Academic work involves a ton of writing, so I figured that an investment in the writing process should be worthwhile. Here are my takeaways from a great online course called Writing in the Sciences with Kristin Sainani of Stanford, which had solid advice for all stages of writing. I highly recommend the course to anyone that wants to learn about academic writing or needs a reminder of good writing habits. Here I’ll summarise the writing process. The course is about academic writing but the lessons will hopefully be useful for others as well.
The writing process
This post focuses on the writing process: how words end up on a page. It can be as simple or complicated as you would like, ranging from one sentence punchlines like “writing is what happens when bottom meets seat” to entire books on the subject. My goal here is not to replace either of those (I reference books for further reading at the end) but instead summarise some of the most useful advice I’ve found for later reference.
Writing in the Sciences outlines a three-step process for academic writing: pre-writing, writing, and revision. When I listened to the course lectures, I thought the distribution would be something like 20% pre-writing, 50% writing, 30% revision. It turns out I had it completely wrong! The recommended distribution is instead 70% pre-writing, 10% writing, and 20% revision. This is because writing the first draft is, for most of us, the most painful part of writing and we should strive to spend as little time as possible on the first draft. The idea is that you can reduce anxiety and procrastination related to writing by preparing properly and accepting that any piece of writing - no matter how excellent - is likely to go through heavy revision.
What you do before putting words on a page is part of the pre-writing step. For academic writing, this means doing your analyses, presenting your results in a few key figures and tables, reading articles and grabbing key facts to cite. You then arrange your material in a road map or outline, using one idea per paragraph and arranging similar paragraphs in sections. This saves time later since you do not have to leave your document to look up key facts. In addition, you may find gaps in your argument or that some paragraphs should be combined or split. For more ideas on the pre-writing step, I’ve found this blog post to be useful.
- Group similar ideas
- Group similar paragraphs
- Don’t “bait-and-switch” your reader too many times. When discussing a controversy, follow: arguments (all), counter-arguments (all), rebuttals (all).
Writing the first draft
Putting your facts and ideas together in organised prose. This is often the most painful step and there is nothing worse for a writer than sitting in front of a blank document with nothing to write. If you have prepared your piece by key facts and ideas in an outline, writing the first draft should be a matter of expanding those ideas in coherent sentences. You are free to start writing anywhere in the piece because from your outline you know where each paragraphs fits in the big picture.
Tips for writing the first draft:
- Don’t be a perfectionist!
- The goal of the first draft is to get the ideas down in complete sentences in order
- Focus on logical organisation more than sentence-level details
- Writing the first draft is the hardest step for most people. Minimise the pain by writing the first draft quickly and efficiently!
By revising what we write, we turn the first draft into something readable and enjoyable. Revision is done at multiple levels: from the overall layout of your text (organising topis and paragraphs), the structure of paragraphs, how sentences fit into paragraphs, and which words should be used to express your idea. It might not be obvious what to look for when revising so I have listed a few suggestions below.
To “revise” means, literally, to look again (revision = re + vision). The revision process requires a rigorous evaluation of the choices you made in your writing. Did you choose the best organization for your topic? Did you construct a compelling opening for your paper? Have you picked engaging examples? Can you justify the way you worded each sentence? Does each sentence have a purpose and each paragraph have a point? Dan Simons
Do a reverse outline
In the margins of your paper, tag each paragraph with a phrase or sentence that sums up the main point. Then move paragraphs around to improve logical flow and bring similar ideas together. Perhaps as a reverse outline.
Your reader remembers the first and last sentences of a paragraph best, make sure they are rememberable! Again, useful advice from Dan Simons:
Does each sentence make a unique contribution to the point of that paragraph? Does each sentence logically follow from the preceding one? Can any sentences be cut without sacrificing clarity? Can you make the same points more concisely by combining sentences?
Your prose is more engaging if you vary sentence structure. Use some simple and some complex sentences, some short and some long sentences. Writing in the sciences exemplified effective uses of the dash, colon, semicolon, and parenthesis that I have found useful.
Increasing power to separate the lower we go:
- Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list, quote, explanation, conclusion, or amplification
- Use a colon to join two independent clauses if the second amplifies or extends the first
- The woman suffers from lack of experience and a chronic Democratic disease: compound sentences
- Use the dash to add emphasis or to insert an abrupt definition or description almost anywhere in the sentence. Reserve this tool for the really tough jobs!
- Emphasis: “The drugs did more than prevent new fat accumulation. They also triggered overweight mice to shed significant amounts of fat - up to half their body weight.”
- Definition: “To establish that the marrow cells - also called adult stem cells or endothelial precursor cells - can colonize the eye, Friedlander and his colleagues…”
- Inserts an afterthought or explanation (a word, phrase, or sentence) into a passage that is grammatically complete without it.
- If you remove the material within the parentheses, the main point of the sentence should not change.
- Parentheses give the reader permission to skip over the material.
- Connects two independent clauses. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
- Separate items in lists that contain internal punctuation. “The dramatically reduced the number of series in production: in 1935, fourteen series were circulating; in 1940, nine; by 1980, when the syndicate was in its final years, only four.”
Get rid of clutter
- Dead weight words and phrases (it should be emphasized that)
- Empty words and phrases (basic tenets of, important)
- Long words or phrases that could be short (muscular and cardiorespiratory performance)’Unnecessary jargon and acronyms
- Repetitive words or phrases (teaches clinicians - guides clinicians)
- Adverbs (very, really, quite, basically)
Do a verb check
Underline the main verb in each sentence. Watch for:
- Lackluster verbs (e.g., there are many students who struggle with chemistry)
- Passive verbs (e.g., the reaction was observed by her)
- Buried verbs (e.g., a careful monitoring of achievement levels before and after the introduction of computers in the teaching of our course revealed no appreciable change in students’ performances)
Pre-writing means gathering information and planning your piece in an outline. Writing means putting words on the page. Revising means shaping your piece into something that will be readable to others. For more ideas on revising scientific writing, check out this revision worksheet.
Books on writing
- For examples of excellent writing, have a look at Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
- To realise you are not alone in the struggle, dive into Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write
- For a motivational boost, pick up Paul Silvia’s How To Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing