Musicians do it, athletes do it, actors do it: They exercise the skills they need to perform well in their jobs. Writing is a skill as well. If you want to become a prolific scientific writer, you need to train your writing muscle. This post is all about this type of exercise.
I. Why writing is a skill
If you want to be good at singing songs, running a marathon or taking photographs, you have to train regularly. Singing, running and photography are skills. Many of us have learned skills like these during some phase in our lives, and we’re better at some skills than at others. We need some skills more than others, and therefore it matters how good we are at these.
Writing is a skill because you can improve your ability the more you do it. Do you still remember your writing skills from when you were a first grader in school? Over the years, you learned this skill and improved, just like singing, running and taking pictures. Skills are the techniques and proficiencies that allow you to live your lives and execute your jobs and passions.
For you as an academic, writing is an essential task as it allows you to communicate with other academics, and allows you to share your findings with others. The better you are in writing the better you can communicate your research, and get other people to understand and apply your work.
II. Why train to write
Only a very few scientists are naturally skilled writers. Of course you could say “Hey, everybody can sing, run, and press a camera button, and everybody can write, so why should I train?”
You’re right, we all have a certain writing skill level, and it might be just fine for many purposes in our lives. However, in your academic life your ability to be heard, known, and to find and maintain academic positions fully depends on being able to write well. If you want to be good at writing, and if you have to be good at it because it defines your job, you must go beyond what everybody else is able to do. Just like becoming a professional singer, a runner or an artist, you have to be better at the skill than everybody else who is just doing it for fun.
For academics, writing is often not exercised regularly. A period of time where you are writing is often followed by a period of time where you are not writing. This can last for a couple of weeks or even months as you have so many other activities to focus on. Imagine how this would work for a professional singer, a runner or a photographer. Not training their professional skills would cost them months of training, and they would lose the ease and quality of performing well.
You won’t train your writing muscle systematically when you only write once in a while. Then writing can feel like a burden–a load of extra work that is troublesome and distressing. You will eventually even try to postpone writing to escape the task, and thus end up producing less and lower-quality output.
Professional writers–those people who have to write a lot–they behave like musicians, athletes, or artists. They remain in a constant stage of training their writing skills. They do not have to spend a lot of time on it, but because they do it regularly, they easily produce good writing.
We suggest you adopt this pro-approach and treat writing in science like a professional skill that requires regular training to maintain its quality and fluency. If you haven’t adopted such an approach yet, we’d like to encourage you to train your writing muscle to reach better results. Now, let’s give you some ideas on how to do this.
III. How to train writing
1. Get started!
It sounds so simple, but to benefit from an effective training programme, you first and foremost need to start it. You can’t just have good intentions of starting–you actually have to do it!
Don’t wait to start your training. It is always a good time to start writing. The ‘right’ time may never come. It is the same if you intend to eat more fruits and veggies every day, but you justify that today is not a good day to start. When would be a good day to start then?
Don’t wait to start your training until you’re in the right mood. There will always be many other things you would rather do instead. If you always give them priority, you will never get started.
Don’t wait to start your training until you have a good idea to write about. Good ideas do not fall from heaven –they’re the result of hard work. When you sit down and start writing, (i.e. start thinking about your writing) you will develop ideas about what to write.
Compare getting-started on a paper with runners who have never been running before but want to make a 10 km run within the next three months. Of course it is tempting to delay the first running exercise for a day when the weather is nicer, when you’re less tired, and you’re in better shape. But if you really wait until all these criteria are met, you will probably never start.
2. Write daily
It is the undeniable truth of acquiring any skill: regular training. In our case it means writing your paper daily. It doesn’t have to be a long time per day, and you don’t have to produce a certain amount per day, but do it regularly on your working days.
The charm of daily writing is that you’re not spending a lot of time on it. It could be only 30 minutes or 1 hour per day. Thus you have plenty of time left to do all the many other activities you’re busy with (e.g. collecting data, running experiments, analyses in the lab, teaching classes, meeting with colleagues, serving on boards, etc.). Although it may feel like incremental progress from day to day, the magic of daily writing enfolds when you observe the progress you make over a two or four-week period. Suddenly, a text evolves, and it is written before you realize it.
Also, running beginners will make better progress even if they run only 10-minute intervals daily.
3. Schedule your writing time
All your good intentions about a daily routine for writing your paper might get jeopardised if you have no plan regarding your daily writing sessions. Don’t schedule all your other tasks in your calendar and assume you will use the non-scheduled, free time as your writing time. You will likely end up with no time left for writing at the end of the day.
Instead, we recommend you schedule fixed writing sessions on your work days, just like you would with any other task. Ideally, you can schedule the sessions at about the same time everyday. This will help you to build up a writing routine, and after a while, it will feel like a regular part of your day–almost like having lunch or picking up your kids from day-care.
4. Train in short sessions
Drop the idea that you must set aside a few hours to write anything. You don’t! Writing papers can be done very well in many short sessions, as long as you stick to doing it daily, as suggested above.
In a short writing session (15, 30 or 45 minutes), you will not produce a lot, but you will make small progress. You may only write one or two paragraphs, but when you do this regularly, you’re making progress on your text.
Short writing sessions can also be used to read a paper or two, look up some references, prepare a figure or a table, exchange with a co-author on a problem, or anything else that progresses your paper. The short training sessions don’t always need to be sessions where you’re typing and producing text. Use them to accomplish the necessary tasks to get your paper written.
5. Create your own training plan
You need a plan that guides your writing training so that you can integrate daily writing sessions into your schedule. In this plan you can bring everything together: when you will have your daily writing sessions, what you will do in each session, and a logical outline of the diverse tasks that need to be done to get your paper written.
You’re lucky, we created a simple template for you: “Paper-Writing Training Plan”. Download it for free and adapt it to your paper plans. And of course, good luck with your training!
Wow, we’re so pleased that you want to take your paper writing to a new level by training your writing muscle. We know, we are asking you for a big commitment, but we also know there is a great reward waiting for you. Just like the singer who, after several weeks of hard training, suddenly is able to perform a song that felt out of reach before, we know you will benefit from daily practice.
With all the excitement about the training you’re about to start, don’t forget, you don’t have to become a marathon writer. If you achieve a good level of fitness in your writing, any writing task that comes up won’t threaten you, you won’t lose your breath, and you will master it. The trick to reaching this level is being prepared and regularly training for it, but don’t stop if it is hard to train at times. Keep going! It will only get easier and easier.
If you need more help with paper-writing sign-up on the waiting list for our next paper-writing course: Paper Writing Academy.
- Worksheet “Paper-Writing Training Plan”
- Blog post #5: How to get started with writing papers?
- Blog post #62: Twenty things you should know when writing a journal paper
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