But the point is to keep an open mind and try changing up your techniques and habits, even if you think you’ve already found the best way to go about it.
So here are some habits we’re currently unlearning. Many of these habits were originally learnt from undergraduate lecturers, high school teachers or our peers:
EEEHRK, WRONG. It’s actually been a lot more useful to write the abstract first as a guide or primer for the rest of the article. You then have a succinct outline you can show to your supervisor or co-authors, and a pre-written submission for conferences talks and posters. It’s easy to edit later when you have some more conclusive results.
2.) Dot pointing sentences if you can't write a whole coherent sentence.
MLEEERP. This just makes your draft more annoying to read and edit later. We found that we had to start brand new blank documents and write the ‘nice’ whole sentences in to create a readable draft. And our supervisors really detest trying to read over sentences interspersed with dot pointed ‘insert clearer sentence about XYZ’ and ‘###need better word here###’.
Supervisors reading your paper: they would be reacting more like this...
... if they could see through all the messy writing.
BRAWWP, WRONG AGAIN. We found that when you do all the easy, achievable edits you wind up with only hard and time-consuming edits. Which slows down the whole. Re-writing. Process.
4.) It’s okay, it’s just a draft.
Your draft may be a work in progress from a results perspective but try to remember that your co-authors, or supervisors, still have to be able to read it. This ties in with point number 2. ‘It’s a draft,’ is no excuse to not have whole paragraphs. Most importantly edit your draft properly before you send it (‘but this is just a draft’ is not an excuse most supervisors like to hear). A happy supervisor means less red when you get your draft back and more focus on the actual content of your writing instead.
5.) Write first. Format the document after you finish writing.
For journal articles, have an idea of which journal you want to submit your paper to before you start writing. For things like assignments (looking at you, undergraduate self) or grant applications, you’re given the formatting requirements (e.g. line spacing, formatting of headings, reference style) in advance. We find it easier to write the document using the required format form the start, instead of writing first and having to go back and change everything later (this is especially true for referencing styles).
Some people find it easier to write first and format later and that is fine. Find a system that works best for you. But at the very least try to have the document formatted correctly before you send a draft to your co-authors/supervisors. This allows you to save your co-authors time spent writing comments like, “This isn’t formatted correctly for the journal you just said you were going to submit to”, or, “Is this consistent with journal X?”
It is important to remember that sometimes people find a different method for writing which is more efficient for them. Not every suggestion is relevant to every person and writing advice often varies in the literature. But make sure that your writing method really is the most efficient, not just the most familiar.
Belcher, W. L. (2009). ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success’. SAGE Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, USA. 351pp.
Gardiner, M. & Kearns, H. (2010) ‘Turbocharge Your Writing: How to become a prolific academic writer’. ThinkWell and Flinders Press, Adelaide, Australia.
‘How to write a scientific paper.’ http://conservationbytes.com/2012/10/22/how-to-write-a-scientific-paper/. Accessed 21 May 2015.