Although I love to write, I know that it can be an overwhelming process-even this is an understatement. Writing is a universal form of communication, and maybe even the most important form of communication. We hear stories and learn history from the writing that is left behind by past generations, and writing is one of the most common ways by which people voice their own thoughts, whether this is on Twitter or in a book. All kinds of information is communicated across various audiences through writing: healthcare information, financial information; written accounts of incidents through the forms of hand-written letters and emails, memories that are captured and stored in diaries just to name a few. Unlike spoken word, writing stays, often forever. For scientists and scholars, writing is the mechanism by which we pass the information we discover to the public sector, and thus, the quality of the writing that is produced is highly significant.
Even though I’ve always considered writing one of my strongest skills, learning to write research papers was still extremely difficult at first. In the language arts classes I’d taken in high school and college, I’d learned to write artistically, but I never realized how different this style of writing is from scientific writing.
Some say that scientific writing is dry, but I disagree: even though scientists don’t get creative with metaphors and other kinds of symbolism, innovation, another kind of creativity, is an integral part of science and therefore coming up with explanations for new scientific ideas and discoveries. Still, it takes a lot of practice to do this kind of writing well. Reflecting back on my own experiences writing scientific papers, I came up with a list of 7 steps that I believe lead to excellent research essays.
Step 1: Read, Read and then read some more
You shouldn’t even think about putting pen to paper before you have thoroughly explored the literature about your topic of writing- I can’t stress this enough. I know how tempting it can be to immediately jump into it, but I’ve also faced the consequences of starting to write about something when you aren’t completely sure what you’re writing about. It ends up taking longer to write your paper because you aren’t sure yet what you want to say, and you don’t know what information you’re missing. Before you start your own writing, you should make sure you understand what the writing in your field looks like, and topics have already been covered by others. This will only help you to formulate your own questions, and know what resources are available to you.
Reading papers is probably the slowest part of the process, but it is worth it to spend lots of energy doing this, especially towards the beginning. As you read, take good notes and make sure you really understand what ideas the authors are exploring and what conclusions they are drawing in their papers. You can use this note-taking template if you find it useful. You should also consider using programs like Mendeley and Zotero or Paperpile to help keep track of all the papers you read.
Having a good understanding of the literature that you’re exploring before you start your own writing will only save you time later on: you’ll have a clearer idea about what you want to say in your own paper.
Step 2: Read your Mentors’ work
When you read through writing, you might find yourself thinking about the ways in which you might add to or edit this work. Maybe there is another question or topic that you would address, or maybe there is a sentence you might re-word. You should assume that those reading your work do this, too.
If you know that you’ll be asking a supervisor or mentor for critical feedback, it’s a good idea to go through their work and understand what their writing style looks like before you give them your paper to look over. If you’re a new writer, do this before you even start writing! You should expect that the feedback you receive will be based on the writing style of the person who is giving you feedback, and this way, you will have an idea of what they might expect to see in your paper.
Getting your work published is hard, so this also helps in giving you an idea of what excellent, publishable writing looks like.
Step 3: Create a working outline of each section of your paper
Once you have an idea of what you’re expected to have in your paper, you’ll be ready to start writing (YAY!). I sincerely believe that the most important step in actually writing essays is the outline. In fact, this step has become so critical in my process of essay-writing that I never write an essay without doing this first.
You outline doesn’t need to be pretty or fancy or include latin numerals- you should do what works best for you. Sometimes it’s easiest to start out with a simple checklist, or a list of questions that you need to answer in your essay. This list is much easier to make after you’ve followed steps 1 and 2, and you have a good idea what you’re writing about.
Step 4: Write from the inside → out
I worked as a Tutor at the University of Washington Seattle’s writing center for 3 out of 4 years of my undergraduate, and during my time tutoring there, this was my #1 tip to other students.
The introduction and conclusion sections of any writing are always the hardest to write. You want them to sound well-written, and often what people do is spend lots of time and energy writing these sections, which leaves them with limited time to write the “meat” of their essay- the body paragraphs. Instead, try working in the reverse order. After you’ve completed your outline, start by writing the body paragraphs, and go paragraph by paragraph. As you write, you might find yourself coming up with new questions within each paragraph that you think are important to address. Chunking out your writing in this way also helps to make sure that you only need to focus on one thing at a time.
In your introduction section, you’ll want to give a thorough overview of everything you’ve written about in your essay, and along the same lines, your conclusions should conclude on everything you’ve written about in your essay. Because you now have your body paragraphs all written out, you can save yourself from (a) writing introduction and conclusion sections where it feels like something is missing, and from (b) re-writing these sections over and over again after you’ve added new ideas to your essay, and (c) not having enough time to write the body paragraphs of your essay.
Step 5: Write a little bit everyday
Every writer has their own process, and some of us have better concentration abilities than others. Because I easily get distracted and, when there is a lot going on, cannot concentrate for long periods of time, I’ve found it useful to spend a little bit of time writing every day rather than reserving a chunks of time to write a few times a week.
When I was finishing off my honor’s thesis towards the end of my undergraduate at UW, I had limited time because there were lots of other things I needed to focus my energy on, too: getting ready for final exams, graduation, research presentations at a couple of different conferences, finishing research projects, going to class, two different jobs, and making time for family and friends. All the while, I had to maintain a relatively flexible schedule. I found it easier to just make it a part of my routine to find a little bit of time to write every day, and I used a checklist to keep track of what I needed to work on each day. This way, I got my work done without driving myself crazy or missing lots of writing time at once, and writing was also a less overwhelming process for me.
Another reason why writing a little everyday is a useful practice is something that one of my mentors pointed out to me: writers who do this rather than working for longer chunks of time a couple times a week often produce more writing. My opinion is that this is a good thing- producing more writing means producing more ideas, and more material to work with.
Step 6: Get feedback early and often
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I started writing research papers was trying to get feedback after I had already written a significant amount of my paper. When I asked for and received feedback, it became really confusing to try and figure out how to take what I’d already written and shape it in the way that my mentors advised me to write it. Because I’d requested feedback so much later than I should have and it wasn’t shaping up to be what I wanted it to be, I had to discard what I had and start all over.
I hated that I’d used so much time to write something that I didn’t even end up using, but at least this taught me how to write more efficiently. Seeking feedback from early on- right from the outlining stage- allowed me to ensure that I was able to incorporate my mentors’ feedback from early on, and I ended up writing a much stronger paper.
Step 7: Writing about your writing: documenting your writing process.
One of the best resources that I’ve created for myself is writing process journal; basically, it’s a running Google Doc where I wrote down all of my thoughts during the process of writing my thesis. If I ever felt anxious or stressed out about anything, I wrote it down here; if I got any feedback, I copied it into this google doc. If I was having trouble wording figuring out how to say something, I wrote down my thoughts here first.
Keeping a process journal allowed me to have a focused space where I could process all of the thoughts I had related to my research and writing my paper. It also allowed writing and editing my paper to be a less overwhelming process: it is less stressful to see a condensed list of the changes that you need to make rather than a bunch of feedback spread out in different places over the span of 20+ pages. Plus, having documentation of my writing/thinking process also allows me to keep track of what I learned through this writing experience, so I can keep improving.
Learning to write scientifically doesn’t have to be a difficult process, and these are just a few steps you can take to make things easier for yourself. In the end, learning to write well also takes a lot of practice. Even though it might seem hard right now, keep going and you’ll keep getting better.