On Waking Up From Your Fear of Academic Writing..

There are a lot of things I love about Danielle Lee. She makes me laugh more than anyone I know. She shares my love of cheese. She’s been there to pull my tights up under my bra when I’ve needed it. But, most of all, I love her because she will put your shit on blast for putting her shit on blast. In her most recent blog post, she writes

I have so many things I need to finish. I mean desperately finish. Thanks to a kick in the butt pep talk from Dr. Isis, my first priority is my research writing. All other writing tasks are secondary – that includes blogging. Though blogging is very much a professional (and personally satisfying) activity for me, she is correct in assessing that I’ve been putting my first energies into extra-curricular writing and presentations. I need to shore up my the academic subtitles of my CV; and this year and this time is the time to do it.

I was very fortunate as a postdoc to have someone in my mentoring army who asked me every time I saw her,”Where are your papers? What are you writing?’ I came to dread seeing her, but in retrospect I appreciate what she was doing for me. The currency of science is publication and, without enough good papers, I was basically walking around with an empty wallet. This is what I expressed to my friend lately and I have now become the person who says “Where are your papers?”

My friend is brilliant in more ways that I can tell you, but that is not enough. A PhD is also not enough and that’s been the source of my not-so-gentle prodding lately…

pull it together
Even if you’re not staying in academia, the only way to gain acceptance as a productive scientist who does good work is to have taken a project all the way to publication. Publication is one sign that you are not only respected by your local community, but that your work is accepted by the community-at-large. Write something. Anything.

I think a lot about Neil deGrasse Tyson, in this regard. As an academic scientist goes, he has not been productive, having only 13 publications since 1985. In his job as director of the Hayden Planetarium, these publications are sufficient to give him the cache necessary to say “I’ve been a real scientist and I have done some actual shit.” Otherwise, the alternative is the following conversation:

Scientist: Yeah, I’ve done some stuff and I know how to do science.
Other folks: Can I read about it anywhere?
Scientist: Well, no….
Other folks: Then so says you…

But I know that my friend is struggling. She also writes:

It doesn’t take a fancy-pants meta-physics degree to read these dreams. I am afraid getting things done and I am the only one in my own way. I am in the middle of bad dream. I so badly need to do academic writing and get ALL of my research projects written up. I want to get them done. I’m ready for it and I have the time to do it, finally. I don’t have any pressing research data to collect or meetings to attend. Neither am I worried about my finances. It’s like I’m on my own post-doctoral research sabbatical – moving between institutions.

So what’s my problem? How can I push past this anxiety and fear and paralysis?

Today has been a good day for me, in terms of publications. I submitted one new paper, one revision, and I hope to get to resubmitting a paper that was previously rejected from another journal. I’ve come to look forward to writing and submitting papers, but I didn’t always feel that way.   I used to be terrified of writing, mostly because I was overwhelmed by the amount ahead of me and because I had been told I wasn’t very good at it. This both paralyzed me and contributed to my paralysis. The longer I went without writing, the more I felt behind the curve for not having published. Before I knew it, I was sitting on a metric fuckton of data and was doing nothing with it. Luckily, I had someone who identified this, hassled me about my publications, and taught me “how” to write a paper.  The good news is that, like most skills, it gets easier with experience.

Part of what was making me fail was that I was trying to write linearly.  That’s a recipe for pain and self-flagellation. This is how I write a paper now…

1) I try to remember the question(s) I started with and I write it on my board.

2) I make my figures or tables with the data that directly answer that question. I tape my figures and table under the question.

3) I ask whether I have follow-up questions and analysis and I write those questions and make those figures and tables. I tape them to the board.

4) I harass the fuck out of everyone I know and I make them come look at my board. When I get them there, I try to tell them the story of what I’ve done, using my figures and table. I reorder the figures and tables based on their feedback. I write questions they ask next to the figures and tables and revise accordingly. I keep making people come back to my board until they say “Huh. That’s a pretty good story.” I bring everyone who will listen to my board. Undergrads, grad students, postdocs, more senior colleagues. Everyone. This is the most crucial step of the process – getting your story.

5) I write the results.

6) I write the methods in a way that parallels the outline of the results.

7) I ask myself if we have anything unexpected, whether we’ve changed what we know about our field, or whether we have any limitations that must be address. I write that shit on my board and use it to write the discussion.

8) I go back and write the introduction based on the story that ended up in my results.  I am a believer in using the phrase “We hypothesized that…” so that there is no damned question about what we were trying to address. This might be different than the hypothesis we sought out to test when the experiments were conceived, but I am not one to be made slave to a hypothesis. I also am a believer in giving a general description of the methods and major findings. If my introduction is more than 1.5 pages, it is too damned long. And probably boring as fuck.

9) I add all the other shit.

10) This is the 2nd most critical step. I give that paper to anyone that will read it and give me feedback. It is better to get criticism from people you know than people you don’t. Anyone that will read it gets a copy.

11) I submit the shit.

As I have learned, sometimes the paper is well-received. Sometimes not. But, I have also learned that a paper cannot be accepted if you don’t write it and submit it in the first place and an accepted paper feels really, really good.

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23 responses to “On Waking Up From Your Fear of Academic Writing..

  1. Reblogged this on postdocstreet and commented:
    Such great writing advice here. I struggle too, and am getting better about my practice, but this is a fantastic outline for how to write a scientific paper.

  2. This is fantastic, thanks so much for writing this, Dr. Isis, and for passing on the mentorship: particularly for being the mentor that focuses on the metrics we all need to succeed.

  3. Great stuff! I think we share to some extent a method for writing a paper; I especially loved number 4 and will try to use it more!!!

  4. This is very helpful and interesting! Thank you!

  5. I love your method for constructing and writing papers. One of the ways that attempting to right “linearly” (great way to put it!) is that it can trigger your Inner Hypercritical Editor. You know, that nasty voice that tells you that your writing sucks and that keeps you from being able to even begin to write a sentence, much less a paragraph or a paper.

  6. Fantastic post! I posted all my figures up when I was writing my first paper but I love that you take it several steps further. I’m definitely going to try this for my next paper!

  7. Wonderful post. Absolutely the very best advice on ‘how to write a paper’ that I have ever seen. It is also absolutely the way most papers and theses get written. Important to ‘tell the story’. Now, the story is often linear; but it is hardly ever written that way. And important to write the Intro last and not make it too long.

  8. This is excellent advice, thanks! One thing I do as well during the writing process is, anytime anyone asks “What are you working on” or “what are you doing at work” – regardless of whether they’re an academic – I tell them about the project. In doing this I have gotten some of the best insights and contacts from people completely outside my field, or completely outside the profession. I realize this may be a little easier for me to do as a social scientist, but I highly recommend it.

  9. Thanks for the tips! Bookmarked!

  10. Adding some more suggestions: Virginia Valian talks about her struggles with writing here: http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/valian/docs/1985solvingAWorkProb.pdf

    I also find that writing powerpoints and giving presentations helps me figure out what my story is before I outline the paper and write it up. I also start with figures and tables when I do that, because the results need to tell a story.

    In terms of writing… getting started and keeping going can be hard. I find it helpful to start with a generic outline for my field (like Intro, background, theory, data, results, discussion/conclusion) and fill in the parts that are easiest first (like data). In terms of keeping going, I make myself do like 15 min if I really don’t want to do any (and generally once I get started I can do more). It also helps to do some every day, preferably first thing in the morning when I can’t come up with good excuses not to (I get more creative and less just web-surfy in terms of procrastination as the day goes on). Papers come together a lot more easily for me if when I sit down to really do them I’ve already done most of the work through brief daily sessions. Yay previous me, I think.

  11. I need another white board……

  12. Isis the Scientist

    The powerpoints have been a blessing and a curse for me. The curse comes because often I have more story than belongs in a single paper and I get my mind too focused on having to keep it all together..

  13. “She’s been there to pull my tights up under my bra when I’ve needed it.”

    Hahahahahah! What the fucke does that even mean!?

    One thing you left out is the title. I actually use the construction of the title as a key aspect of organizing the paper and knowing that you have identified the minimal collection of data for a solid interesting paper.

  14. Isis the Scientist

    You’re right about the title. My apologies. That is a key part of the paper and, for me, is usually a broad statement of my results…

    And only women with barrio ass understand the tights and bra thing, which is crucial for comfort.

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  16. “Reblogged”? Wtf does that mean? Stolen?

  17. Thanks for the outstanding post! Have sent it to my entire lab. My tech and I chose a wall in this lab this morning upon which to put a large white board so we can start doing this.

  18. It sounds like the non-linear approach to writing that you outline is essentially like giving a highly dynamic, mini poster presentation in your office. Like some other commenters, I first make presentations to help me write my papers, but I usually just make them alone on my computer and then move onto writing. I think it’s a great idea to invite people in to help you talk it through!

  19. Great, timely post. Will share with all my PI’s – thank you. Before the PI’s come to my office for paper help I ask them two things: 1) what was the question you were trying to answer? (if this question is more than 3 lines long, I send them back to the lab.) 2) Do you have all your final figures? I have sent folks back for showing up with hand drawn sketches of what data is supposed to look like. Now, there are times when you put together a figure, start writing, and realize you are missing an experiment or two… but you will not know that until you put it together..

  20. Pingback: On Ideas and Fear of Academic Writing | Professor Doctor Mommy

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