Friday, August 1, 2014

How to write fast

Being a scientist means being able to write effectively about your science: papers, grants, e-mails, reviews, blogs, twitters, facebooks, whatever. And being an efficient scientist means being able to write about your science both effectively and fast. Striking this balance is a struggle for most people, and solutions are likely highly personal, but here are a few things I’ve found have worked for me (more interesting/less generic ones towards the end):
  1. Deadlines are your friend. Wait until the last minute and write in a big spurt. I personally feel that the last 10% takes way more than 10% of the time, but actually makes much less than 10% difference in the final outcome (grant, paper, etc.). Being up against a deadline is unpleasant, but cuts down on this relatively low-payoff time.
  2. If you do have to write early for whatever reason, set an artificial early deadline and try to finish it by then as though it were a hard deadline. This has another bonus…
  3. … which is to put the piece of writing away for a week and not think about it, then come back to it. This distance gives you a sufficiently long break that editing your own writing will be much more effective and efficient than if you just edit it continuously.
  4. Don’t be afraid of the blank page. For me, the blank page is a period of reflection and thought. Often, I will look at a blank page for a week, during which time I’ve really thought about what I wanted to say, at which point it all comes out very quickly and relatively coherently. Whenever I force myself to write before I'm ready, I just end up rewriting it anyway.
  5. If you’re having a hard time explaining something in writing, just try to explain it to someone verbally. For me, this really helps me clearly formulate something. Then just write that down and see what happens. Much faster than struggling endlessly with that one troublesome sentence.
  6. Don’t worry about word limits while you’re writing. I’ve found that writing with the word limit in mind makes my writing very confusing and overly compressed because I try to squeeze in too many thoughts in as few words as possible. I find it’s more efficient to just write what I want to say as clearly as possible and then come back and cut as necessary. And be brutal about trimming and don’t look back.
  7. Watch out for “track changes wars”. If you’re writing with other people (who doesn't these days), there is a natural tendency to push back against other people’s edits. This can lead to a lot of back and forth about minor points. One way to handle this is to just accept all changes in the document and read it clean. If whatever it was is a real problem, it will still stand out.
  8. Learn the “templates” for scientific writing. Most scientific writing has a particular form to it, and once you learn that, it makes for easy formulas for getting ideas out of your mind and onto the page. These templates vary from format to format. For instance, in a paper, often the results section will go something like “Our findings suggested that X. For X to be true, we reasoned that Y could be either A or B. In order to test for Y, we performed qPCR on…” Rinse and repeat. If you find it sounding repetitive, just use your thesaurus, and learn the 3-4 common variants for the given sentiment (e.g., “we reasoned”, “we hypothesized”, “we considered whether”) and cycle through them. It’s all rather prosaic, but it will get words on the page. You can channel your inner Shakespeare in revision. Same thing for grants.
  9. Regarding templates for grants, I have basically found it much easier to work from someone else’s grant. Many grants have very vague outlines for overall structure, and so ask a friend for theirs and try to stick with that. It will save you hours of wondering whether this or that structure or style can be funded. Which reminds me: be sure to ask people who, you know, actually got the grant… :)
  10. Some people really like writing out an outline of the whole thing first. I’ve never really been able to get into that myself. But a few times lately when I’ve really been up against a deadline, I tried what I can perhaps best call a “short form temporary outline”. The idea is that I have to write a paragraph, and it has to say 4 things. Write out a very quick outline just below the cursor with bullet points of these 4 things in a reasonable order. This should just take a couple minutes. Then, well, just start writing them out. If a thought comes to you while writing, just add it to the outline so you remember. It’s sort of like a to-do list for the paragraph. I’ve found this made writing faster because I didn’t feel like I had to try to remember a lot of stuff in my head, thus freeing my mind to just write. Next paragraph, next outline.
  11. [Updated, 8/15]: Forgot this really important one–don't be afraid to just rewrite something wholesale. Sometimes I'll write something that just... sucks. But at least I got it out of my system. Often, in the course of writing it, I will discover what I really meant to say. Better to just start fresh and write it again the right way. It's like renovating an old house–often would be easier to just tear it down and start over.
Oh, and avoid passive voice. The question of how to reduce the crushing writing load we all are facing to begin with is perhaps a topic for another blog post... :)

No comments:

Post a Comment