If you struggle with writing a paper, we’ve got some help for you. Here, we show you how to optimise your writing environment, writing process, and the paper itself so that it will be far easier to produce your paper. You will see that paper writing doesn’t have to be a struggle at all.
Can you relate to the following situation? You work on a paper, but you just do not know where to start, and you think you’ll go crazy. All you need to produce is a text of a few thousands words. But it feels as if for every 100 words you need to write, at least a 100 tasks need to be done, e.g.:
- You want to finish an experiment that would be great to include in the paper.
- You’re not sure which results to include and which to leave out.
- You know you need to read the latest papers on your topic, but there’s almost daily new material coming out, and you have not even read all the literature that you ordered, printed, and hidden on your desk somewhere.
- Outside your office you hear your colleagues having a good time together, and you would love to join them but feel bad about doing it.
- A co-author is calling and asking about your progress with the paper, but you don’t have a lot to report yet.
- Another co-author promised to send you a figure for the paper, but is delayed, and you need to send a reminder.
- You’re not sure how much detail you should provide in the “Methods” section, so you Google to find out how other papers are doing it.
- The journal that you’re planning on submitting to always includes a section about “data” in its papers and you don’t think you need one, but wonder whether you should have one as well.
- It is already 7 pm, you’re still in the office, you have finally found time to write the paper, but you feel bad as your family is waiting back home.
- You know that if you don’t write something today, you won’t the next two days either because you are busy with many other commitments.
… and so on and so on. Does this sound familiar?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit down and write the paper that you so urgently need? Wouldn’t it be great if it could be done without all the struggle you experience daily?
How to work on your paper without struggle
To reduce the struggle, you need to focus on optimising three conditions:
- First, what can you do to create a productive and stimulating environment? Think about how to optimise your writing framework.
- Second, how can you organise the way you write to make it possible and enjoyable for you? You need to optimise your writing process.
- Third, what must you include in the paper to keep it manageable for you, but still acceptable for a journal? This deals with your writing outcome.
Let’s dive into the three conditions and look at our suggestions for you. To make this applicable for you, we created a handy checklist “My struggle-free writing checklist” that you can download and use to make your writing struggle-free.
1. Your writing framework
- A good way to start getting rid of the hassle is to encourage yourself to work on your paper. How do you do this? You need to change your mindset about the role of writing: Yes, you are supposed to write papers, and although many other things need to be done as well, give yourself permission to prioritize writing and set aside time for it.
- Learn to kindly say “No” to other tasks, commitments, projects, or requests that peers, colleagues and students have for you. If you accept them all, you will end up struggling as your paper ends up last on the list of to-dos.
- Create an environment where you are isolated from outside disturbances. Create a space where you feel comfortable and safe to be your personal writing spot. This could be your office, a place in the library, a quiet room back home, or a table at your favourite café. For example, this blog post has been written at one of our favourite writing spots, a deck chair in our garden, surrounded by trees, flowers, birds, dragonflies and squirrels. It works just fine for us as a writing space away from the usual busy life in an office.
- Don’t distract yourself: Switch off your phone and your email programme, don’t check your social media status, and block out anything else that is taking your attention during the writing session. Get more tips about escaping distractions in our post #14.
- Think about how you will reward yourself once your paper is written. It is nice to have something to look forward to once the work is done.
- Take care of yourself. Have a fulfilling social life, exercise regularly, read, listen to music, and make sure you get a good sleep every night. When your life is in balance, you will find it much easier to cope with struggles that might come up when writing your paper.
2. Your writing process
- Schedule your writing. Don’t leave writing your paper to chance. When you use a calendar and a to-do list to plan all your other tasks and duties, make sure that you plan your writing as well. And if you’re not using such tools yet, it might be helpful to consider doing it, even if it’s only for scheduling your writing sessions. If you don’t schedule them, you risk intending to write but getting distracted by many other tasks. Check our post #63 for some suggestions on how to escape distractions.
- Arrange a time slot and a timespan for when you will write. Don’t leave your writing session length open–set yourself a limit. Let’s say you write on Monday from 9-10 am, on Tuesday from 2-3 pm, and on Wednesday from 8-9 am. Stick to this plan, and stop only once time is up. You have accomplished what you must for this day, and you can continue the next day. This will reduce stress, give you enough time for other tasks, and result in that feeling of satisfaction you get from knowing that you have written what you must for the day.
- Create small writing sessions instead of large. They are easier to schedule this way, and it is easier to stay motivated with smaller sessions.
- Look for a writing pal, a partner, a friend, a good colleague or a supportive mentor. You don’t have to write all alone. Why not benefit from good company and good advice from either somebody who is doing the same as you at the moment (writing a paper), or somebody who has done it many times before and gives good input. Look for somebody you trust and enjoy working with.
- Avoid falling under time pressure with your writing. This is particularly relevant if you’ve got a deadline you need to work towards. Many people say they need deadlines to be efficient—not sure that’s the case. The deadline is often just used as a stimulus to finally start working on a task, but the pressure does not increase the quality, nor the comfort, or writing. You’re better off starting early on your paper writing. It will reduce the struggles for sure. Find more tips on avoiding deadlines disasters in our post #8.
- Accept that you have to take responsibility for your paper yourself. Whether you write with or without co-authors, you are the key person working on the paper, and can’t expect other people to make key decisions for you. If you wait for every one of your co-authors to provide their input, you’re delaying your paper progress. Rather, allow them to comment on what you’ve written until a certain deadline, and then move on. Don’t forget, it’s your paper, and you need to decide at the end.; not your co-authors, and not your supervisor.
- Clarify authorship roles early on. You and your team members need to know what is expected of them, Be explicit about the various tasks you delegate to them and to yourself. This will save you from disappointment and lengthy discussions in the end. In our post #23, get some tips how to get more input from passive authors.
- Finally, in a good writing process, you should ask for help when you need it. Nobody expects you to know everything, or to be free of mistakes. Be a smart author, and ask experienced mentors to guide you on problems that come up.
3. Your writing outcome
- You will substantially reduce the struggle with your paper if you not only plan when you will write, but also plan which writing tasks you are conducting. Think about the many small steps needed to create a paper, and distribute them across your writing sessions. You’ll suddenly get a far better idea of your paper, and the time it will take you to create it.
- Outline your paper before writing it. Do not just start writing paragraphs. Create an overall structure for the paper, its sections, and subsections, and think about what concepts you want to address in each section.
- Have a target journal in mind early on. It will allow you to write the paper with a focus on this journal. If you first write the paper and then look for a journal, you will have a hard time finding a journal that is a good fit for your paper.
- Search for a journal you’re comfortable with. Of course, having your paper published in a prestigious journal right away would be great, but how realistic is it? Not all papers can and must be published in such journals. If you only aim for prestigious journals, you will not only decrease the chance of your paper getting published, but you will certainly increase your stress level with getting the paper accepted at all.
- Keep your manuscript slim and simple–aim for a short paper. Why make it extra complicated and include all the work, all the results, and all the data you have available in one single paper? It is not only more time-consuming because you have to wait until everything is available, but it also increases your workload, and gives more possibility to criticise your paper in peer-review. Keep it simple, and avoid too many diverse aspects Rather, focus on one key thing.
- Don’t get lost in reading all the literature before you start. Of course you want to have a sound knowledge regarding the context of your research, but you will never know it all. Readers of journal papers don’t expect you to report the entire state-of-the-art (unless you are writing a review paper). They might know it all anyway, and honestly, they are far more interested in what you’ve done and found out. Check our smart guidelines for how to deal with the literature review in our post #50.
We know well that every paper can be a huge struggle when you have many tasks and duties in your everyday life as a researcher. But reducing the struggle is in your own hands. You can control many factors that help you reduce stress and hassle when writing your paper.
We created a struggle-free writing checklist for you: “My struggle-free writing checklist”. Download it now and make your writing far more pleasant.
Good luck with your writing, reach out if you need help, or sign-up for our next upcoming paper-writing course: Paper Writing Academy.
- Worksheet “My struggle-free writing checklist”
- Blog post #8: Deadline disaster: Seven easy steps to avoid
- Blog post #14: Social media/www distractions at work: 5-step-cure!
- Blog post #23: What to do if my co-authors don’t contribute?
- Blog post #50: Mastering the literature review during the Corona lockdown
- Blog post #63: Train your writing muscle: Achieve better results
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