In this post, Jonathan, a doctoral researcher in human geography, provides valuable insights on how his scientific writing is stimulated by his reading. He suggests working with content blocks to build papers, and encourages you to be confident in your writing.
(How-we-write series no. 3)
Guest post by Jonathan Friedrich
What comes first: reading or writing?
It seems like a simple question. But when writing this post about how I write, I wasn’t sure how to answer. I really had to think about it. How do I start writing? Where do I start? How do I proceed? When do I read? Why do I read?
I realised soon that, for me, there is not a single approach to how I write, or one particular technique that I can recommend. Writing for me is rather a process that accompanies me while doing my research. Let me explain what I mean, and suggest some steps that might inspire you in your writing:
1. My writing is inspired by my reading
I like reading, and I read a lot. I not only read work that is directly related to my PhD research, but also other more or less related stuff. Reading helps me to sort my thoughts. Often—while reading a book, a blog post, a journal article, whatever—I feel suddenly motivated to write as well.
To me, it is fascinating to see what other people and peers have written. Isn’t it amazing how they manage to write books of hundreds of pages about their work? Or a paper that highlights one question or one thought they have been working on for months? This feeling of sublimity fuels my desire to do the same. I also would like to write something, and even if writing a journal paper is a much shorter text than a book, it still feels like a good thing to do. So, this is how I get started with writing: I’m impressed by what I read, and I want to contribute as well.
2. My writing develops around content blocks
When I start writing, it can be a pretty chaotic process. I do not write in a linear way, and it’s less structured and focussed than I want it to be. But I learned that this isn’t really a problem. Even if I have written something that looks highly chaotic, I have something written that I can sort out and structure later. It’s better to have something written that can be improved later on than staring at an empty page and waiting for the perfect sentence.
I do not separate reading and writing. Instead, when I read a new piece of literature, I try to capture its essence for myself. I want to preserve the most important aspects that I got from this piece. It’s not that I’m producing a complete summary of each paper I read. I rather produce a collection of thematically related content bits from several texts that I read. But the related content bits go into one document.
If possible, I write straight from the start in complete sentences with full references. So, I’m creating content blocks. For instance, if I read articles about a phenomenon, e.g. the flat earth society, I summarise all the different texts I read in one single document. It includes the content blocks about the flat earth society.
Then, I sort the content blocks within the document logically and thematically, and eventually into paragraphs, so that I have paragraphs (almost) ready for later use when building an argumentation line in an article. For me this works like it does for an artist: you start painting the canvas first, and then add the necessary elements to the developing picture.
3. Be confident about your writing
I know that this is hard to do, and I had to learn it myself. But for me, the most important thing is being confident about your writing. You might have many doubts about your work, but when you write you need to leave these behind and overcome your fear of imperfection. Keep this in mind when sending your unfinished and anything but perfect draft to your co-authors for comments. It can be very helpful to get early feedback on your work, and receiving many comments back doesn’t mean your work or draft is bad!
Just start writing! Feel confident that you can write a paper. Honestly, there are millions of papers out there! Why should you be unable to craft and publish one? You know a lot, you’ve read a lot, and now, be confident and share your thoughts with peers.
I learned to be confident and—thanks to Gunther’s great course on how to publish in international peer-reviewed journals—I managed to publish papers and a book chapter. Now, I feel confident enough to write with more structure, and I know how to slowly fill the pages of my paper.
4. If you don’t feel like writing, do something else!
Sometimes, it’s just not the time to write. You’re not motivated, no cup of coffee helps you to stay at the writing desk, or you’ve got many other thoughts in your head that keep you busy …. fine! Let it be!
When I face such moments, I just skip writing and go outside. I’ll do something nice, something I’ll enjoy, and on the next day, I start again. And this works for me. The next day I will be motivated, and it is easier to get started.
- See writing and reading as complementary actions to write your next paper. The one benefits from the other.
- Build collections of content blocks that you feel are interesting to take up in your next paper.
- Don’t be afraid of writing. A draft is a draft and can always be improved. Rest assured it’s an important and helpful step to present your draft to peers, ask for feedback, and use it wisely.
- If writing doesn’t work today, do something else. Tomorrow might provide a better start.
Jonathan is a doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg, close to Berlin, Germany. His research interests include social-ecological transformation, bioeconomy, environmental justice, sustainable tourism development, and climate change.
Jonathan has published the following two papers recently:
- Friedrich, J.; Zscheischler, J.; Faust, H. (2021): Social-ecological transformation and COVID-19: the need to revisit working-class environmentalism. GAIA 30(1): 18-22.
- Friedrich, J.; Bunker, I.; Uthes, S.; Zscheischler, J. (2021): The Potential of Bioeconomic Innovations to Contribute to a Social‑Ecological Transformation: A Case Study in the Livestock System. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 34: 24.
About this series:
The idea for the How-we-write series arose from the many individual stories and anecdotes that we’ve heard over the last decade from the students in our programmes. We always found their stories amazing, and now we’ve encouraged some of them to write about their personal experiences and share them in our community. We think there’s a lot to learn from them.
If you have a specific way you write, or any extraordinary experience to share about writing (whether it be rejections or a flat-out acceptance), and have some lessons for others to learn, please be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us your story. We’d love to hear from you!
- Blog post #88: How the COVID19 lockdown changed my way of writing (How-to-write series #2)
- Blog post #86: How training the writing muscle became my early-morning ritual (How-to-write series #1)
- Blog post #64: How to work on your paper without struggle
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