The fundamental and often understated and ignored skill of a researcher is writing. Invest in your writing! Believe it or not, you are first and foremost a writer than a researcher, you are known by the articles you write, not the hours in front of a computer.

It’s harder to be misunderstood when you write, it gives people time to read/think about what you said versus react immediately, it’s preserved for future generations of researchers, forces principled thinking, and will reduce the back-and-forth.

Taking the time to write your thoughts will refine them as they get jotted down, provide more context to others, and catch people up to speed quicker—avoiding the need for a bunch of independent 1:1 meetings.

Invest in your writing! Write, Write, Write…Edit, Edit, Edit!!!

Purpose of writing:

Writing clarifies and sharpens your thoughts in a way that is superior to merely articulating them in a conversation. It allows you to look at your ideas more objectively, almost as if they were from another person. You can then examine them and think about if what you have written down is really true.

However, more often than discovering that your ideas are wrong, you will discover something different: that you do not know what you think. Sure, you have some vague idea, and you believe that there is a chain of reasoning that leads to a certain conclusion. But what you will discover is that this chain of reasoning is mostly not existent. At best, it has many holes and maybe leads not where you think it does. This discovery is, of course, very unpleasant and sometimes even painful. In a sense, you have lied to yourself by thinking you have thought through this specific topic when, in reality, you have only copied the opinion of someone else.

This process requires an immense amount of honesty because nobody likes to feel stupid. Either you do not know what you think, in which case you feel stupid. Or it turns out that what you believed to be your opinion does not really make sense, is logically inconsistent, and mostly copied from someone else, in which case you feel stupid as well. However, the reward for all this exhausting work is clarity and simplicity. You now possess a chain of reasoning where you have looked as carefully as you can for holes and problems. If you care about being less wrong tomorrow than you are today, you have to take this extreme attitude towards criticism. It will show in your writings and in the way you express your ideas.

The Danger of Aiming for Perfection

On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film, photography students, into two groups. The “quantity” group would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on. Meanwhile, the “quality” group would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.

At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.

It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the best program to write, the perfect idea for an article, the most eloquent way to convey an idea. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action. As Voltaire once wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

This is equally true for writing, the more you write, the better you are as a writer.

Guidelines for writing

Write daily—Daily writing, even for 15 minutes, seems to be more productive in the long run than “binge writing”. The key is to write regularly, and that means daily. Write down the summary of work at the end of the day, this will help you not just collect your thoughts for the day but also formulate new ideas for the next day.

Make time to write. Don’t wait until you have a moment, have a specific time in your day to write. Writing is better than meetings, but you may have to tell people you have a meeting, then go to a quiet spot alone and write for a couple of hours (people respect meetings irrationally than they respect meeting times).

Stop at a good place—When you find yourself in the zone and the writing is flowing and the ideas are being put to paper easily there can be a tendency to want to write for a long time. Fight this urge. Stop writing after you reach a certain number of words or at a specific time. If you are worried that you may lose critical ideas, jot them down where you will remember them the next day.

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

  • Ernest Hemingway

Learn to like your writing—The more you like your writing the easier it will be to return to it each day. It will also make it easier to share with others. Researchers come from a “culture of critique” so it can be difficult to see the positives in your own work. The more you can embrace your writing, in all of its glories, the better it will be in the long run.

Share your work—Getting feedback on your work is key, and it’s risky, especially in the early stages of the project. The upside of early feedback is that it can help prevent you from traveling down a road that may not be productive. Better to find that out early. As you share your work, be sure to let your colleagues know how they can best help you—what exactly are you hoping to get from their reading of your work? Being a good colleague can also mean you offering to read their work in return.

Consider a writing group—For some/many researchers, writing groups have been helpful in helping provide feedback and holding them accountable.

Do your creating and editing sequentially, not simultaneously. The most common approach to writing involves producing a sentence, fiddling with it until it looks OK, going on to the next sentence, revising both sentences because the first one no longer works, and three hours later maybe you’ve got a paragraph done. If that’s how you write, you can bet that the manuscript will either be unfinished by the deadline, pushed out before it’s ready, or never finished at all. Instead, just sit down at your computer and free-write, ignoring those voices in your head telling you what trash you’re producing. Before long, you’ll have a significant body of work that’s much better than you thought while you were writing it—just write. Then do the editing and polishing.

Spend twice as much time editing as you spend writing. Write without trying to edit, and then allocate a block of time to review your writing, and critically edit it. Read a sentence, now remove it and see if it makes sense without the sentence, if it does, you probably don’t need that sentence.

Write in a distracting free environment, both physically and virtually. Make your writing app full screen and disable notifications. Write in a quiet place when possible. Use tools such as Grammarly when writing, even if you are a native speaker. Grammar tools catch common mistakes and help you focus on the creative writing part.

The Science of Scientific writing

Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it.

Structure of scientific writing

Provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.

  1. Place the person or thing whose “story” a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.

  2. The new, emphasis-worthy information appears in the stress position.

  3. Place appropriate “old information” (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.

Read the Science of Scientific Writing, this article has wonderful examples of how to communicate effectively. The best read on scientific writing:

Grammatical style

  1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.

  2. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.

The craft of writing effectively:

Writing grant applications (also applies to technical writing)

Put the important thing in the first sentence – If you learn how to do this, you’ll be ahead of 80% of grant writers and would-be grant writers. Most proposals prepared by other “grant writers” fail the first-sentence test.

5Ws and H: Who, what, where, when, why and how: A compelling proposal, even a highly technical one, needs to make an argument about why funding the proposal will lead to improvement innovations, breakthroughs, or improvements.

Answering the why:

  • Why you are targeting what you are targeting?

  • Why you have decided on what you will do?

  • Why you will provide services in a particular area?