Published: February 14, 2019
By Peter Mosley, PhD
I saw a video recently that was refreshing. There were no flashing lights, no frills, no gimmicks, no professional lighting. Just a chemistry professor, Dr. Pete Carr, sitting at his desk, talking about how to write a scientific research article over a weekend (provided you have already completed your preliminary research).
The video provides strong, helpful advice that largely applies to nearly all writing, not just the writing project discussed the video.
Let’s go over some of the tips, and I’ll explain what I mean.
- Don’t Procrastinate
This one is by far the hardest, and there are five basic reasons why people seem to procrastinate: you don’t have a structure to follow, so you don’t know where to begin; for you, writing is an unpleasant task, so you put it off till the last possible moment; writing is a choice that will have long-term and uncertain results, so it’s harder to see immediate goals met; you’re anxious about writing papers; or you’re not confident in your ability to write.
Now, if you struggle with procrastination, don’t beat yourself up over it. Try to think about solutions. If you don’t know where to begin, maybe you can try to start by writing a rough outline that will give you a structure to follow. If writing is unpleasant for you, perhaps you can concentrate on positive aspects of the writing process, keeping careful track of these benefits to restore your interest. Maybe the end goal of writing seems far away and you need to set short-term goals to finish your project, possibly using an outline (in the writing stage) or to-do list (in any research stages) that you can check off. Maybe you’re not confident in your abilities, and you need to come see me to further establish your confidence.
One piece of advice I have is that you should not be ashamed to seek help that will help you develop your time management skills. Don’t be ashamed to get help. Here at UNTHSC we have learning specialists who can walk you through your personal struggles in time management. I’ve seen that students who take full advantage of such resources often experience much stronger mental health and achieve significantly higher levels of academic performance.
- Perform Research
You should perform research, but be sure to perform research in a somewhat organized manner. Don’t get sidetracked onto tangents; proceed with a strategic, organized mindset. Remember that you’re not simply reading information randomly; you’re reading because you’re preparing to write a paper. It can help to organize your research with a reading list that is prioritized by importance, relevance, and influence in the field. And as you read, you should take notes so that you can use them as you write your paper later.
If you need help finding resources for your topic as you try to organize your research, we have an awesome team here at UNTHSC to assist you with all your questions.
- Determine Your Audience
This one is important. You’re not going to write the same way to every audience, so you should be very careful to write up to your reviewer’s specifications – whether that reviewer is your professor, your colleagues, peer reviewers for a journal, or a magazine editor. Don’t let this focus on appealing to your reviewers paralyze you, though; ask questions as needed, and do your utmost with the information you can glean. Reviewers will appreciate the effort.
I’ve written more about identifying and using writing project guidelines here.
- Plot out the big picture
Most students seem to jot down a rough outline before they write. Generally, that’s a good idea. Your outline doesn’t have to be thorough in most cases; leave room to improvise as needed, but jot out a game plan that enables your to have a general goal or direction. Your rough outline can also provide you with a structured series of small goals to meet that will help insulate you from procrastination and writer’s block while ensuring you produce a well-organized paper.
For more on outlining and other strategies for getting rid of writer’s block, check out my blog post on prewriting.
- Don’t edit grammar when you write your rough draft
Sometimes, editing your content can clarify that content in your own mind. At other times, however, it is a distraction that breaks up your train of thought, giving you writing fatigue that brings you closer to the brink of irresistible procrastination. If I’m going to be honest, I constantly edit while I’m writing because I often find that I need to rephrase my sentences to better continue my argument. Forcing myself to continue a badly-framed argument in my writing is a recipe for disaster. However, I try to save my main grammatical corrections until after I have written a first draft.
One reason you might be tempted to edit for grammar in the rough draft stage is the lie that you’re saving time by editing as you write. A difficult part of the writing process is making peace with the fact that you’re going to spend a significant amount of time revising your words, and that’s OK. Make peace with investing that time; writing your rough draft is the time to make a strong argument, not to perfect your grammar.
- You don’t have to start writing at the beginning
As long as you have a rough outline or topic in mind that is based on your research and writing project goals, you don’t have to start writing at the beginning in a research paper or any other writing project. In his YouTube video, Carr advises you to start a research paper with the methodology and results because they are easiest sections of a scientific research paper. This general advice may be helpful in your other papers, as well. If you have a strong basic game plan, consider starting with the easiest part of your game plan first.
However, as you near the completion of your project, make sure that you have a well-connected, well-organized discussion throughout your paper; don’t just rely on the outline.
- Critical Editing
Try to map out places that you will check your argument and grammar ahead of time, so that you don’t stop arbitrarily and ruin your train of thought. Make sure that your statements make sense, your reasoning is strong, and your ideas are coherent. This checklist will prepare you well for ensuring strong work on the remaining parts of your paper.
As you finish more parts of your paper, you’ll have to carefully proofread for strong organization. Check out the overview of how to ensure your paper is well-organized here.
- Writing the Conclusion
As Carr advises, you need to write your conclusion in a way that will allow readers to understand what you did. Don’t merely repeat what you said, and don’t concentrate on making a new point. Instead, focus on clarifying the argument you already made, its significance, and its implications. This is your last chance to make an appeal to your reader that makes them allies in accomplishing your purpose; don’t blow it.
- Writing the Introduction
Your introduction is where you convince your audience that they should read your writing project. You’re also going to be preparing the audience to read your writing project in a manner that will accomplish your purpose. If you’ve waited until this point of the process to write your introduction, you will have the advantage of a full picture of the overall writing project that will empower you to adequately prepare and entice your audience to read your document from beginning to end.
Do you have more tips for completing outstanding writing projects? Let us know in the comments below.