Among the many responsibilities you have, writing is probably the one that gets pushed to the bottom of your to-do list again and again.
During the #EpiWritingChallenge last November, many public health researchers, trainees, scientists, and clinicians shared their biggest barriers to achieving their writing goals.
My next few posts will summarize some of the discussions and writing tips that emerged from the 20 day writing challenge. Each post will be dedicated to one topic: writing, editing, and incorporating coauthor feedback.
Tip 1: Make time and space for writing
If you’re like me, you’re juggling several research projects among other work duties, and while you think about working on your manuscripts often, it seems like you never get to them. Unless there is an abstract deadline, it seems like the writing process stretches on and on.
Many #EpiWritingChallenge participants set goals aimed at writing more often, with daily or weekly goals.
Hopefully you’ve heard of SMART goals, but if you haven’t, they stand for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
First, if you want to change your writing habits, telling yourself to “write more” likely won’t cut it. It takes at least a month to form a new habit, and to maximize your success I suggest breaking down your overarching goal into manageable chunks (that are also SMART).
Second, reflect on when and where you write best. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you need complete silence or the bustle of a busy café? Thinking about these aspects of writing and how an ideal writing session can fit into your schedule will set you up for success. You might block off time on your work calendar as busy (to avoid meetings being scheduled during that time), and shut your office door. You might wake up an hour or two earlier to enjoy the quiet of your office as you type away. If you work best in a group, you might organize a Writing Accountability Group for even better accountability.
Tip 2: Focus on writing clearly
Writing clearly is something we all strive for (hopefully) but is harder than it sounds. As Ernest Hemingway said, “prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
Two rules of thumb are 1) write shorter sentences and 2) choose simpler words if it doesn’t change the meaning.
Dallas Murphy, a book author and writing workshop instructor, gave a great example of typical scientific writing transformed into clear scientific writing, in “How to write a first-class paper” published on the Nature blog last year.
ORIGINAL: “Though not inclusive, this paper provides a useful review of the well-known methods of physical oceanography using as examples various research that illustrates the methodological challenges that give rise to successful solutions to the difficulties inherent in oceanographic research.”
This writing is defensive and scared to make confident statements. The language is ornate, and lists caveats, fending off criticism that hasn’t yet been made.
REWRITE: “We review methods of oceanographic research with examples that reveal specific challenges and solutions.”
You might even explore voice-to-text apps for clear writing. We often express ideas more clearly in speech than in writing. In that same Nature article, Stacy Konkiel of Altmetric encouraged readers to make their point “in non-specialist language” if possible. “If you write in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, you…open yourself up to citations by experts in other fields and make your writing available to laypeople.”
Tip 3: Keep a “great writing” folder
What we read strongly influences how we write. In other words, “you write what you read”. Keeping up with the literature is a whole other blog post in itself, but reading other science writing not only expands your content knowledge but your writing abilities.
Whenever you come across a paper that makes you think “wow, that is great writing” tuck it away in a “Great Writing Folder”. When you sit down to write, marinate your brain in that concise science writing before putting pen to paper.
Tip 4: Create an elevator pitch for your paper
We typically talk about elevator pitches in relation to networking and job interviews. In fact, at last year’s AHA EPI | Lifestyles Scientific Sessions, one of the Connection Corners was focused on crafting an effective elevator pitch. Just as you summarize the key parts of what you do and why, and what you research, you can adapt that to a specific paper or project.
Create different ways of explaining your project in terms of what you did and why. Keep that list nearby when you write to help you stay on point and stay clear throughout your paper. Every main point should be coming back to that elevator pitch. That list is great to review at the beginning of each writing session to get you in the right mindset, too.
Tip 5: Prioritize topic sentences
Topic sentences are just as important now, in your science writing, as they were in your high school English class. Make sure you have topic sentences for each section of your manuscript. If you create an outline beforehand, those main ideas should morph into your topic sentence. After the topic sentence, every bit of that paragraph should connect back or move the argument forward. If it doesn’t contribute, cut it or move it.
In the tips for editing post we’ll be talking about using a Reverse Outline, a method with topic sentences as its backbone, to strengthen your argument.
In sum, science writing is a complex task for us to tackle. Whether a clinician-scientist, full-time researcher, trainee, or professor, it’s something on all of our to-do lists.
What is your biggest writing challenge?
Bailey DeBarmore is an epidemiology doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill, studying the intersection of epidemiology methods and clinical point of care. She is interested in chronic disease surveillance and use of electronic health records in research. She tweets @BaileyDeBarmore and blogs at baileydebarmore.com. Find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.