There’s this awful sentence about our scientific careers, “publish or perish.” I have profound reservations about it because of the pressure induced in our scientific work and writing. With such pressure to publish we risk turning our research shallow and not insightful. However, we do have to publish. Thus, maybe there’s a way of thinking that avoids shallowness and embraces the desire to publish. I think this implies thinking differently about scientific writing and discover the value of sharing ideas worth spreading, like TED talks. My suggestion to too simple: start with word count.
My challenge is finding the time to do deep work, and schedule scientific writing. We often need to think deeply about our results before knowing what to write.
Could a better planning of our writing give us the necessary momentum to improve our publishing record without losing its insight and depth?
Planning and writing a paper has several steps. Some forward, some backward. Steps forward are writing your article and meeting your goals, for example, in the number of words planned for each day. Steps backward include reviewing your plots and sense the need to make new ones. These steps affect the writing process and knowledge development itself.
But if you do not have a plan, the writing period can be harsh. The complaint about the lack of time when we need to write a scientific article is an expression of the lack of planning in our writing.
There are several writing techniques developed for authors of fiction and non-fiction books. I find value in these methods, and I’m trying to apply them to scientific writing. Here, I’ll only speak about one: word count.
Word counting is probably the most straightforward writing technique when planning your paper. Some journals set a limit to characters, but I prefer a limit of words. Word count has a context in mind, while characters refer to space in a paper. Words convey meaning; characters don’t.
From my search throughout the internet, short papers or papers published in conference proceedings have 2500 to 6000 words, while original research papers have 6000 to 10000 words. When we think about review articles, it can go up to 30000 words.
Abstracts have on average 250 words, and if you think of abstracts like blog posts, this count makes sense. Conclusions are usually an extended synthesis of the main findings in your paper. Thus we could point to 500 words. This counting also makes sense because, again, we can compare conclusions to blog posts. This comparison is fair because most of us read abstracts and, if the topic gets our attention, we read the conclusions. Thus, the size should follow the same principles as a blog post.
The remaining sections of your article depend on your topic and sensibility as a research writer, but I would point to more words in the “Results and Discussion” section, which may have several subsections.
The point is: if you decide the number of words in your paper, you have the opportunity for setting a goal. Afterwards, you choose when you want to finish your first draft, which days you plan on writing your paper and the math is simple. Divide the goal by the number of days, and you get the number of words you need to write per day.
You’ll be surprised by how small that number can be if you plan of any deadlines. Well, unless you plan to write the entire paper in a single day, which I wouldn’t recommend. And when you see the number of words growing and experience the feeling of reaching your daily goal, you will get the momentum needed to finish your paper.
But, planning is not enough when you get systematically distracted. You also need Deep Work.
According to Cal Newport, Deep Work corresponds to
”professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
We know this is not easy, but it is necessary. Deep work is a common denominator among my colleagues who regularly publish in peer-review journals. I continue to strive in understanding its best practices, but I already felt the power of deep work in productivity. If you feel unfocused and without time, you should – no, you must – try it.
Don’t wait until you find the time to write the knowledge and insights of your research work. Start today!
The first step is simple: plan and schedule. Michael Hyatt is right when he says ”What gets scheduled, gets done.” I’ve experienced this numerous times, as well as the opposite.
The second step is to invest in Deep Work. Stop wasting you cognitive resources with distraction. Be focused. Insights in scientific research demand it and the desire to share what you uncover.
Question: what other methods do you use to improve your scientific writing?