I wanted to make a short post to describe what methods I use that help me with my scientific writing. This post is mainly oriented toward undergraduate students, but I think everyone can get something out of this. I will describe three different types of techniques. First, I’ll discuss the techniques pertaining to optimally preparing the act of writing. Second, I’ll talk about the techniques pertaining to the act of writing in itself. Lastly, I’ll describe some techniques for improving writing beyond the first draft. Let’s get started!
First and foremost, one needs to know oneself when it comes to writing. If writing seems daunting to you, ask yourself when are you the most alert and able to focus during the day? That’s your time to write. Keep the rest for other times since you’ll need to be on your A-game for writing. Additionally, can you work with noise or things going on around you? Find a place suiting your needs, be it the library, your room, the lab where you do some research, anywhere … it just have to work for you. Furthermore, give yourself some attainable objectives. This is important otherwise you’ll just get discouraged and won’t write again or at least for a while. Finally, stick to those things, don’t try to write where it is not optimal for you … at least only do it when there is no other way around it.
PS: Obviously you should start writing ahead of the deadline ... otherwise how are you going to proofread your work?!
Personally, I’d say that my biggest concern when I’m writing is thinking ahead to all that time I have to write. My way around this is to set myself under time constraints. When I start writing I also start a timer for 30 minutes regardless of what I work on. It can seem short, but it fulfills three aims of mine: I don’t get discouraged by the prospect of writing for hours before I even get started AND I feel like I achieved something by the end of the 30 minutes AND I can stay focus on one task for 30 minutes without distracting myself, I know I can. With that out of the way, what I’ll say next is very obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves. When writing don’t let anything else distract you, you only have 30 minutes to work so stay focus on the task, no phone, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, nothing but your word document and you. Finally, I don’t always stop after 30 minutes, sometimes I found my groove and I keep going for two or three hours … something that I would never do if thought about it beforehand!
That’s an important one and it also feeds into the preparation stage: your first draft will suck! Let me rephrase that, EVERY first drafts suck! Yes, even mine (especially mine >.<‘) even those of your professors or of the top scientist in the country. The trick is that nobody ever shares their first draft with anybody else than themselves … why? Because everyone should proofread, rework, and go back and back again over the first draft until it is OK, not good, OK. This is an important disclaimer too, even if you work hard on your first draft and do all the right things, it’ll still need some work when someone reviews it for you and it’s OK too. Rare are those out there capable of producing good prose on their own, nobody expect to be one of them. If you are a literary genius, good for you, really, that’s a great thing … but genius is rare and we are numerous so I’d bet only few of us can claim such talent. For all other and I, we just can’t take anything personally and we need to be thankful for any help we receive. Nonetheless, you’d be amazed what proofreading does: you’re gonna catch so many little mistakes, typos, etc. that you’ll quickly realize how ashamed you should have been of sending your first draft if you would have done … good you didn’t, right?! Finally, wisdom drop: remember, you only control how you receive comments and feedback, not the way it is given … what you can control is which feedback you seek.
OK, now what?
Well, where does all that leave us you ask? Good question, here are some resources for you to use when proofreading. This is a great paper discussing the ways undergraduate students should proofread their scientific writing. If you’re not in a STEM field get out there on the web or ask around for resources, there are tons of help for you.
One important thing to keep in mind is that the process of writing is not something you are born with, it is something that needs to be nurtured and developed so stop saying you’re not a good writer, nobody ever was a good writer … some individuals worked at it, were helped along the way, accepted the help, and became good writers that’s all!