5 tips for academic writing

I hate writing, but these five things can help

This is how writing a paper goes for me. I start by getting the method and results more or less done. Then something like an introduction and discussion takes shape, but it’s usually woolly and poorly worded. I revisit the literature for ideas, only to discover a brilliant, succinct and clear version of what I want to write. Then it hits me, I am never going to write that good, ever.

The truth is: for me, writing gets harder the more I do it. It gets harder because to write I must read, and reading invites unwelcome comparisons with my work. Christopher Hitchens puts it like this:

you’ll find [writing]gets harder the more you do it. That seems a shame. It should get easier, it should become more like a facility…. [Writing]becomes more difficult because you are reading more and more work by better and better people….. So it gets much more nerve wracking and much more difficult in every way costly for you ….”

This fact stings worst if a good piece of writing is the work of someone at a similar career stage as me. My self-confidence dial is turned to zero, and this is disastrous. I need self-confidence to write and, therefore, to be employed.

The problem is compounded because I am the harshest critic of my work. Nothing is ever good enough. I reread and rewrite as I go, and the more I reread, the more I rewrite. On top of this, I write like I pee: once I start, it is very hard to stop. My other work naturally pays a price, usually being swept under the carpet (and then the carpet promptly nailed down) until the writing is done. As for sleep? Forget it. Food, if I remember to eat, usually consists of tea and biscuits.

I do the following five things that help my writing and give me the courage to write. I hope they can do the same for you.

1. Have breaks

Regular breaks are mandatory to deal with the bruising slog I call writing. Besides rest and preserving your sense of self-worth, breaks are good for other reasons.

I’m the main proof reader of my work, but constant redrafting results in word-blindness. I miss typos, read words that aren’t there, and make sloppy mistakes in the results section. This, to say the least, could be costly if these errors were ever to survive to publication. A solution that works every time is rest.

Breaks are also invaluable to refining my work. Good writing means good editing, and without a break the latter is compromised. There’s always a point when I write that my self-criticism gets so bad that I jettison anything I write. However, after a break, I come back with refreshed eyes and can better distinguish between what needs reworking, chucking, and keeping.

My tip: take regular breaks to rest. And — if possible — bulk write to a reasonable standard then leave it for two weeks, thus allowing you to see the good and not just the bad in your work[1].

2. Look at my old work.

The more you write, the better you become at writing. That’s a fact. But this process of refinement is so slow moving that you don’t see how far you’ve come. My past work is absolute drivel compared to now. As I write this blog, I check a paper of mine from three-years ago and I see a million ways to improve it. In fact, I don’t have to look that far back in the past. A manuscript from 6 months ago is cluttered with words that don’t belong there, and emails to my PI were way too long and rambling. Now, however, my prose are shorter, more precise, and get to the point faster. (But I’m certain I will be embarrassed by this blog post in 6 months time).

In short, writing gains are often missed, so reread old work to see them.

3. Just report the facts, style comes later

Good scientific writing is accurate reporting of facts. To make it great and to make your readers want to read more, you need style. Style requires shrewd editing, an ear for a good sentence, a wide vocabulary, sound grammar, and originality. I’m still learning all of these things, but it is a blow to my confidence that I have not mastered them already. Still, I have to remind myself that this doesn’t matter. A scientific writer is duty bound to report the facts in a concise, transparent, and honest way. It’s the bare minimum. Style is an advantage, but it takes second place.

Remember: facts first, style second. And, don’t worry, style will come in time with plenty of practice (and the best practice is writing grant applications!).

4. Abandon the ownership complex

Feedback that improves my writing is always a body blow to me. I want to be a good writer on my own steam, without the help of anyone else. This is the toughest thing to get over for me. I’ve been the first author on all (four…) of my papers, and each one was a product of many hours of independent labour. Yet, for all of them, my PhD PI helped me with writing, a lot. To this day I consider my first authorship an unduly generous gesture from her. On bad days, I feel a fraud for taking credit for someone else’s work.

The fact is, there is no such thing as an immaculately conceived piece of writing. It’s the net outcome of successive revisions based on feedback from peers. Even single-author articles are subjected to peer review, and their content is written by someone whose writing was born out of years of rolling criticism from peers, either from publications, grant applications, or conference talks. Peer feedback from your reader is invaluable because you’re writing for the reader, not for yourself.

5. Finally, be brave.

The fear of exposing myself to peer feedback is what drives me to redraft like a madman. In healthy amounts, this fear can significantly improve pieces of my writing. But, if I am not careful, it leads to obsession. I have to constantly remind myself that I am not a seasoned writer. My present writing ability will only take me so far and no further. To go further, I have to learn from the invited criticism from my peers. I am doing myself no favours by trying to write something I haven’t got the skills to pull off. If you are like me, I want my writing to show I am competent, talented, and accomplished. However, the fact is I am not that level, and this is fine. I will get their eventually, but only if I be brave and just let people comment on my work.

So, be brave and bite the bullet: send your work to your colleagues, your PI, your co-authors, whoever. You ego might be bruised, but that’s a price worth paying in the long run.


[1]For full disclosure, this idea is partly my mums. When I was younger, I hated my hair after it was cut, and she would always say, ‘ you know what the difference is between a bad haircut and a good one? Two weeks’. And you know what, she was right. It’s the same for writing too, at least for me!