The first step to writing is to clearly identify the key pieces
Writing is really challenging. But why? One reason is that when writing we have to overcome a number of difficulties—delineating clear ideas, writing correct grammar, getting the paragraph structure correct, etc. By trying to achieve all of these things at once, most of us are just making life much more difficult for ourselves. We’re also wasting a lot of time working on parts of a manuscript that might, ultimately, be thrown out (or worse, remain in a manuscript only to be told by the reviewers that it should be thrown out). Before spending all that time carefully crafting the text, it’s essential to have a clear idea of the key pieces and a clear vision of how these fit together. These pieces should include:
If you don’t have all of these clearly in mind, then you should not start writing. Instead, the best way to start is to remove as many of the obstacles to writing as possible, and focus on getting the pieces together.
Removing obstacles to writing: a lesson from computer science
My undergraduate degree wasn’t in biology, but in engineering and computer science. One of the most useful, and important, set of skills that I took from my undergraduate studies is training in logic. In first year computer programming classes, we were taught how to write pseudocode (something that I still teach, and encourage, today). Pseudocode is simply writing out the logic of an analytical sequence (i.e. a chunk of computer code) without having to worry about the syntax (i.e. the technical details of the computer language itself). That is, it’s about working out the logic first, before worrying about exactly how to implement it. This is really critical for many reasons. One reason in particular is that how we implement something at the start of a program (e.g. what structure we give a variable) is often dictated by what we need to with that thing later on (e.g. how we might need to analyse some of the outputs). Getting a clear picture of each and every step in a logical sequence helps to avoid getting to the end of a procedure and finding ourselves with something that is altogether different than what we need. Pseudocode is about making a clear roadmap of what needs doing, so that when questions arise during implementation (e.g. how to structure variable X) we can make informed decisions (i.e. what we need X to look like at the end of the program).
Presentations: the pseudocode of Scientific writing
My main strategy for helping students in my lab with their scientific writing is to make them construct a presentation of their work. Almost everyone has complained to me at some point that making a presentation is taking time away from finishing their work and/or actual writing (“but I want to finalise my results before putting together a presentation”). These arguments, like with reading (see the previous post), are complete fallacies. In my experience, building presentations and presenting ‘in progress’ work to colleagues is the most efficient way of knowing what needs to be done to finalise a project. There is no better way of checking how the pieces fit together, where there are gaps remaining, and what has been done that is extraneous and potentially distracting. Ultimately, presenting work early and often always increases the quality of the final manuscript, and therefore helps get to a publishable manuscript sooner. How does presenting achieve this?
In my opinion, building a presentation (i.e. a set of powerpoint slides) is a great way to create the template for a manuscript. There are several reasons for this:
Present your work, often and early!
There’s no better way to write a manuscript than to have all of its pieces worked out and a clear vision of what needs to be done. The best way of working these out is to talk through all of the components, several times, to colleagues who can ask questions and give critical feedback. Ideally, this should start before the study has started. One reason why much of Science is funded through research grants (many of which require a presentation) is to ensure that the procedure is well-thought out before being implemented. Once results start to come in, the best way of making sense of them is, again, to present them. You might start by working on a presentation for your advisor(s), and then work up to presenting to the lab group, and finally enlisting a broader audience (or presenting at a conference). It’s never too early to start, and you can never present too often. It does not matter (initially) if the plots are not pretty, or if some of the details haven’t been worked out yet, because the aim here is to ensure that the right pieces are present.
Finally, like with writing, the presentation should be concise. I try to encourage students to build their ideas, including introduction, methods, results, and some conclusions, in a maximum of 10 slides. This helps to be critical about what is essential to cover and what can be removed without losing necessary details. As I note above, this exercise is futile if the slides are covered in paragraphs of text, so try to keep font at a minimum size (e.g. 24 or even 30) and avoiding dot points that run longer than one (maximum two) lines. Having a concise and focused presentation is a great step to having a concise and focused manuscript.
Present to become a better writer
Use presentations to build a roadmap for your manuscripts. Start with the big picture items—slides with headings and a few bullet points. Presentations are great because slides can be moved around and easily changed, without the baggage that comes from having worked really hard on some key sentences. As the slides start to develop, speaking to the slides will help to identify what the main points are needed in each slide, which are more important, and which can be removed. Having a good narrative constructed in this way will then make writing the manuscript much easier, and make the better paper (so long as you remain focused on the roadmap and avoid distractions). If nothing else, having the presentation should make you more confident with writing simply by knowing where you are going with the text and why. Over time, this will help to tease out the feelings of uncertainty (read: ‘sheer panic’) when faced with the task of writing a manuscript that are due to the lack of a clear vision from the uncertainty that arises from the process of writing itself.
PS: writing often helps too
Like with almost everything that we do, the simplest way to improve with writing is to practice. When it comes to Scientific writing, which is very formulaic, practicing often is particularly helpful as it can make the formula second-nature. For me, writing an abstract now is very natural, because I’ve read so many and written a few as well, so that the structure just comes naturally. But we don’t often get the opportunity to practice Scientific writing. One solution to this which I’ve found helpful is to write summaries of published papers. Given the importance of reading, the best way to remember the content of papers is to summarise them. Pick one paper per week and write a one-page extended abstract (i.e. 500-600 words). These are a really useful reference for later, but also should help with getting practice in writing. What is particularly helpful is to get someone to review these (e.g. supervisor, or work with a fellow student) and to re-read your own writing the week after (with fresh eyes, you might get better at spotting the stronger and weaker aspects of your own writing). Doing this will make writing, especially abstracts, substantially easier with time, which, as I will argue in the next post, will be useful when writing manuscripts by starting with the abstract first.