in broad terms), scientific writing, and habit building (which is integral to writing). I’ve listed several here.
There are infinite tips and tricks about writing. For me, it’s all about formulating the habit and sticking to it. Conceptually, these tips can be applied to just about anything, including coding, experiments, and other activities you might be less-than-motivated to carry out. I hope these pointers help get you motivated to write consistently in the future!