Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I have such a hard time starting new papers. At this stage in my career, I have published several papers, but not so many that the first pages just roll off of my fingers into the keyboard. I really enjoyed reading about Chaser's process and hope to use some of her techniques in my own writing.

One thing I have always done is start with an outline. For me this is usually quite straightforward: Intro, Background, Study Area & Methods, Results & Discussion, Conclusions. There are often minor variations, but this is the general structure. Once I have that skeleton, I start filling in the sections, which later can be adjusted and modified. It's always nice if I have a proposal that I wrote before doing the work (to "borrow" from), but given my luck with external funding, I don't always have that. For my current paper, I am writing up the second part of some research that I've already had published (the first part of the work has been published). I had a proposal to help start writing the first paper, but I can't go back and "double dip" from that one.

So yesterday I started with the very general skeleton and started writing sections and outlining further details within others. During this process I remembered how I have such a hard time writing the introduction. A lot of my work is in the same specific topical area and I struggle with writing different introductions to the topic. I find that the methods are easiest- it's just recounting what I've done (which I always record in a notebook or journal) and explaining why I used a particular methodology. I also struggle with the background- am I including enough references to previous work? Maybe I'm missing an important paper? How long should this section be? I refer to the target journal for guidance, but never feel I have a good sense on my own.

Maybe these struggles are typical, but I find thinking about them and writing about it helps me understand where I get hung up. I see many people tracking word counts on their blogs and like that as a way to monitor progress (at least by counting words). I wrote about 600 words yesterday and I'd like to write at least that much today. Another problem I have with writing is that I tend to do research in "spurts" because my time is so occupied by teaching during the semester. Now that it's summer, I am trying to be consistent and write at least something every day. Wish me luck...


Elli said...

this is the EXACT same way I write papers - start with an outline and fill in.

I doubt I have nearly as much experience as you do in this regard, but I got some great advice on paper-writing this semester. I was starting to fill in the dreaded intro section of a new paper, and my adviser told me she wanted to see "a bad introduction by Friday". She wanted the main points and the references, but didn't care if it was written well, organized well, etc. As she put it, you can take three days to write a good introduction that you'll rewrite anyway, or three hours to write a bad introduction that you'll rewrite anyway. I was skeptical, but what do you know, it worked! A "bad introduction" is still a step forward from no introduction at all - and once the hard part is on the page, you're eager to go back and organize and proofread and make it excellent.

Good luck with the writing!

Addy N. said...

Hi Elli! That is something that I have become quite good at: just getting something out without worrying about it being perfect or cited in any way. Even with that approach, I still struggle with my introductions! It sounds like you are getting some good advice! (I'm up to about 350 words so far today- I'm 'losing' some as I delete my notes from some sections, so it's a bit slower!)

Mario said...

There is a insights full post on the The Evilutionary Biologist on Science Writing with the following quote from Mark Ptashne:

"When I am struggling over yet another of my obscurely written drafts I sometimes recall: amateurs play music ‘in general’; professionals play each note. And so I present to a tough-minded friend one paragraph — just one — and when that is reported to be transparent I go on to the rest. But even if I have followed the rules I mentioned above, and even if that first paragraph seemed fine at the time, now, in view of what else I have written, that first paragraph might have to go, or be seriously recast. Each paragraph is an experiment — you might not know for some time whether it is any good."

I like this approach because it allows for more real time cumulative feedback. I haven't tried this approach myself yet but I think that perhaps it might be easier to stay on course this way. Of course, it assumes that one has helpful and very patient tough-minded friends.

Addy N. said...

Hi Mario: Thanks for the comment. I will check out that blog you quoted (& your blog, too!) Welcome!