Want to procrastinate less and be an effective writer? Start writing your articles early enough

If you ask researchers about their main issues when it comes to writing, procrastination always appears on top of the list. There are several methods that can help you become an effective writer who seldom procrastinates (or who effectively procrastinates—did you know that that’s possible?), so on our Road to the Writing Bootcamp we will be dedicating a series of blog posts to this problem. 

Why do we procrastinate when it comes to writing a scientific document? For multiple reasons, but many of them are related to the fear of the blank page, also known as writer’s block.

You’ve probably seen yourself already in a situation where you’ve carried out your research and you believe that all the hard work is already done. You started with an idea, set up a methodology, you performed your experiments/simulations, analysed the results and now all you have to do is write everything down. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it? Yet, it feels like quite a big task, that blank page is not appealing and there are so many other things you can do… from tidying your desk to checking the newspaper or Facebook. At this point we’d like to ask you: did you start writing soon enough?

Writing is not recording

Many people believe that writing is recording what’s in their heads. They think that before starting to write any piece you need to have a very clear, structured idea in your mind. The writing process is then all about capturing this already forged argument/discussion/methodology and putting it into words. This way of approaching writing actually undermines the beauty of the writing process itself, turning it into a dull, boring, difficult task. Because writing is not capturing ideas or recording. Writing is a creative process and it clarifies your thinking.

Writing is creative

Two magical things happen when you begin to write. First, you ‘suddenly’ start realising where the gaps are. For example, the paragraph that slightly contradicts what you wrote in the previous section or a part of your methodology that requires more fine-tuning. It can be very frustrating to realise issues in your methodology if you just become aware of them once you’ve carried out all your simulations/experiments. But it could be extremely helpful if they are brought to light early enough in your research.

The second fascinating feature of writing is when you start to see the links between ideas, which trigger new ideas. Here is where the creative experience begins. Writing becomes then a tool to clarify your thinking, to better understand your reasoning.

So writing is not recording, it is actually a creative process. As you write, you can generate new ideas, identify flaws in your discussion and understand better your own arguments. Then why would you start writing only after you’ve finished with your simulations/experiments, generated your graphs and thought about your results? We argue that in order to benefit from the synergies of writing you should actually start writing before and while you carry out your research.

How writing your paper from the beginning of your research changes everything

We didn’t come up with this ourselves, it is actually the way one among the best writes: George M. Whitesides. He is a famous chemist who has a h-index of 220 (yes, this is the value on Scopus, February 2019). You could argue that it is easier to publish in chemistry (it isn’t) but there are plenty of advantages in his way of publishing. And guess what, he wrote a paper about it. The ideas of his paper are summarised in this video (a bit old school but plenty of insight).

We also came across a video of Simon Peyton Jones talking about this approach when writing a paper.

Writing from the beginning of your research helps splitting the writing task into smaller tasks, improving productivity and reducing procrastination. You’ll start drafting an outline and you should continue writing sections/subsections as you proceed in your research, e.g. the introduction once the research question is clear, the methodology once you’re carrying out your work, etc.

Here are other advantages of starting the paper as early as possible:

  • Your brain has random sets of ideas so it’s better to write them down. It forces you to be organised and motivates you to move forward;
  • A structured paper (or even an outline) is a great way of presenting your research idea to your supervisor/coauthors and ask for feedback;
  • An early outline is a very nice support for your literature review and defines clearly what is the contribution to your idea/paper;
  • Having things organised helps defining what are the experiments/simulations needed to support the points you are presenting in your paper;
  • It is the only way of fully benefitting from the creative and clarifying-your-thinking features of writing. It will help you come up with new ideas early enough to implement them. You’ll also be able to find potential issues, fine-tune and improve your methodology as you set it up—not once all the work is done;
  • By the time you finish with your experiments/simulations you’ll have a great part of your paper in place. This will motivate you to finalise the remaining sections, reducing procrastination.

If you’re not used to writing from the start of the work itself, this may all sound strange and forced. We suggest to leave your prejudices behind, give it a chance, and fully embrace writing as the creative process it is. After all, magic only happens if you step out of your comfort zone.

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