This post was inspired by reading the book How to Write a Lot and John Muschelli‘s post on the book, fittingly entitled How to Write a Lot. John provides an excellent summary of the book along with his reflections. Here I share 6 tips for writing that have worked well for me:
1) Don’t outline alone. The first time I wrote a paper, my coauthor and long time collaborator Taki Shinohara was generous enough to write the outline with me. We discussed what belongs in each section, the best angle to present the paper from, and the figures for the paper. It was a tremendous help, as I had no idea what I was doing. And after a thorough outlining, that paper pretty much wrote itself.
2) “Copy” someone else’s great paper. This is great advice for scientific writing, although I bet it is terrible advice for creative writing. Typically when I sit down to write a paper I find three or four papers that I deem to be of high quality that are similar to my paper and are from the journal that I plan to submit to (first…). I keep these papers close and use them as a guide while outlining and writing my paper. There is no sense or benefit in starting from scratch when so many people have already written great papers.
3) Always write. I stole this great habit from Mandy Mejia. Mandy and I are working on a project together and at every group meeting she always has a two or three page document detailing everything she has done the last few weeks. Aside from making meetings much more productive, having documents like this helps the paper writing process go much more smoothly. You can copy and paste text from these documents into the final paper. And writing about the topic consistently puts you in the correct mind frame of how to begin writing the final paper. It also stops you from forgetting what you have done.
4) Know yourself. How to Write a Lot encourages scientific writes to carve out a time to write. I find, it is really important to make that time fit nicely with your natural schedule. Here is how I have successfully done so. I wake up pretty early — when I am on a good schedule, this is somewhere between 4 and 5. So when I am writing, I make a rule that I can’t do anything else (except for making a cup of coffee and a quick breakfast) until I’ve written for 4 hours. By the time I come into school, I’ve already accomplished 4 hours of solid writing! And while this would probably be torture for someone else, it is relatively painless for me. A great blog post from James Clear details the daily routines of 12 famous writers — I’m a Kurt Vonnegut!
5) Do drink and draft. Opening a blank document to start outlining and writing the final paper is really intimidating. To overcome this, I always have a small glass of wine to ease me into my first writing session (And just for those who are paying attention, I will typically start a paper in the evening, after work — my life is not an episode of Mad Men!). I find myself to be less critical of my writing and it is a great way to get something down that I can start working with. There’s is even a bit of research to support this strategy. Brunke and Gilbert had 11 social drinkers perform a writing task and found that the writers produced a significantly larger amount of creative writing while intoxicated. And while scientific wiring is not creative writing, I still find having a small drink to be a helpful strategy to start the writing process.
6) Trade papers. Once you have finished writing (or sometimes even at a halfway point), it is great to trade papers with someone who is not a coauthor and see what they think. I’m often trading papers with John Muschelli or Jean-Philippe Fortin to get feedback. They key is to trade. You have to find someone who also needs a paper to be read, because typically no one really wants to edit an entire paper unless they are an author. I’m lucky that my Dad will often proofread papers for me (for nothing in return!). There is a great story where, after 5 or so coauthors read the paper, my Dad found that we had used the word “asses” instead of “assess” throughout the manuscript. Nice save!