Monday, February 14, 2011

Three Easy Steps

We're talking about good writing habits.  In the last post, I emphasized the importance of developing and sticking to a regular writing schedule.  In the next few posts, we'll take a closer look at how scientists learn to particular, how they develop a writing schedule.

As I look back on my science career, my satisfaction over the body of work that I've published is somewhat dampened by the knowledge of all those papers (and books) that were never written.  I've got the data; it's filed away in lab and field notebooks, spreadsheets, and half-finished manuscripts.  In fact, I would estimate that for every paper I've published, there are five more that were never written. Most of my colleagues who are the same age would admit to the same.  A lot of the unpublished data were collected during and just after I finished my Ph.D.  I was bursting with ideas, questions, and energy.  In some cases, these were side-projects that I carried out alongside a primary research goal.  In others, they were stand-alone projects that were separately funded.  All of these studies were completed, but the work was never written up--for various reasons.  Often, it was lack of time--more specifically, lack of a period of time scheduled in the project for writing.  Back then, I thought the writing should take place after all data were collected.  A typical project might have three months set aside at the end of the project, which was designated for writing things up.  However, what usually happened was that I had to spend those three months completing some aspect of the research, redoing some analysis, writing the next grant proposal, and/or initiating the next research project.  There never seemed to be time for writing manuscripts.  

I now think that I could have taken most of this research to its logical conclusion--publication--if I had only developed better writing skills and habits early on.  In the last post, I made the point that having a regular writing schedule (e.g., 2 hours per day, every weekday) was essential for sustained productivity.  Part of the problem I had during my early research years was that I believed what I had been taught about how to write up research.  My graduate advisers taught me the following procedure: design the study, conduct the study, write up the study.  In that order.  Only when I had all data in hand should I begin thinking about writing.  Three easy steps, taken in sequential order.  Sounds logical.  It was never suggested to me that I could (or should) begin writing the moment I had an idea for a study.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the past two posts. I am an undergraduate just starting on my first real lab project. The deadline for the write-up is alarmingly close to exam time though and therefore I was hoping to start the write up sooner.
You recommend writing from the start of the project. If no data has been collected yet though, where is it best to actually start writing?

DrDoyenne said...

I'll be talking in more detail about when and how to start writing projects early in later posts.

In general, though, you can begin writing a literature review, the introduction to your paper, and your methods even before you start collecting data.

Sometimes it's easiest to start with the methods section.

The introduction is more difficult to write, but you can begin building it early by writing up what is known about your topic (based on the literature), what the gaps are, and what problem or question you are going to address in your paper and why it's important.

At a minimum, you can start outlining your paper or report at the beginning of your project and then fill the sections in with information as you progress through the project.