So now you’re reading… but are you writing?
Previously I posted about the importance of reading as much as you can. Now it’s on to something just as important and very closely related: writing! Writing can be one of the scariest tasks that you as a grad student will have to undertake (right next to presentations), but it is one that you absolutely must do every single dat. What you write and publish is how you will be judged when you earn your Ph.D. No amount of arguing will convince your committee or potential employer that you’ve been productive if you haven’t published a single paper. On the flip side, if you have tons of published works, then nobody can say you haven’t been productive. The work that you share with the greater scientific community should be your only measure of success in graduate school.
But you may beg the question, well how come I need to write everyday? Can I not just do my work and when I have all the data then I’ll write a paper? Sure, you can totally do that… if you want to stay in grad school longer that you have to. The downside to waiting until you have all the data, is that it will be very hard to tell when you actually have all the data. Let me take you through this thought process.
I’ll give you an example from my own experience. My first paper (which is on its way to the journal almost as we speak) was quite the eye-opener for me. The intimidation I felt every time I started to attempt to write something was almost unbearable. A million thoughts went through my head about how I didn’t know the material, or how the data wasn’t ready to be put into a paper, or how I just plain sucked at writing. The pressure and the fear that I placed on this paper was, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Out of the sea of ridiculousness I was finally able to start writing. I just started writing something that was related to the topic of the paper. At first, it was crap. It really was. It looked like something that I would’ve written in 6th grade. But as time went on and I began to write everyday, something changed. First, the actual topic of the paper came into focus. As I was writing I realized that what I had originally planned to write about wouldn’t work. So some modifications were needed. That worked out well though because it gave me a clearer direction of where I needed to be. As I began to work through the introductory section, I could see in my mind what sort of figures I would need to support the story I wanted to tell. Slowly, over the course of several weeks, this paper that I had originally feared, started becoming a paper that I couldn’t wait to finish. I kept rereading what I had written and making changes to improve it. I had a draft that I submitted to my advisor and he made some suggestions about improvements from there. I worked on it and molded it until it was a complete product. It took time and effort, but eventually it became something better than how it started. I ended up with a manuscript that I am proud of and cannot wait until I can finally get it published and move on.
One main key to this mini-success story was persistence. I did my best to set, and keep, some sort of a writing schedule. I made myself write something every day of the workweek, even if it was a single sentence. This forced me to keep my paper in focus and not let the thought of working on it become a bigger deal than it actually was. You need to find for yourself what works in terms of a schedule or minimum goal, but whatever you do, make sure that you write something everyday.
Another key to this success was constraints. Constraints in your writing can actually be quite liberating. This seems counterintuitive, but let me explain. When you are staring at a blank page, the possibilities are literally endless. You can write one page or a thousand pages; you can have no pictures or a picture per page. The options can almost be too much to handle and it can really paralyze your thought process with fear. When you are writing a scientific manuscript, it really helps to have a journal and type of manuscript in mind. Generally, these journals will have constraints on the length of paper that you can write, the number of figures you can have, and the number of references you can have. They may also specify what sections you are allowed to use in your paper (such as Introduction, Discussion, etc.). These constraints give you a framework to build your document that can guide you in the right direction. For me, knowing that I could have a maximum of 8 pages, 4 figures, and 20 references gave me a ceiling on the amount I could write and made me focus my work tighter on the relevant topic. As oxymoronic it can seem, constraints in scientific writing can be a very liberating experience.
The final main key that I will leave you with is story. Story, as applied to a grad student, represents the flow of information in your manuscript. You cannot have a very successful research article if you can’t tell some sort of story with the data. This is an aspect of writing that must be done with your advisor. However, YOU must do the legwork in gathering the parts of the story and learning how to recognize good storytelling in the literature that is available. You know that, based off of all the reading that you’ve been doing, whether what you’re reading is a good article or a bad article. It takes practice to write a good article (this goes back to persistence) and it takes focus to make your manuscript a good one (this goes back to both constraints and story). Publishing a poorly organized and written paper not only discredits your ability as a scientist, but it also is a disservice to the larger scientific community as a whole. A bigger disservice though is not publishing an impactful and relevant paper because you don’t have the focus or persistence required to record your work and share it with others.
With my first paper nearing publication, I look forward to writing more and sharing the hard work that I’ve done with my time here in grad school. My hope is that you will be inspired to write more than you currently are and that you will take the time to learn how to be a better author. You owe it to all of your peers to make the best representation of your work possible.
For some further reading on scientific writing, I have a few articles that I definitely recommend:
Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar Summary This is a link directly to the PDF