For the previous episode in the series on how to write a scientific paper, see here.
“To write is human, to edit is divine” -Stephen King
The best and most productive writers do not write perfect first drafts. The best and most productive writers write crappy first drafts and they do this as quickly as possible. They then edit, revise, and polish their crappy first drafts until those are no longer crappy (and no longer drafts). Or until the deadline makes them stop, whichever comes first.
This is what you should do with your scientific paper too: write the first draft quickly, and then edit, revise, polish, rinse, and repeat, until you are satisfied with the outcome. Or until the deadline comes.
If you have followed the system outlined in this blog, you are now at the point where you are ready to write your very own crappy first draft. You have a story, you have a structure, and you have notes for each section and each paragraph. If you have read the previous chapter, you have some idea of how to organize the building blocks of paragraphs and sentences (recap: the first sentences/words tell what the paragraph/sentence is about; stick to this and keep it simple; put weighty stuff at the end). This is all you need to know for now; I’ll provide plenty of tips for editing later.
So at the time being, put all rules aside, and aim to produce to a complete first draft quickly. Embrace the words of Stephen King quoted above and forget perfection when it comes to the first draft—let it be human, let it be imperfect. Let it be crappy! Why? Because producing and then polishing a crappy first draft is much, much faster than agonizing over every word and sentence and making only perfect choices that take forever to make. When all that time is spent on editing and revising instead, the outcome is much better.
Now that you have to finally produce some text, this is where the pain of writing typically hits you. Coming up with plans and storylines can be fun; writing rarely is. Writing is hard work. Writing the first draft is particularly hard work because not being self-conscious of your words is hard, and because not letting your inner critic stop you in mid-sentence is hard. These demons are difficult to wrestle but wrestled they must be, otherwise, there is no progress and the pages remain blank.
How to ease this pain, especially if you are a novice and it feels overwhelming? How to write all that text that needs to be written before you have a paper? There are some techniques that may help you.
First, make the first draft your own little (crappy) secret. It is not for your supervisor’s or co-authors’ eyes—it is for no-one else’s eyes, it is only for you, and it serves as raw material for editing only. When your supervisor asks you for the first draft, you should give her your second draft instead—by all means, call it the first draft! Keeping your first draft private should make you less self-conscious, at least in theory: no-one else will ever see it.
Second, aim at producing more text than you need. Just let the words come! At this stage it’s OK to have sentences that are too long, it’s OK to repeat yourself, it’s OK to explain the same thing over and over again with different words. In particular, if you are writing, say, one of those 4-page letters with a restricted word count, do not worry about the length at all. Just write. Cutting text is easier than producing it, and the editing phase easily reduces the length of your text by 10-30%. In my experience, the more, the better the final product.
Third, to be productive, schedule writing time and stick to it. Never wait for inspiration to strike, because it rarely strikes those who just sit there waiting. The Muses dislike idleness; they tend to show up when you are already engaged in work. Just sit down, put your phone on silent, remove all clutter from your screen, shut down your Internet access, and do it. Write. A good target is something like 30-45 minutes of uninterrupted writing, followed by a break. For a really good day’s work, four to five of such sessions are already enough. Just keep on doing this daily until you find yourself at the end of your first draft.
Fourth, if you get stuck, try changing the way you write. Take a pen and a notepad and walk away from the computer. Sit down somewhere, get a cup of decent coffee, and sketch your sentences on paper. Try to write as if you would be making lecture notes or just jotting down ideas. When unstuck, go back to your computer and use the material in your notes to continue. Or, instead of a notepad, try dictation, or go for a walk and play out imagined conversations in your head where you explain whatever it is that you are supposed to be writing to someone.
If you are very self-conscious and find it hard to make progress because of that nasty voice in the back of your head, you might want to try something along the lines of the Morning Pages technique. This technique provides desensitization by stream-of-consciousness writing: every morning you take a pen, a journal, and write longhand three whole pages, filling them with anything that comes to your mind. This may feel rather difficult at first; just keep on doing it. Morning Pages were introduced by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way as a tool for artists to connect with their creativity and overcome whatever fears hold them back. If you’d like to use this technique to help you write your paper, you can fill those three pages with thoughts on your research. See where this leads you.
If nothing else helps and it feels impossible to make progress, stop for a while and think about why this would be. What would need to change for the words to emerge from wherever it is that words come from? Usually, if I find myself in this situation, the answer is that the problem lies not with words or with writing but with thinking: there is something that I don’t yet understand, some pieces that don’t yet fit. Then, the solution is to stop writing (this part of the text, at least) and to solve the underlying problem instead. So take a time-out, and look for understanding first; the words will come more easily when you have found it.