Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Exercises to develop the willpower muscle of scientific writing

Writing a scientific paper when you have the results takes willpower. It’s not easy to put what you’ve done into words, and clear enough that others may reproduce what you did. It takes also time, and if you have other commitments because you work at a company or teach, its competing with them.

Willpower muscle

But willpower is a muscle, not a skill. Thus, you can train your willpower into developing the writing muscles required for putting your science into an article. Therefore, the challenge is what kind of exercises can develop the willpower muscle for scientific writing.

 

Writing habit

Some people prefer to write all at once in a flash. However, what I’ve seen is this approach only works occasionally. Most of the time you’re uninspired, or lose too much time to write a single sentence. I had a colleague once who spent one entire morning writing a sentence. In his opinion, the perfect sentence. It doesn’t make much sense.

However, if you strive to develop the simple habit of writing every day a minimum fixed number of words, you learn with time to unblock your writing skills. Establish a moment during the day for this “free writing” and fix the minimum number of words. In my case, I use mornings, after waking up, and a minimum of 300 words. Tools like Ulysses or Scrivener make word counting easier and motivating.

 

Free to write bad first drafts

The worst stumbling block to writing you paper is to think it will be perfect at its first draft. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

First drafts are always bad.

Thus, if you welcome this idea, you can gradually lose the fear of not writing a good first draft, because… there’s no such thing.

If you accept that first drafts are bad, you can start writing your paper today. And the next challenge is where to start.

 

Starting point

There are different approaches as to where to start writing your paper. Some people argue you should start with the most difficult sections. However, I find this a bit demotivating. From my experience, it’s more productive if you start by what’s easier to write. Sections like the scientific method you used are among the easiest.

Once you start, it’s only a matter of gaining momentum. And if you invest in developing a writing habit, with momentum, writing flows.

 

Choose your tools wisely

The final point is not an exercise, but an advice about the tools you could use to make your scientific writing more productive. Despite many journals and conferences ask for you work in Word format, it’s not mandatory that you have to write your paper in Word. Honestly, Word is not the best tool. There are others which can export to Word. Afterward, you can spend the time you need to format the document according to the journal’s requirements. But after finishing your writing.

For those who love LaTeX, as I do, I’d recommend you try ShareLaTeX, which is an online tool, TexPad if you work in a macOS environment, or TexMaker, which is free and work across several platforms.

In environments other than LaTeX, I recommend Ulysses, or Bear, for developing a writing habit in macOS or iOS. And Scrivener for multiple platforms. The advantage of these tools is the ability to easily movequicklygh sections without being stuck because you’re not writing in sequencial order. Moreover, in he case of Scrivener, you can set the total number of words in your paper, set the days you’ll dedicate to writing and a deadline. Scrivener has a simple tools which calculates the number of words you need to write each day to meet you goal and deadline. For those who don’t have Scrivener, you could try a Worksheet I made with the same purpose.

You can choose to start exercising your willpower one day or choose Day-One to start.

Challenge: why not start today?

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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