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Writing – Love it or hate it? You still have to do it!


DLRobinson
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Writing is an important part of any scientist’s career, and it’s particularly critical for academic scientists whose promotion depends on solid writing. Writing and publishing papers is “currency” of scholarship – peer-reviewed papers demonstrate our productivity, expertise, and contributions to our field. No one gets promoted without publications. Moreover, for those of us who write grants to get funding for our research – guess what? No one gets grants without the track record of publications.

If writing is so critical, why do so many scientists spend more time on teaching and service than on writing and scholarship? Why do we put it off, waiting for a big chunk of time that we can devote to writing (that may never arrive)? Why do we complain about it so much? Moreover, when I poll groups of graduate students, postdocs and faculty, a sizeable portion claim to dislike writing – it’s tough to dislike something that is so vital to our success!

So let’s learn to love writing, especially since we have to do so much of it. This open thread is a place where we can discuss the ins and outs of writing – sharing tips, encouragement and hard-won lessons. Ask questions, post writing hacks. And happy writing!

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Thank you for posting this extremely important thread. Personally I enjoy writing. It is challenging to find the right words and put them in order. I know I can spend more time that I should turning words and phrases around, One frustrating thing about writing is just this finding the right way to say something without plagiarism. I know many times what I would like to write is already published so I need to find a way to say the same thing in another way which can take some time. Is sufficient to use someone’s else’s words if it referenced or should it specified with quotation marks accompanied by the author’s name.
Look forward to making more contributions and reading those of others.

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Thank you @DLRobinson for this important post! I can’t agree more that the negative atmosphere surrounding writing has always stumped me. There are days I like to write more and days that I like to write less. I often find the first few minutes are the worst, and then I am able to get into a flow.

Also, I can’t emphasize enough that the only way to get better at writing is to write more! Since I got my high school diploma online, writing was critical in assessing our understanding. I can’t thank my lucky stars enough that I had to write so much in high school. It made my life easier as an undergrad and now as a graduate student. Also, utilizing writing resources availability at my university has been priceless. This has stemmed from manuscripts to grants. The consultants help me tremendously in editing and reviewing my work with a fresh lens.

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Kimberly Raab-Graham

One of the best ways to learn how to write is to write with other academics! Write a grant with an experienced grant writer. There is a formula. You have to learn the formula.

When you are staring at a blank page go read one of your favorite papers. I find reading papers authored by my favorite scientists is very inspiring.

Do others have tricks to crush the “writer’s block”?

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@Jaadeja, you bring up an important point - should you rephrase or quote? In most neuroscience writing, we rephrase, but this can be difficult to do when the original sounds perfect. I suggest setting aside the original and writing the key points of what you want to say - not even in sentence, but in bullets or outline form. Then when you make it into complete sentences, it will be in your own words, and you can simply cite the original paper without putting anything in quotes. You will be surprised by how perfect your own words will sound to convey the same thought, but in the context of your written argument.

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Amanda Labuza

I agree! If you don’t rephrase you will be quoting your entire introduction. @DLRobinson this is a great suggestion for avoiding plagiarism.

Does anyone have suggestions for good phrases to use or avoid? For instance, I know scientists don’t “see” things, that’s passive. We “observe” or “discover”. Does anyone have other not-so-secret words that I’m not used to yet for scientific writing?

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Charise White

Great topic! When I read it yesterday, I was taking a break from writing. I like the art of putting words together in grammatically correct ways, but writing papers is always a struggle. I am not sure if the fear is that I will not convey my thoughts correctly or that what I write is going to be judged.

Labuza brings up an issue that I have, using the first person. I try to avoid it. Rather than saying, “We observed that treatment A had greater effects,” I would say “Treatment A had greater effects.”

BTW, Labuza, I really liked your original post on this topic!

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Charise White

While we a talking about plagiarism, I have a question: is it possible to plagiarize your own work? Can you take text from a paper you wrote and use it unchanged in another paper?

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DLRobinson

Good question, @cw14! Yes, it’s possible to plagiarize yourself, and you should avoid it! Methods can be the hardest - it seems there are only so many ways that we can concisely write the methods. But there are two problems with this: 1) you may inadvertently repeat a mistake (I know of that happening), and 2) you may trigger the plagiarism detectors used by journals. The best way to avoid this is to write your methods “fresh” each manuscript. It doesn’t take long, and it can be a good way to get into the groove of writing.

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Amanda Labuza

@DLRobinson When is it appropriate to write your methods “fresh” to avoid self plagiarism and when should you just cite methods in previous papers?

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DLRobinson

Well, @labuza, that is often dictated by any word limits on the journal. It is fine to cite previous papers for methods, as long as (1) the paper cited actually describes the method (and does’t just cite a paper that cites a paper, etc); (2) uses the same methods (if not, you can say something like, “We did X as previously described, with the following exceptions:…”). However, it is nice for the reader if you can give all the methods, as long as you have the space, and especially if it is not a common technique.

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I published a paper which detailed the methods down to the catalogue number for all the chemicals and indicated the amounts used in the reaction. In all further papers I simply briefly described the methods and then referred the reader to the paper with all the details. I know it is more convenient for the reader to have the methods in detail rather than having to look them up but as you mentioned in some journals the space did not allowed the minute details of the methods to be published.

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DLRobinson

Let’s circle back to writer’s block. The best way to accomplish your writing goals is to spend time writing (duh), but sometimes we are blocked by anxiety or lack of inspiration. There are 2 ways that I deal with this.

  1. Break it down. In the moment, a good approach is to break the task down into smaller parts. Say you need to write the introduction to a paper. Start with an outline - even one as general as “Big picture; narrow down; controversies; hypothesis.” Next you can go down another level, still staying in the outline format, e.g. “Big picture: public health issue (alcoholism cost the US billions of dollars in health costs, legal costs and lost productivity); focus (binge drinking is particularly harmful); link to neuroscience (binge drinking affects decision making in the moment and maybe long term, but how?).” Next it’s easier to convert one of those point into a sentence and find a supporting reference. Viola - you have now made progress on your introduction!
  2. Write every day. Sure, a large chunk of time is great for writing, but if I only write when I have large chunks of time, I will not get much writing done - I’m too busy! I find it’s better to schedule 20-30 min blocks of writing every workday. This keeps my focus (I don’t have to regroup each time I visit the project) and I can make progress each day, even if it’s only a few sentences a day. Over time it will add up.
    Other tips and strategies???
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jn_features

I decided to pursue a PhD because I loved to write and professors always complained about having to spend so much time writing and so little time doing experiments. I hated doing experiments, so that sounded great to me! But even a little time doing experiments was too much for me, so now all I do is write and edit (I am the Features Editor for JNeurosci).
I’d like to second some of the previous comments:
First, self-plagiarism is indeed a thing that is considered scientific misconduct. It is less of an issue in methods sections, but still, you should be able to write down what you did without having to copy what someone else wrote. Every paper should have sufficient methods information that the casual reader can know what you did without having to refer to a previous paper. For example, if you included TTX to block spikes, you should say so, instead of just writing “we recorded EPSPs as described previously (ref).”
As DLRobinson said, one way to avoid plagiarism is to just write down the points you want to make, not in sentence form, and while not looking at the paper. And I would add, don’t do that necessarily just after you put aside the original writing, but after you have read a few papers and have integrated that information into your own concept. It can be difficult to put things into your own words when you are trying to define something precisely. But using a direct quote for more than a short phrase (such as Crick’s “spotlight of attention”) is generally not done in scientific articles.
I agree with kraabgra that working with colleagues is a great way to improve your writing. When writing the first paper from my dissertation, I sat down with my PI and 2 post-docs and went through the manuscript sentence by sentence. This was extremely helpful in learning how to write: much better than having someone simply edit what I wrote. Because for each change, I learned why it needed to be changed.
One thing I do routinely when I am having trouble figuring out how to write something is tell a neuroscientist friend about it. This is best if they are not in the same lab as you, so you have to really describe the basics. This helps you get a clearer idea of what is important and what things need to be explained. For example, when you are chatting, your friend might ask what something means, and you will know you need to explain it better.
This brings me to another essential aspect of scientific writing, brought up by labuza. In my opinion, you shouldn’t try to sound scientific by using words like “observe” instead of “see”. One dreadful construction people use, I assume to try to sound scientific. is something like “A was larger in comparison to B” rather than “A was larger than B”. Your goal should be to communicate your ideas as clearly and simply as possible. Don’t try to impress people with your vocabulary or by sounding “scientific” (which people seem to think means using awkward, convoluted sentences and jargon). You should avoid using jargon, especially in the abstract, introduction, and discussion.
I agree with cw14 that writing “treatment A had greater effects” is better than “we observed that…”

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  • 2 weeks later...
Kimberly Raab-Graham

I have heard that journals do not want you to use your own words that have been published before. Taking your sentences from grants that are peer reviewed but not published is okay. I sometimes send my postdocs or students a paragraph that I have previously written and ask them to change it up to convey the same meaning. It’s a group effort!

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Amanda Labuza

Thanks to the world of click bait, I stumbled upon this really well written article. I am not going to claim I read any of the source material, but I felt like this author did an excellent job making science something the general public would be interested in, but did not overstate any conclusions. They not only made the distinction between sex and gender, but made sure the audience understood when they were talking about each. They even reminded the audience that when we talk about differences of averages we are talking about trends and generalizations of the population. I want to be this good at writing science for the general public.

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  • 2 months later...

The fall semester has already begun at UNC Chapel Hill with bootcamps and orientations for incoming graduate and professional students. As a faculty member - or any scientist operating in an academic calendar - the start of the semester is a good time to revisit all my writing projects to assess, organize and prioritize into a “semester plan” .

1. Assess - what projects to I plan to work on this semester? I include both manuscripts and grants - any writing project that will take a chunk of time.
2. Organize - what do I need to accomplish on each project? Using an outline form, I list all the smaller steps I need to do to accomplish each project. For a paper, this could include an outline of the manuscript, as well as any coordination among collaborators and writing the cover letter. For a grant, this includes all the parts of the grant, like the biosketch update and the vertebrate animal form, in addition to each data figure I need.
3. Prioritize - when will I do which project? This step requires assigning deadlines or target dates for each project and committing each project to the calendar. To be sure, there will not be enough hours, days, and weeks to accommodate all that I want to accomplish in the semester, so this step is the hardest.

To quote the author Steven Covey, “Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.” Here’s to planning the work, and working the plan!

Happy writing!

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