How I start writing

When I entered biomedical research as a PhD student, I had no idea that writing would play such an instrumental part in my career. Luckily, my PhD advisor drilled into me the importance of writing from day one (Thanks Tim!). Now that I am a PI, writing is practically all I do. In the creative writing sphere it is no secret that writing begets writing, meaning that the more you write the easier it becomes to write more. I think this is true in scientific writing too. I used to suffer a lot from ‘the blank page syndrome’, you know, when you are staring at the blinking cursor on that blank document unable to let the words flow out. I have found that the ability to fill a blank page is a muscle that can be exercised by any kind of writing. Yes, including a blog post.

For me the trick to beating the ‘blank page syndrome’ is to silence that judging voice in my head that says: ‘this is not novel/ground breaking/beyond the state-of-the-art enough’, or ’this is not what they (the reviewers) want’. Nothing gives me writers block faster than thinking about who the reviewers will be. Instead, I tell myself that our science is good/interesting/impactful enough and start writing for my own eyes only, pretending that no one else will ever read the thing. When I start, I write fast, I write badly, and I start in the middle. For grants, I start with one specific aim. For papers, I start with the Results section. I start with what I know for sure and work my way from there, leaving the Introduction and Abstract to the very end as these sections will inevitably get too broad and unfocused when dealt with prior to finalizing the ‘meat’ of the grant/paper. To ensure that I focus on content rather than style at first, I set a strict time limit, e.g. 20 minutes / paragraph. This works to keep the judging voice at bay until I have got it all out onto the page, however rough it may be. Boom, blank page syndrome cured.

Then starts the long and much slower process of editing, in which I invite the judging voice for a comeback. But we’ll deal with that in a different post.

To me, academic science at its finest is a form of self-expression, and writing is a big part of that. Like any art form, improvement requires practice. As a longtime journaler, I believe that any form of writing can exercise that muscle to fill a blank page. An avid writer reads with different eyes and picks up on not only content but also style. So treat it like practicing an instrument and write often, without judgement. Write anything. A premature manuscript, a long letter, a blog post. Writing begets writing.

One thought on “How I start writing

  1. Pingback: Editing a manuscript – Welcome to the Yuan lab

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