This is a guest post by Eva Lantsoght, PhD student in Engineering at Delft University of Technology, she also blogs on her website http://phdtalk.blogspot.it/ and tweets @evalantsought
For most graduate students, writing papers and a dissertation is one of the more dreadful parts of the research process. Writing, and organizing your thoughts in such a way that it becomes clear for peers in your field, can be a challenging task. As a result, writer’s block is one of the most commonly heard troubles of graduate students.
Over the past few years in gradschool, I’ve developed a four-step plan that did not only help me to write faster and better, but eventually to made me truly enjoy writing.
Step 1: The preparation
- While you are working on your research, make sure you document meticulously your work. Having material ready, is one of the best ways to get started with writing. Here a few things to consider:
- Keep track of the references you used: make sure you have soft and/or hard copies of your references, and store your references in a digital reference managing system. You can also take a few digital snapshots of paragraphs and images you plan on referring to in the paper/chapter under preparation.
- Document your calculations, add plenty of commentary while you code, and consider opening a separate document in which you list all assumptions you made.
- Keep notes about your results. You can add a few lines of commentary to discuss your results, or you can open a separate document in which you discuss the relevance and conclusions based on your results.
Before getting started, take a few moments to brainstorm. One of the best ways to prepare for writing, is to make a mindmap or outline sketch of how you will construct your argument. I call this phase also “making the masterplan”. A key element here is to ask yourself a few questions:
- What is my target audience? If you are writing for a conference or a journal, check previous issues of the journal or proceedings of the conference to get acquainted with the style.
- What is my key message? What is that one idea I want my readers to remember?
- How do I structure my argument? Different approaches are possible: for example 1) Introduction – Experiments – Results – Conclusions or 2) Introduction – Statement – Proof of Statement – QED and conclusions.
- What material do I have ready? If you document your research, you can immediately pull from existing fies.
- What are the guidelines? You can’t fully expand on everything you have researched so far if you’re bound by a 6-page paper limit. Make sure you know the guidelines and limits, to assess how much information you can use to convey your message.
Step 2: Get comfortable
Writing for long hours in a row can cause pain in your neck, shoulders and wrists. If you’re settling for the long run, make sure you are as comfortable as possible. If necessary, consider getting a different keyboard, a better laptop or writing tools and software to help you write . I decided to invest in a new laptop, to end all the swearing at my old machine and work on my thesis with as little friction as possible. You might also like to block out all distractions while working on your computer.
Make sure you find a calm spot to write: this place could be our office, the university library, a coffee place or your home workspace – as long as you have enough space and peace to fully focus on the task at hand. Depending on where you decide to work, you set the mood by playing some music and settling down with a nice cup of tea or coffee.
Step 3: Make writing a habit
If you want to avoid the stress of almost missing a deadline, start writing ahead of time. You’ve heard it before and will hear it again: writing requires practice – and many authors advise graduate students to write daily. Here are a few examples of how you can incorporate daily writing into your busy schedule:
- Personal: You can use morning pages, 750 words or a journal to clear your mind and write daily. Three pages every morning or 750 words help you to reflect on your progress and identify what tasks you need to focus on during the day. Writing 750 words just to spill the beans won’t take much time at all (15 to 30 minutes) but can significantly help you build your writing muscle.
- Casual: Consider starting a blog to write in a different way about your research topic (the way you would explain your mom what you are actually spending so much time on), or to document your journey towards your degree. Writing from a different perspective will help you reflect on your research as well as develop your writing skills in a broader way.
- Professional: If you start long before a deadline, you can schedule daily writing on your paper or chapter. In 3 hours a day, you can make significant progress, without having the feeling that you are locking yourself away from the world, the lab and your colleagues for an extended amount of time until you’ve produced your piece of work. In fact, scheduling a few hours a day for writing helps you to progress your writing while still juggling all your other tasks (teaching, lab work,…)
Step 4: Celebrate your successes
If you put effort into your writing by practicing, you will start seeing the results. These results can be measured, again, in different ways:
- Compare your papers: You’ll see a very clear trend in writing style and clarity when you compare your first papers to your current work. As practice is part of writing, you’ll develop your voice and style over several years and papers. By comparing your papers every now and then, you can see and celebrate the progress you’ve made.
- Keep track of your word count: I keep a simple file in which I track every day how many words I have written on my dissertation, reports and papers. This tool helps me to check if I’m steadily progressing, or if I’ve gone off on tangents without writing much.
- Check your productivity: The more your write, the easier it becomes to structure your ideas into sentences. If you keep a word count, you will be able to see how practice increases your writing productivity over time.
Do you like writing, or is it something you prefer to put off until a few days before a deadline? How did you find joy in writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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