How to Write (and Finish) a Research Paper

Ten Rules for Academic Writing

Writer’s block? Get away from your desk, says Stephen K. Donovan, researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Ask any number of academics why they are struggling to complete that paper which was ‘almost ready’ six months ago and you will hear as many excuses as the people that you ask. Almost certainly, they are struggling to keep their head above water in a busy academic culture of lectures, conferences, research, writing proposals, marking papers … the list goes on and on.

Yet writing up papers for publication is important. How do you finish the next one? I have ten rules for academic writing that can help with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing. In case you need backup, here are my suggestions.

1. Always carry a notebook

An essential adjunct to thinking, a notebook is your safety net for catching that fleeting idea that will add strength to a weak part of a research paper (in prep.). I always have a notebook (and at least one pen or pencil) in my inside jacket pocket, plus another in my briefcase (and a pencil case). Napkins in restaurants are too absorbent for easy writing and the back of your hand, although difficult to lose, has only limited space for making notes.

2. Turn up for work

Where do you write? Do you organise specific writing periods every day or does it occur at random? If you have a writing hour(s), say, are you good at protecting that time or does it get eroded by e-mails, telephone calls, knocks on your office door, making cups of coffee or, to be blunt, sloth and excuses? I wrote the draft of this paragraph on a Post-it note on the train to work. I know when my writing times occur and I use them to write.

3. Protect the time and space in which you write

Don’t write anywhere near a television, radio, CD player or other weapon of mass distraction. Unplug the telephone – don’t panic, most calls are not so important that they can’t wait an hour or two. Unplug your web access, unless you have the iron will not to look at your e-mails or cannot write the next 200 words without reference to certain documents that you know are available online. Close the door. Maybe lock the door.

4. Read lots

To be an expert in any field of study, it is necessary to read both in and around it. Read monographs and text books for established ideas, research papers for new ideas and conference abstracts for breaking ideas. But also read anything you want to outside your field. Even reading for relaxation counts. Whatever you read, you will develop as an academic writer if you use the facility to be informed and influenced by styles and ideas of other authors.

5. Proceed slowly and take care

A reviewer who has few or no corrections to suggest for one of my research papers has not read it slowly enough to notice my spelling errors, flights of fancy and jumps in logic. Even when I am writing well, I know that I must be cautious. Surplus enthusiasm makes me write too fast and miss steps in an argument. Taking just a little more time to write anything gives me more chance to recognize frailties in my text.

6. The way to write a book is to actually write a book

This rule is entirely common sense, but how many academics have you met who would like to write more, but are too busy with committee work, have a heavy teaching load or hide behind some other half-truth? I was busy with committee work when I was a head of department and had a heavy teaching load when I worked in a Third World university, but I still kept writing and publishing. If you want to write, then you will write.

7. Keep a diary

I don’t mean this to be a piece of blotting paper for observations and ideas that will later be recycled. Rather, the academic author must use a diary to get organized. We rarely have the luxury of writing only one paper at a time. I might be preparing a presentation for a conference, editing a paper, correcting one of my own papers after peer review and, oh yes, writing this chapter. My diary keeps me honest and ensures that I remember to do all these and other tasks, enabling me to balance them over a typical busy and varied working week.

8. If you get stuck, get away from the desk

Most often this is a data processing problem. Your brain needs to be given some air and step back from the writing problem, which it needs to dodge or dance around until a way forwards can be determined. My ideal space for dealing with a sticky piece of writing is on a walk through the sand dunes on the Dutch coast. A 12 km walk away from most other members of the human race has an effect like putting my brain through a brisk wash cycle. And do not forget the notebook.

9. Editing is everything

When I worked in a university, the final year geology majors had a long project to write up. The first draft was almost invariably a shambles and my red pen would dance across the page. In the ensuing interview in my office, I would present the candidate with their corrected draft and ask them to open it at any page. Their heart would sink as they saw my creative ink work. I would then open a drawer of my desk and remove an early draft of one of my papers in preparation which was similarly marked in red. My idea was that this would help the student to understand that writing without editing is rare, and every paper, chapter or thesis can be massaged better.

10. Finish what you’re writing

Rather too obviously, this is my last rule. In the recent past I have put fewer new files into my drawer for stalled research projects and ideas, and I have even taken some out. My utopian ideal is to empty this drawer and I may yet succeed. But new projects are always more exciting than old. The best time to finish any project is as soon as possible.

Adapted from Writing for Earth Scientists: 52 Lessons in Academic Writing by Stephen K. Donovan (2017, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester)

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