Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to act in front of a blank page publishing more and better

Writer’s block and procrastination are two of the greatest challenges we face in front of a blank page. Imagine that article you want to write to explain your work, a chapter in a thesis, a report for a project, the text of a new project, or even a blog post like this one. I’ve been there. I am there. The secret is… just start. But there are other techniques you can use to help you in this task.

We measure our careers in science by the work we publish and while we may have a lot of results, pointing to scientific breakthroughs, unless we write and publish those results in a paper, they don’t produce an impact. What can you do to start writing?

On start writing

Early in this post, I said the secret is “just start” writing, and it is. The problem when writing is the inner concern about the perfect sentence or the perfect explanation, and we may spend an enormous amount of time with a single sentence. I’ve seen this. This eventually leads to procrastination.

Two techniques I’ve been using came from Chandler Bolt’s approach in his Self-Publishing School initiative to help people write their first book. Mind-mapping and Outline. You can find more info here. Even if it refers to a book, you can adapt to a paper. The basic idea is to use mind-mapping to pour out everything you’re thinking about on your topic. Then you join several ideas into bigger bubbles. And use those to help you build an outline. From the outline to the text is a small step. I’ve tried this numerous times, and it works every single time. The purpose is to drive you to write that first draft.

On first drafts

First drafts suck. You need not get it perfect the first time, you need to get it written. Unless you have a first version of the text you can work on, you risk spending a lot of time writing your paper.

If you anticipate this, you free yourself from the prison of having a perfect first draft and writing flows. Don’t worry about the grammar or even the science. This sentence from Ernest Hemingway says it all

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

And this works for scientific papers too. If English is not your native language, like in my case, you have applications like ProWriting Aid, or Grammarly, helping you improve your English. I’ve been using the first one for some time and feel my English improved substantially.

On metrics

One technique for increasing the dopamine in your brain, keeping you engaged and motivated to write is word or characters count. For example, I’m writing this post in Ulysses, which is an app that works seamlessly between devices, and where I can set a goal. For example, my goal in this post is to have a minimum of 500 words, and while writing I see myself getting there. This helps me keep writing.

In scientific papers the average word count is between 3000 and 10000, so you can establish in advance your goal and use applications like Ulysses or Scrivener to set those goals that help you write a first sucking draft.

QUESTION: When will you start writing that breakthrough paper inside your head?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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