Baking a process into writing your first draft of a scientific piece
With each new academic year, I see students and colleagues approach an anticipated scientific writing project with dread. Yet with the holidays I see many who approach baking as a fun way to release the pressure of academic work. What if the scientific writing process mimicked the experience of baking? As a professor who mentors students and faculty on their writing, I offer a framework to bake a process into writing the first draft of the scientific piece that you have been avoiding.
Choose your recipe. Consider what you will create and to whom will you serve it. Abstracts, manuscripts, and grant proposals have different formats and audiences. Know in advance the required sections and target page length to spare yourself needless editing later. As when cooking with a recipe, keep the writing instructions handy and refer to them often.
Allow yourself enough time. When baking, we readily accept how long it will take, without judgement. Approach your need for writing time in the same way, without judgement. The microwaved version of a baked good might do, but creating a quality product takes time. I have seen talented students overfill their calendars with extra activities and optional classes, leaving limited minutes for their writing. As with baking, writing takes time. Protect it.
Set out the ingredients. Pull words out of your head and onto the page as you would grab items out of the cupboard and set them on the counter. Write down as many words as you can generate, without worrying as to if they are correct or if they make sense. As with cooking, mess might happen. It will be okay.
Sort the ingredients. Find a place for your words. Organize your existing text into the different sections of your scientific piece: background, methods, results, conclusions. Then add additional words in the appropriate sections. For text that you are not sure what to do with, place it in a “parking lot” section. A common scientific writing error is putting background information into the methods section or vice versa. Keep the words about methods in the methods section.
Gently mix. Rotate through your piece to edit, edit, edit your words. Go through several rounds of editing for clarity; if you are not sure what you are trying to say, your reader will not be either. Then read your text out loud to detect sections of awkwardness. After you have worked the lumps out, edit for grammar and spelling. Order matters in the progressive stages of editing; avoid spending time on correct grammar and spelling on a sentence that will be cut. Trust your instincts; overthinking is like overmixing the batter.
Some people need nut and/or gluten-free goods. I prefer seeing active voice instead of passive voice to clearly identify the actor. For example, in this passive voice construction, “Surveys will be administered,” the reader has to guess at the proposed approach. In contrast, in this active voice construction, “The research assistant will administer the survey,” we clearly know who we plan to do the work. I also prefer minimal abbreviations to make the text more accessible to newcomers.
Put in the oven. Step away from your first draft and give it some time to come together in your mind. Half-baked writing is edible but not enjoyable. Give yourself enough time so you can go back to your piece with fresh eyes. Too soon and your view might be undercooked. Too long and you might burn yourself with anxiety over having been away for too long.
Plate it and serve. With your fresh perspective, edit again for clarity, then for typos. Then share it with others. Some will love it, some will not; it’s all good. Use their feedback to inform your next steps. Some students can benefit from extra assistance with their writing — if your school has a writing center or similar resource, bring your draft and ask for help. Your needs may vary.
Give yourself permission to take time to write your first draft. Focus on moving from one step to the next to minimize giving airtime to a feeling of “shoulds” and self-judgment. You might end up with a product more satisfying than you ever expected.
Anna M. Adachi-Mejia is an Associate Professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.