Do you have difficulty getting started writing a paper? For days, if not weeks, you run around with the intention of starting a new paper, but you don’t ever start. Most likely, your expectations are too high at the beginning, you think you’re not ready yet, or you simply have no idea how to begin. To keep the threshold low for getting started, we’ll suggest five easy ways to begin working on a research paper. At least one of the five should work for you and will help jumpstart your next academic writing project.
You may be familiar with the two biggest problems in all sorts of writing, not only academic writing: No. 1 is getting started, and no. 2 is finishing. Everything else in-between may occasionally still create some headaches, but once you’ve started, you’ve passed a big hurdle and will get into a writing flow. Towards the end of the writing, it’s difficult to decide when your text is finished and you’re done.
This article is about problem no. 1—getting started. Once you get started, you will see that you can find a way to continue, but getting started is the most difficult. Here we present 5 tips to get an easy start with writing your next journal paper:
1. Talk to a friend about your paper
Meet with a good friend or colleague and have a conversation about your next paper. It is really helpful to explain in your own words what your idea for this next paper is, what the topic should be, the key aspects you want to focus on, what material and data you want to include, which results you want to show, why you want to write this paper, and so on.
Once you’ve got the conversation going, you’ll get more and more good ideas. Ask your friend to comment on your ideas and allow them to interrupt you with questions. Allow the conversation to develop into a dialogue. This is a very creative process: While explaining your paper ideas to your friend, you develop, refine, and restructure your thoughts about your paper. You will soon realise what is plausible and interesting in your paper idea and what needs further thought. The feedback from your friend will help you to sharpen your own paper idea.
This conversation is a brainstorming exercise for your paper. Ideas will flow between you and you’ll get great tips along the way. The dialogue on your paper idea has another benefit: Your friend now knows that you’re planning to write this paper, and this makes the whole exercise more real and you will be held accountable for realising it.
Take notes during your conversation so that you’re not missing any of the great ideas that you or your friend came up with. You can also go for a short walk with your friend and have the paper dialogue then as it’s more relaxed. Record the conversation so you don’t have to remember everything.
2. Scribble down hand-written notes or draw a mind-map
Look for a comfortable and quiet place, take a pencil and notebook and scribble down ideas for your paper. Whatever comes to your mind is fine at this stage. You don’t need to organize your thoughts in a logical order yet—now is the time to get ideas and thoughts written down.
Often, this process goes better when you’re away from the computer–it makes it less formal, and a messy scribbled piece of paper can then be a good jumping off point to go to the computer and get things sorted a bit later!
What can also be helpful for some of you is to draw a mind-map. Start in the middle with the paper topic and then think about the key aspects you want to include in the paper. Each of these ideas could be one branch on the mind-map, which later you can subdivide into even smaller sub-branches including sub-topics.
Whether you’re doing hand-written scribbles in a notebook or drawing a mind-map, the second step to this way of starting is to create a draft outline of the paper idea. You take all the ideas you have scribbled or drawn and organise them in a logical and hierarchical order. What are the things that need to be said in an introduction, what belongs to the methods part, and so on.
3. Think about the readers of your paper
In this approach, you start your paper by thinking about your audience and the message you want to convey to them. You have done great research and want it to be published in a journal. OK, fine, but for whom do you think it is most interesting? Who are the people you expect to read this paper? And what from your research do you think is most interesting to them?
This exercise is about supply and demand: You’ve got something to offer that you consider valuable for other people in your field. Now, decide what valuable information you would like most to share, and whom you see as the ideal recipient of the valuable research message that you want to communicate.
Write down what you’re offering and whom you’ll cater for, and start developing your paper from there by outlining a paper structure as a next step.
4. Answer five key paper questions
Another way to start a paper is to sit down and type the following five questions on your computer:
(1) What is known in the field of your paper?
(2) What is missing in this field?
(3) What have you done in your research?
(4) How have you done it?
(5) What have you found?
Answer these five questions with your paper idea in mind—otherwise, you will get lost with question #1 because what is known in the field is a broad question. Answer all questions as thoroughly as possible in relation to your paper idea.
For each of the questions, write one paragraph with a few sentences to explain to yourself what you have done and why. Now you have a one-page summary of your main paper idea that you can use to draft an outline and start writing from.
5. Take the five most relevant papers and start on your introduction
Have you been reading a lot of background literature on your topic recently? Then this last approach might be a good way for you to start your paper. Screen the literature one more time and select 5 key papers that relate well to your research and the idea you want to address in your paper.
Sit down and write up what each of these papers means for your field of research, what they’ve done, and what their possible shortcomings are. For each paper, it’s good to write 3-4 sentences.
This material can be used to create the introduction for your paper where you will refer to the overall topic and a few key studies that have already contributed to the field (= the state-of-the-art). You can also highlight what is missing from these studies and what you aim to cover in your paper. Having this line of thought defined, you’re well equipped to write your introduction and from there, move on to the further sections of your paper.
If you have made the decision to start writing a paper, you’ve made a great move. A paper is valuable for other researchers to hear about, and for you, it’s great to get your research out to your peers and get acknowledgement. But yes, we know from many academics that they struggle to put their decision into practice and struggle to start on a paper. Therefore, probably the most important advice we’d like to give you is don’t wait for a better moment to start on your paper–just do it now! You’ve made up your mind, you’ve got the research done, and if you follow one of the five ways we outlined here, you’ll be able to get started on your paper. And from there, you’ll take it one step after the other! Wishing you a good writing process!
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