Writing advice to a young scientist

Now that I have my own lab, the topic of students writing stuff comes up a lot. It seems like everybody writes to a universal time plan, which is the following: If you have n days to produce a report, or a thesis chapter, or an abstract,  then do absolutely nothing for n-2 days, scramble to produce something on day n-1, send it to your supervisor and ask them to provide feedback within the next hour or so, because after all, the deadline is tomorrow! I know this time plan well, because I have followed it myself for years. But it’s not great. And while I’m at it, let me dispense some other sage writing advice …

  1. Start early. Writing stuff takes longer than you think.
  2. No, serisouly. It does.
  3. Academic writing is a process of several rounds. It’s not like a school essay about what you did during your holidays that you write exactly once and never look at again. It’s a proccess – often collaborative – of producing drafts, reading them critically, having others read them critically, refining them etc. The version you complete the day before your deadline should not be your first, but your last.
  4. There is a nice corollary to point 3, which is that since you will go through a large number of drafts, the first draft doesn’t actually have to be good. I love Ann Lamott’s concept of “shitty first drafts”. You can read her article about it here (and then go back to writing) https://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf
  5. Most of us go into science because we love doing science, not because we love writing reports about doing science. So any trick that gets you writing is fair game. I know people who use the pomodoro method successfully. I myself am a big fan of Written? Kitten!  – a genius website that rewards you with adorable pictures of kittens for writing a certain number of words. Hey, whatever works.
  6. Get good feedback on your writing. I might have mentioned this before, but academic writing is a process that goes through many (many) draft to create a series of improvements and produce a great finished product. In order to actually improve, you want your stuff read by someone who can give good feedback. Good feedback is feedback that addresses the structure of your argument and the possible gaps within it. Unfortunately, this is hard to do, and so a lot of people will just read your work for typos or to check whether it follows (sometimes arbitrary) grammar rules. This will not substantially improve your work, so find a person who will give you thoughtful and helpful feedback on the actual content and structure of your work. This person might or might not be your supervisor.
  7. To assess the quality of the structure, the following is an easy test you can do either on your own writing or on someone else’s: For each paragraph, write a short summary on the margin about what that paragraph is about. Just two words to a sentence. This will help you identify structural flaws: If a paragraph contains more than one key idea, you will pick it up. If a paragraph does not follow logically from the previous one, you will pick it up. If you say something twice, you will pick it up.
  8. Get your tools together. Use a good literature manager, good typesetting software, organise your note-taking, consider using version control (not overkill for a big writing project like a PhD thesis, I think). Everyone has their own system, and I don’t think one is necessarily better than the others, as long as you have a system.
  9. Looking for online writing advice is great, but it may just turn into anther form of putting off your writing. And I don’t know if I mentioned this, but writing takes longer than you think. So, stop reading this and get back to work. Bye now.
    Iris cat

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