Writing is an essential part of science academia, including writing a thesis, papers, reviews, grant applications, letters of recommendation, or other science communication.
I here share tips that help me to keep my writing momentum going, hoping they might be useful to some of you reading this.
1. Getting started
For me, one crucial step is to write early and often. I have two main approaches to start writing:
(a) "The stream of consciousnesses"
For pieces like this one, I like to literally just start typing and produce thoughts as I go along (see images below). This is obviously rather chaotic at first, but helps to get unfiltered thoughts on the page as a starting point.
(b) "The structured approach"
For larger, complex, and more pieces, I usually start with writing down headings, subheadings, and bullet points. Once I established the structure, I write one paragraph at a time. This approach helps me to keep my writing more focused and sets manageable writing milestones (which is especially important for large pieces).
I learned to appreciate that writing helps me to clarify thoughts and arguments, as well as identify the sections where I am missing knowledge or data/experiments. Appreciating that writing is a multi-step process is crucial to help me acknowledge the fact that I might not be able to write everything at the same time, that sometimes it is better to think about a section once more before actually writing it, and that a fresh pair of eyes is invaluable.
"There is nothing as terrifying but equally inspiring as a blank canvas."
We all know the infamous writers block. It is important to appreciate that not every day is a good day for writing (more on this below). However, eventually we will need to start writing. Reframing the task can help to overcome writers block.
Simple things are often what help me the most:
start using tools other than usual e.g. making notes on post-its, using a notebook instead of a laptop, using a whiteboard.
changing the pen e.g. I use a ballpoint pen for schematics and maths; a pen for formal thoughts; a pencil when being creative.
changing colours e.g. green is something I know, red is something I need to work on, orange is a core concept/theory/hypothesis, magenta is a result.
changing location e.g. I typically write blog entries and SciComm pieces away from my normal working station.
2. Keeping the momentum
Writing regularly is key for me to improve my writing and not to build up resistance against it. Something that we do on a daily basis, will become a habit.
For example, for my PhD thesis I tried to work on my thesis at least every other week, even if it was just a few hours every time. Additionally, I usually work on multiple projects, inlcuding writing things other than science, such as this blog here.
One thing I found for myself to be distracting is the tendency wanting to rewrite what I just wrote and therefore never really making progress on the whole thing. Thus, I now keep rewriting, editing, and formatting for certain times, accepting that the first draft is always bad. The point is merely to get something on the page first.
Getting feedback even at the early draft stages is important for me to look for essential flaws and if needed to change direction completely. Similarly, I learn from the comments and track changes other provide (e.g. one of my PhD supervisors is king in focused writing and removing words to achieve any word count).
3. Successfully finishing writing tasks
Especially when writing various pieces and working on multiple projects, it can be difficult to finish writing tasks on time.
I find it helpful to set myself internal and hard deadlines. It can also help to ask others to help you being held accountable to these - eg thesis writing mentors or supervisors. If you know that you will meet them every few weeks, this gives you a time guide and enforces a writing rhythm.
Getting a fresh perspective can do wonders. I find it helpful to print out text and read it in a different location. This lets me get a fresh perspective and focus on things other than usual. Similarly, I find the most important thing is to leave a piece alone for a few days and come back with a fresh set of eyes (this is where I will do most of the rewriting and improving arguments etc).
Getting feedback and perspective from others is absolutely invaluable to me. I am extremely grateful to everyone who ever spent time on reading my work and provided feedback to improve it. Especially when working with someone new, this helps identify essential flaws which you might not have thought of. One such example for me is the fact that I tended to use "moreover, therefore, thus.." etc to the point of absolute overkill - this was until someone pointed it out to me.
One caveat, that I learned the hard way, is that in science we are used to getting rigorous and brutally honest feedback. This trained mindset got me to a point that I was reluctant to share/publish something without it having received feedback from someone else. At this point I knew I had to break this mindset and started to put content out which has not undergone this process and voila this blog was born.
4. Creating the right writing environment and accept setbacks
One important thing for me is to accept that there will be days when I seemingly cannot write anything. It is important to accept that, finding out why, and examining how I can avoid this.
Everyone works differently, you need to find what works for you! For example, find the times and environment(s) when you can write best (eg some people need headphones; others literally need background noise). Also, taking breaks, like taking a short walk, can do wonders.
Lastly, remember that you are not alone in this journey and you can always team up with others, such as in writing retreats or with collaborations.
Together, writing is a journey and everyone works differently. The important thing is to find what works for you. Writing often and early will reduce "resistance" and makes writing a habit.
Draft 1: "stream of consciousnesses"
Draft 2: "Restructure, padding out, and subheadings"
Draft 3: "Flesh to the bone"
Draft 4: "Editing and formatting"