A painless way to scientific writing expertise

Wouldn’t it be great to get excellent writing skills without much effort? If you believe that no pain means no gain, I have good news for you! You can develop your scientific writing skills with ease — though not overnight. Here I show you my painless approach to the scientific writing expertise. Start right now and see first results already in few weeks.

This minimal approach to writing skills development has four elements: reading a lot, writing a lot, learning the know-how, and getting & giving peer feedback.

It doesn’t matter whether you are an inexperienced PhD student or a seasoned scientist frustrated with writing: you can achieve writing mastery when you follow this simple plan.

This method is based on habits: it asks you to consciously choose beneficial behaviors and repeat them over and over again. Yes, you don’t need to set goals. Establishing routines is much more effective: it frees you from the burden of choice. Once a behavior becomes a habit, it can be easily continued without much effort.

1. Read a lot

As a scientist, you are — or at least should be — reading a lot of articles, to keep up with the developments in your field.

Create a habit of reading at least 1-2 relevant research articles per week. But don’t just read them — take notes as well. You don’t need to summarize the whole piece. Just jot down the information that is interesting and relevant for you.

Ideally, reformulate the original text using your own words. But when you come across a particularly clear & accurate passage, you can retype it — with quotation marks — into your notes. But don’t be lazy and refrain from copy&paste. You learn much more when you type it yourself.

Reading a lot & taking notes helps you build a rich vocabulary for writing your own scientific texts. Moreover, you will “assimilate” the writing conventions of your field, so your manuscripts will be easier to understand for your readers.

2. Write a lot

Here I don’t mean writing manuscripts and other public pieces. That could be stressful and painful, especially for beginning researchers. Write low-stake, private texts — but do so daily. If you object that you don’t have time for that: as little as 10 minutes per day will bring visible results soon.

So what exactly should you write about? Well, write about your research, ideally. Wet-lab scientists have a laboratory notebook, where they describe their experiments, including the background information and interpretations.

A similar tool — the research journal — is useful for every scientist. That’s a place to elaborate on your ideas, develop arguments, describe your findings, try to understand the failed attempts, plan future work, etc. Also notes from meetings, seminars, and papers belong here.

The most important thing is to focus on the content: you are, after all, creating valuable documentation of your work. So do not obsess with the form and the language. Use the freewriting technique and write with ease & joy. This allows your writing skills to develop casually, without any particular effort.

3. Know how

Learn the basics of scientific writing: how to structure research articles, paragraphs & sentences. Get to know some useful tools & techniques to optimize your writing process. Improve your English language skills.

You can learn these things in courses and workshops, but also from books & blogs. So take a workshop, and read a book — but don’t obsess with theory (greetings to the top-down writers :)) and avoid spending too much time (and money) on it. Remember: knowledge is useless if you don’t put it into practice.

4. Feed back

A powerful way to improve your writing quickly is to get & give peer feedback on your scientific texts: manuscripts, conference abstracts, project reports, etc. You could think that feedback from an experienced writing trainer is best — but research shows that feedback from your peers is highly effective as well.

Moreover, it’s not only about getting feedback — giving feedback benefits your writing skills as well. Seeing how others write, and trying to help them is a valuable learning experience.

There are two main rules for effective peer feedback. First, choose a specific aspect for the peer feedback. For example, content or macrostructure make sense at an early stage (first draft); clarity and language are better checked at an later stage (revising).

Second, don’t get upset by the feedback that you get and try consciously to separate yourself from your text, even if it’s your “baby”. On the other side, don’t be mean when giving feedback — after all, you want to help, not criticize.

Combine all elements for the best & fastest result

The first two — reading a lot & writing a lot — are bottom-up strategies. They take some time, but the results are very robust. These two strategies alone can lead you to writing mastery.

If you would like to speed up the process, it’s good to combine them with top-down approaches of learning the relevant know-how and getting & giving peer feedback. I don’t recommend relying only on the top-down approaches: the missing practice could make your writing process fragile, painful, and slow.

So don’t wait and start reading & writing today. Remember, you want to establish these behaviors as habits. Here, it’s helpful — I would even say essential — to set a schedule and try to stick to it. Please, let us know in the comments how it works for you!

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