How to enjoy writing

I love writing papers. I love writing grant proposals. And I love writing op-eds. My real problem is churning through analyses. I drag my feet, open Twitter, close that down and turn to Youtube before eventually having to bribe myself to get some work done. Other people revel in finding interesting details in their data, or writing clever code, but I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it. I’m happiest when I have a good idea of the story my data is telling me and I’m ready to open up a blank page and start writing.

Communicating our scientific results through writing is a core part of academic work, but many people loathe it. They find words tumble out far too quickly and incoherently, or alternatively, words reveal themselves far to slowly. Because I enjoy writing and tend to find it quite relaxing, in this post I’m going to be compiling tips from the experience of other people, rather than my own.

Find the right tools

I write everything in a packaged called Scrivener. This includes blog posts, scientific papers and my attempts at a book. It really suits the way I think. It’s super easy to have everything from notes, figures and research lists all in the same document. You can story board ideas and easily chop and change text around.  I’ve also had a good experience writing with the collaborative Authorea site. This was brilliant for multi-author paper writing. My co-author and I could both work on a document at the same time, without fearing version control stuff ups. We could drag and drop figures into the draft manuscript, include mathematical equations and write each other wee notes to guide the paper in the right direction.

Other people really like various front ends for latex packages. Oddly, some people even enjoying working in one of the various versions of Word. Others like to write out a paper map or draft some sketchy notes with pen and paper. It really doesn’t matter where you write, but finding the right approach can really make writing easier. In my experience, writing and thinking go together. If a software package melds well with your way thinking, your writing will flow more readily.

Get some help

Most research institutions have a plethora of courses, workshops, website resources and dedicated experts to help with writing skills. These range from one or two hour workshops that work through good writing and referencing strategies to more involved interventions. Many universities now offer thesis writing bootcamps to PhD students, where long-suffering PhDs are brought together for intensive writing weekends. The results are phenomenal! Some students clock over 20,000 words in a single weekend and learn writing exercises that will help in the future.

Many young researchers worry that they are poor writers. There are particular services offered to ECRs who have English as a second language or feel that they don’t write well in an academic style. There’s lots of different types of help, so don’t be afraid to be proactive and seek it out. I know of several young researchers who had been told in the past that they were terrible at writing, went and got some expert help and found this was wholly unfounded criticism.

Peer pressure works

I mentioned thesis bootcamps as a great approach to helping PhD students get their theses written up. These provide skills and expert help and a high sugar environment that is conducive to productivity. But mostly they work on the principle of peer pressure. This is the same approach employed in Shut up and Write sessions. When everyone else is sitting quietly in a room or cafe tapping furiously at a keyboard, you’re likely to get dragged into the spirit of productivity. Whether you crave company for your work space or you prefer to tap away on your own, attending a regular Shut Up and Write type session can provide a useful dedicated writing time in your weekly schedule.

You might never enjoy it

I falsely entitled this post in my How to ECR series as How to Enjoy Writing. But of course, if you simply don’t like writing, finding a good writing tool and some good company aren’t likely to make you wildly enthusiastic about it. I can sympathise. No clever software or expert tips are going to help me enjoy debugging nasty code.

It’s ok to find writing a chore. Unfortunately, however, writing is a core part of academic practice. These tips are simply offered as ways to ease the difficulties. If they don’t, there’s always bribery. I encourage myself to get stuck into coding by allowing myself an hour of free writing time first thing in the morning. If you like coding but not writing, flip the bribe around and see if that helps. If you have a day that requires a lot of writing and you don’t much enjoy it, make sure you schedule yourself something each day you enjoy, such as lunch with colleagues or a walk across campus for a coffee. And if that really doesn’t work, there’s always Tim Tams!

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3 thoughts on “How to enjoy writing

  1. One tip I was given by a novelist that I found incredibly helpful to me : remember there are two aspects to writing : the creative part of writing, and the more critical editing part. Keep those two distinct – eg by writing fast, getting the ideas down and not criticising, then put that first draft away for a bit (in a metaphorical drawer) to give yourself a bit of distance to it, then edit. A common cause of writer’s block is to confuse those two so you try editing while writing; it means you write the same sentence or paragraph over and over and get nowhere. Anyway it helps a lot for me : For example I wrote my recent Nature Climate Change perspective, Weather risks in a warming World, that way. (Peter Stott)

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