#5: How to get started with writing papers?

Do you also have “get started with my paper!” regularly on your to-do list? And do you continually find it not done at the end of the day, and postpone it to tomorrow’s tasks?

Getting started with a paper is a tough task for many of us. Check and see which of the following was your reason for not getting started today:

  • I had no time for writing. 
  • I cannot write in my office, it’s too noisy. 
  • I was busy completing all my experiments. 
  • I had so many other things to do still. 
  • I had no idea what to write about. 
  • I can only write during the night, when it’s quiet. 
  • I couldn’t start writing yet, I am not even finished with my research. 
  • I can only write back home, not in the office. 
  • I just wanted to finish this one other thing before I start writing. 
  • I had so many emails to respond to. 
  • I was not in the mood for writing. 
  • I was too tired for writing. 
  • I can only write when I have a deadline. 
  • I want my writing to be really good, but I was not in good shape today. 
  • I will start next week, for sure.

Oh yes, we all use some of these excuses now and again. Sure, there are many good reasons why you can’t seem to get started with writing your next paper. But if you truly want to start, we need to admit that there are only excuses preventing us from doing the writing. Getting started with a paper can also have a mental barrier because it can easily trigger anxiety and fears of failure.

We are here to help you get over these hurdles and successfully start to write that paper. Follow our eight strategies outlined below, as they can definitely bring you back on the writing track.

#1:  Remember why you write

What motivates you to stick with the idea of writing? Where is the pressure coming from that forces you to think about it? Do you WANT to write papers or do you HAVE to? Or is it probably a bit of both?

Do you have to write because you want an output for your research? Do you want a publication that you can share with others? Do you want to produce a publication to report on your work and  claim originality of the ideas expressed? A paper would be a great solution to achieve all these goals. 

Probably, your boss or your funding agency also expects you to write publications from your research? They want to see that there is some output being generated for the time and resources you are spending.

In both cases, the output is an important part of sharing and justifying the research we are doing. If you do not write up your work, nobody will know about it. So why would you do it in the first place? A publication can give you the satisfying and rewarding acknowledgment of peers and employers. Keep in mind, you write for yourself and for others. It is your contribution to society!

We think it helps to get started with writing when you see and understand the purpose of it. If you remember  that you’re writing something because it will bring you a step closer to what you want to achieve, it boosts motivation. So what spurs you on to write a paper? What will you get out of it? Discover it for yourself and remember it. It also helps to promise yourself a special treat once you accomplish the writing. 

#2: Find your writing spot

Where do you usually write? In your office? In the library? At home? Where does it feel easy and comfortable to write?

Look for a space where you can be productive. Look for a place where you can sit and be by yourself. Find a writing spot, where you can do your writing without worrying that you’ll be interrupted. For some, this place is the office, for others it’s at home, a few even love to do their writing in the anonymity of the café around the corner. Some people go to the library and hide in there.

Once you’ve found your writing spot, try to make your writing place comfortable. Get drinks and snacks ready that you will need for writing periods. Turn the music on or off, whatever you prefer. Make sure you feel cosy and can fully concentrate on the writing.

Some people can write just about everywhere. They don’t care about the where and how. However, if you are not one of those writers who can achieve their goal wherever they happen to be, then we recommend you to look for a workspace that suits the writing task. 

#3: Escape from disturbances

If you sit down in your office and are about to start writing, you know how difficult it can be to say no when a colleague comes in and asks you for a quick chat or a coffee break. It’s easy to say yes and pause the writing. The best writing spot doesn’t help if you are faced with interruptions.

So, look for a writing spot where you will be undisturbed, i.e. a place where colleagues don’t come in and out all the time. If you have no place where you can easily escape to, then try to communicate to your colleagues that for the next 1-2 hours (or whatever the length of your writing session will be), you do not want to be disturbed. Close your office door (if you have one) and put our special door hanger on the handle outside. It will give a clear signal to your colleagues, and hopefully you can work in peace. 

To make sure that no other distractions get in your way, switch off your email app and put your mobile on silent. Close the browser on your laptop and resist the temptation to scroll through your social media feed (see post #14: Social media/www distractions at work: 5-step-cure! for more details). If you work at home, make sure the kids or pets are taken care of (more tips in our post #53: Create your perfect home-office day!). Reducing the distractions to a minimum will help to get into the right writing mood. 

#4: Define what you want to write about

Do you know already what to write about? Or do you prefer to sit in your writing spot for days and days, musing whether this or that topic would be more suitable? Since writing is a developmental process, it sometimes helps to just get started with it. The writing itself brings a lot of clarity about what would be a good topic and what wouldn’t.

Look at your research again and review the questions you are addressing with your research. Which ones have you already addressed to such a level that you could write about? Which of the questions do you find personally the most interesting? It helps the writing process a great deal if you write about something that you are genuinely fascinated by.

If you really are in a situation in which you can freely chose among several topics, spend half an hour and do a brainstorming session or mind-mapping exercise to draft the content for each of those topics. Quickly, you will realise which idea comes easiest to you and on which topic you have the most to say. Here is your paper topic – start with this one!

For more tips on how to find a topic for your paper, see our post #103: How to find a paper topic.

#5: Fill the page quickly 

An empty page looks so blank, doesn’t it? It also looks threatening and whatever words you start with seem to be absolutely vital. It feels as if the first words and sentences have to be particularly meaningful, as they are so much the focus of the empty page. 

Try one thing first, sit down and just write something, even if it’s less meaningful, that deals with your paper topic. You will see, once the first words are on the page, the rest of the writing will definitely go easier. So don’t worry too much about these early words. Try to fill the first pages quickly with some content that comes to your mind and move on. 

You could write down a brief statement of what you aim to write about in the paper. You could write a few ideas on the state-of-the-art of the topic, or start with putting down a draft title. 

We usually start with a title and then put down some keywords and headings. We avoid starting with complete sentences at this stage. We want to quickly fill the page with something and not struggle with the correct formulation of a sentence right from the start.

#6: Outline your paper idea

After having completed the brainstorming for the topic and written down the first ideas and keywords for your paper, it’s time to make an outline. If you have not done so yet, define your paper message and a working title that expresses this message. 

Then, think about which content bits you would like to include to ensure you get the message across to the reader. Write them down as quickly as possible in random order. Avoid writing sentences, stick to keywords, it is still easier at this stage to outline the content using keywords. 

Once you’ve got all the bits and pieces you want to write about, try sorting them and bringing them into a meaningful order. Probably, you could already use headings and subheadings here to develop a structure for the text.

#7: Write regularly and make writing a routine

Do you write regularly or is writing rather an unusual task for you? For us, writing is nothing other than a skill. Like any athlete or musician training and practicing their skills regularly, you will see enormous progress if you keep up with your writing. 

The trick for getting into a writing habit is to get started and stick to it. If you manage to train into a regular writing mode, you will make super fast progress with your writing. Writing will soon become a routine for you, and you’ll do it like many other routine-based activities in your everyday life. 

Do you use a calendar or any other tool to organise your tasks and appointments? Have you ever scheduled your own writing sessions? To ensure that you make the time for writing, we recommend you schedule writing sessions in your calendar. Allocate slots for the next couple of weeks. Do it now, don’t wait. When you plan your writing, the chances are higher that you will do it.

#8: Set writing goals – be accountable

Does anybody know that you are writing a paper? Writing is a lonely exercise for most academics. They approach it entirely by themselves. Many researchers sit in their offices, at home, or wherever else, and work by themselves on their texts, without a lot of interaction taking place. Even for papers with multiple authors, the writing itself often takes place independent from one  another. 

While many academics enjoy being on their own during the writing process, it can also make things more difficult. When you are doing the writing yourself without any interaction, there is no accountability. Whether you write today or tomorrow, who knows, and who cares anyway? It rather encourages you to postpone the writing from one day to next and you never get into the writing mode. 

We recommend, if possible, to look for writing mates. Yes, look for other colleagues who are having the same struggles as you with writing. It could be a journal club by PhD students that is turned into a writing club. Since you all want to write, why not do it as a collective exercise? 

No, we don’t mean you write sentences in all of your colleagues’ papers. Instead, you could agree on a joint writing schedule/time and have regular meetings where you report to each other. Update each other in these regular (weekly) meetings on the progress and eventually give feedback to each other’s writing. You will see that this kind of accountability will help you tremendously in making progress, plus it’s motivating and fun to boot!

Your way to get started!

We know, before getting started, the barrier to writing a paper seems extremely high. To get over this hurdle, it might motivate you to remember the benefits of getting a paper published, which can all be yours! 

The way to get started with writing is not a particularly difficult one. It requires action, first of all, and not much more. You don’t need to have the paper finished in your head at this stage. A comfortable writing spot and an interesting topic will help. If you then manage to get something down on paper quickly, so that you get away from the empty page, and if you schedule regular writing slots you are heading in the right direction. It is a real plus to start a small writing club and get colleagues and friends to help you getting started and stick to it.

If you want more help with writing a great journal paper, please sign-up to our Paper Writing Academy.

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