As scientists, writing is a major component of the job, yet having “no time to write” is a common complaint echoed amongst PhD candidates, post-docs, and professors alike. On top of experiments, data analyses, and taking/teaching courses, writing can easily end up on the back burner. But publishing papers, like it or not, is critical for a career in science. Rather than setting intimidating goals like publishing some number of papers within a year or publishing in a high impact journal, it is more feasible and beneficial to first develop good writing habits, which will in the long run increase productivity.
Stay Updated on Relevant Literature
In academic writing, it’s important to incorporate findings from recent literature – not just from older, heavily cited papers—. Citing recently published studies will help you build a more compelling and relevant framework for your study. However, don’t search for papers last minute just to have them. Allow yourself enough time to digest and incorporate those studies in a useful manner.
Tip: The best way to stay on top of all the literature is to integrate a reading plan into your schedule. Given the high publishing rate of papers, with medicine leading as the area with most publications per year, staying updated is difficult, but not impossible. Compile a weekly or bi-weekly list of important papers and set time aside for stress-free reading. For example, set two hours of your Sunday afternoon or read a little bit before bed each night, whatever works best for you. The key however, is to pare down the list to only keep relevant papers.
It’s very easy, as you may already know, to get carried away on a trail of citations, and end up an hour or two later on a paper about penguin responses to climate change (true story). Curate your reading list by setting up citation and new article alerts. For example, a paper that cites your previous work or those of your lab is likely to be relevant to your research. You can easily set up citation alerts on Google Scholar by creating a Google Scholar Citation Profile. Similarly, if there are scientists in your field whose work is closely related to yours, set up alerts for new studies from them. In addition to Google Scholar, you can set up alerts on ResearchGate and Academia.edu as well. Springer Nature also launched a recommendation service which analyzes the papers that users read across Nature, SpringerLink, and Biomed Central. Their algorithm adapts to learn about the users’ specific interests, rather than basing recommendations solely off of keywords. By curating your own list of relevant papers and implementing a reading schedule, you can stay up-to-date and prevent last-minute panic when writing.
If you’re like me, you get caught up on the slightest details and revise sentences so much that you lose track of the point you are trying to make. A writing tip that I am trying to work on myself and has been helping, is to write now, edit later. As this article also explains, if you try to edit your work as you write, you will lose momentum and never get to your destination. I am a major culprit of this and can painfully recall a time when I worked on a literature review for over a year, spending months on just the introduction. It was only when I got tired of overthinking that I finally got to the bulk of the paper. In other words, don’t try to craft the perfect sentence or paragraph—that’s not writing, that’s editing. Write freely and only go over your work later in the day or week to smooth it out.
Allot Writing Time in the Morning
In science, writing is important not only as a means to communicate our work or to receive degrees and funding (although those are necessary), but the process of writing can lead to new ideas for experiments and follow-ups. When you put pen to paper and explicitly explain your results in context, it forces you to understand your own study even better. Unfortunately, many of us only start to write when deadlines creep up and the pressure can prevent you from writing with a clear mind.
Tip: Develop the habit of writing daily, early on in your career. Instead of trying to write at the end of the day after all your lab tasks, write early in the mornings when you’re not stressed or tired yet from other commitments.
For example, allot 30 to 45 minutes for right after you wake up and write from the comfort of your room before you “start” your day. It sounds difficult, but developing this habit has several benefits.
- You start your day on a positive note. Even if all else goes wrong (i.e. experiments fail, equipment breaks, PI problems) at least you were able to get some writing done.
- It will prime your brain to write. When you start your day by writing, you are more likely to think about your paper or grant throughout the day. Therefore, as you go about your daily tasks, you will be more likely to strike inspiration even when you're not actively trying.
Keep an Idea Notebook
Once you start incorporating the previous habits into your daily routine, you will find yourself thinking about your writing more often. Develop the habit of keeping a small notebook and pen with you and write down those inspirations whenever they occur. There’s nothing worse than trying to remember a good idea you had earlier.