|How to write effectively in graduate school|
|Let’s face the cold, hard reality: everybody in the biomedical field is evaluated by publications. Graduate students need to recognize this reality sooner rather than later. Those that already have a job in the field--as a professor or a research assistant--have already realized the importance of publications. However, graduate students might have not or are not willing to appreciate the implications of her work, mainly publications, in her career. From scholarship applications to fellowship awards, from graduation to job seeking, publications play an essential role in these processes. A professor once told me that the first round in seeking a candidate for an academic position just takes 10 seconds per person, which composes only a peek in the publication list. Everybody knows this is not what it should be, but again this is the cold, hard reality.
When you are still in graduate school, you need to train yourself to be an effective writer, because your future relays on what you write and publish. This is another harsher reality: there is no easy way to be a good scientific writer. Only long-time practice can make a good writer. Therefore, just shut the door, sit on the chair, and start to compose the first paragraph. However, there are a few useful tips on how to write effectively.
1. Manage your time wisely with rewards to yourself.
Everything in graduate school is about time management. Waiting until the last minute would usually leads to failure. Plan your time with details. For instance, if you are asked to submit a review article by the end of week 3, you need to start immediately to make an outline, and finish the first draft by the end of week 2. Next, you can use one week to ask other people to read your draft and do intensive editing. Always do the important things first rather than the urgent ones. Give yourself enough time to do the important things. Please realize that you need several cycles of writing-editing to complete your paper.
Self-discipline is the key to success, including time management. Avoid wasting time on emails (Tract your time on emails every day, and you will be surprised how much time you spend on them), social media, and TV. It is impossible to completely ignore social media in the modern era, but we can set up a dedicated time slot for social media. For instance, 30 minutes before bedtime every day is a reasonable setting. In order to avoid distractions, I use an old computer that is not connected to the internet for writing only.
When you complete a writing project, you shall award yourself. A fancy dinner with friends, a wonderful movie night, a new electronic gadget, or a long-wanted vacation will recharge you for further writing.
2. Set up an achievable goal and time slots for writing.
It is ideal to write something every day, but usually it is not practical. Set up a goal of writing 1 hour a day, 6 days a week. In case you miss a day in a week for writing, you will not feel so guilty about it. It is honest to say, even for graduate students, 6 hours per week for writing is not long nor enough. Many members of the biomedical community would write 20 hours a week.
Pick a suitable time slot every day dedicated to writing. I am an early riser. I would start my day with a mild workout, and go straight to writing in the basement until my family get up. It is usually 2 hours every morning. A friend of mine in the medical school does this at night. After she tucks kids in, she works on a computer to compose manuscripts. No matter what time you select, you have to write every day constantly. Only daily consistent efforts can lead to successful writing.
You should also write when you are most energetic in the day. Use your time wisely. When you are fresh, you can achieve a lot more than when you are tired during the same amount of time. Another thing is longer time does not guarantee better writing efficacy. If you spend time longer than usual in non-stop writing, your brain would not work as effectively as when you just start. Again, manage your writing time wisely.
3. Get things done. Do not wait until everything is perfect.
For many occasions, perfection does not exist in reality. Some people will wait until she is ready or everything is quiet. The temperature of the room must be right. The light must be right. Everything related to the writing topic must be at hand. However, this is not happening. The important thing is to get your stuff done. Try to finish the first draft, even (and probably) it is imperfect.
When your first draft is completed, you may ask your colleagues for their opinions. A publishable manuscript requires a number of revisions even before submission. You need to build up a team, where members can share their manuscripts for inputs. I always get suggestions from colleagues in my department, which has helped me a lot for publishing.
4. Writing time should not include reading time.
Time for writing is just for writing, which should not include time for reading. Some people designate a certain amount of time for writing, but they spend this time reading materials to find what to write. This is not right. You can have a period of time every day for reading and make notes, but you should also maintain everyday writing time slots. Don’t dilute your writing time with anything.
5. How to deal with writer’s block.
We all have this experience that we sit down and seem to have lost our ability to write. We started with a blank Word file, but an hour later the file is still empty. This experience is called writer’s block. One can only overcome writer’s block but never avoid it. Writing is also a process of thinking. You put your thoughts on paper while you are thinking, and then rearrange them by writing them down. Another way of mine to deal with writer’s block is to utilize my notes. When reading papers, I take notes on important information. If I meet an obstacle in writing, I go back to my notes and draw a flowchart of my thoughts on a paper. I can always get a spark during this process.
6. Writing and editing are different processes.
When you are writing, just focus on what you have to say. Don’t worry about the perfection of your draft. Go back to the manuscript a few days later after you finish the first draft. Editing is a totally different process compared to writing, which uses different parts of the brain. Editing is challenging as well, which composes from correcting minor errors to entirely reorganizing the draft. Don’t expect editing is easy, which sometimes takes even longer time than writing.
7. Have multiple projects at hand.
You should always have more than one projects at hand. For instance, you should have one that was submitted recently, one is being actively written, and one is going to start in the near future. You can use a binder or several folders to handle these projects. You can also create file folders in the computer to organize the files.
Please note: owning multiple projects does not mean you have to do them at a time. Humans are not good at multitasking. Plan your time for one project at a time. For instance, two hours a day is for writing, and another half an hour is dedicated to planning a future direction. In conclusion, writing is not easy, writing effectively is particularly difficult. Consistent efforts, useful tips, and strict self-discipline are required for a successful career in academia.
Joli Jensen. Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics. University of Chicago Press. 2017