On writing theses and other research documents

Over more than ten years as a group leader and mentor to multiple students and postdocs, and more than 20 years as a scientist who publishes research papers regularly, I came to realize that writing is one of he major problemas that aspiring scientists have. Writing research papers, thesis, progress reports for funding agencies or a funding request is something of a nightmare for many people. I have witnessed people spending weeks and months to produce only random text without getting anywhere near a finished product, be it a big thesis or a short research paper.
I observed that these people treat such writing as if it was a creative exercise, where form is paramount, the sheer scale of the undertaking is paralysing and the white page becomes a scary bogeyman. While style is certainly important, I cannot stress strongly enough that writing thesis, papers, reports, etc. is technical writing. Content is the primary focus, it needs to be clear from the beginning, and there are rules that simplify the writing process tremendously. I write this in order to share an approach to writing that has proved very useful to me and a score of people around me, in the hope to make other’s writing life easier.
First and most important, you need to know what is the main message –  there needs to be point to the writing. If you are going to write a project proposal you need to understand what you actually wish to do and why; a research paper describes some sort of discovery, be it a major finding or the observation that nothing happens under the observation conditions; a thesis is… well, a thesis, there is point that is made by the whole document; a report, e.g. 2nd year grant report, needs to present what was done in the context of the proposed work and what remains to be achieved. Sounds trivial? It should… if only! I would suggest that if you can state your point in a single, active sentence, you are ready to go, and probably have the embryo of a title. For the Romance-language natives, a sentence should not occupy half a page…. Read The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. And E.B White – it does help!
When you already know what you actually want to say, then you need to plan the structure of the document. Yes, “Plan!”. This means that you need to outline the flow of ideas within the general structure of the document. I normally outline first general ideias, and then expand this to the specific paragraphs I wish to write, outlining the contents of each paragraph. The paragraph should be the basic unit of your writing. For example, in the introduction of a research paper or a grant proposal, I may have something like:
 1) outline the major discoveries associated with molecule x – mention X, Y, Z  
2) discuss how this discovery impacted on healthcare -focus on the positives – if possible mention some claims by politicians or press articles, and some public health statistics 
3) discuss the results of 1999 paper by Z and how it raises an apparent contradiction with previous results  of X and Y 
4) discuss the importance of this contradiction and its impact on medical care — focus on the negatives –  mention numbers for mortality and cost, try to get numbers for Europe, as well as USA.
I suggest the reading of the SnowFlake method by physicist and novelist Randy Ingermanson, who describes a writing approach well suited to technical writing, even though it was conceived to make creative writing more effective. For those interested in time management and effectiveness, you might have noticed that we are following the GTD (Getting Things Done) approach by David Allen.
At this point, you will have have produced a list of well-defined tasks that can be achieve in a relatively short time (each paragraph), so you have reduced the task of writing an impossibly big and scary document – paper, thesis, report – to a series of small, manageable, writing tasks. These are not scary anymore, are now amenable to planning, i.e. you can now plan like this:
 – paragraph 1 (research) – 3 hours, monday 
– paragraph 1 – 1 hours, monday
– paragraph 2 – 1 hour – tuesday
– Paragraph 3 – 1,5 hours, tuesday
– Figure 1 – 2 hours (data in folder /Data/Z/data37.txt), tuesday
With plan in hand we can now start writing paragraph after paragraph, ideally keeping to the time we planned for each one. I find it useful not to spend any time on style at this point – I just write each paragraph as a self contained unit, in clear English, without worrying about the whole document. Also note that the order in which you write the paragraphs does not have the go from beginning to end – they are self contained! If you feel lazy or stuck, move to another paragraph that you enjoy or find easier.
Completion of the all the paragraphs results in a first draft of a thesis, paper, report, etc. This is by no means a finished product, but it is no longer a blank page. It is now time to turn a collection of paragraphs into a coherent document. Now and only now, is the time to concentrate on style, to make sure that the prose flows, that the grammar is correct, that the text as a whole is clear, etc. Now, not before. At this point you may realise that the flow of ideas that was so clear in your mind at the planning stage,  does not make much sense anymore – a different flow would be more suited to make the point you wish to make. In my own experience, at this time re-arranging the order of the paragraphs and making some minor corrections on text is sufficient, but sometimes several new paragraphs are required. The important point, again, is that you should not start the re-writing without outlining it beforehand, just like I described above.
Will this approach always work? Should you alway pursue it? I don’t always use it, or to be more clear, I don’t use it at every stage of my writing routine. Sometimes I need to rehearse arguments, I need to play with potential flows of ideas, and I just write away to see if the text works – I am exploring – there are always multiple ways to tell the same story. But at some point I come to a clear idea about what is the message, and how I wish to convey it. At this point, I will always revert to this approach. In my personal experience, both in writing and mentoring, it is well suited to bringing any document from zero to the first complete draft. For students stuck in writing their PhD and MsC thesis, for example, I have seen this approach work wonders. It is by no means a guarantee that the manuscript will make any sense or that it is easy to read and understand – that, I am afraid, still requires that you know what is the message, and that the flow of ideas that you outlined actually conveys that message. It is also no substitute for hard work on style, for asking multiple people to read it and taking their comments onboard, etc.
Should anyone else be involved in your writing process? I am now straying into the role of the mentor and/or coach and/or writing group. One of the advantages of the approach proposed here is that it can be though as a project plan with deliverables (e.g. paragraphs, figures, tables) and milestones (e.g. sections, chapters). It also make it easier to write collaboratively if that is the case, as specific paragraphs can now be assigned to different people. You can make a plan to write nparagraphs daily, assigning specific time and deadline for each one, according to its specific nature. The role of the mentor here, besides contributing either content or revision, can be also as a coach, to whom you report the progression of the writing. I have done this for my own students, but also for students from other research groups and institutions who were stuck inter thesis writing process. Having some external figure to whom you report your plan and discuss why you think that it is a feasible writing plan, and then having to report of the progression of the plan, seems to make a huge difference to some people. It can be your colleague, your scientific supervisor, your grandmother, a writing group, or a someone you hire, a professional coach.  Whoever this person is, you must honor your commitments – if you say you are going to write 3 paragraphs by tomorrow, don’t even think of having a life before those three paragraphs are written. In my experience, it is simpler if if is the writer defining the writing goals than if they are imposed by any external figure. It is necessary to periodically revise the plan, so that it reflects the writing speed of the person. Beware that while on day one ambition is high and paragraphs are planned to be written in few minutes each, after the euphoria dissipates, reduced ambition usually follows, with a revised plan aiming for whole days for each paragraph -this is where the external figure of mentor/coach/group of friends comes in hand, to make sure that ambition is kept high, even if more realistic.
Finally a note about software since nowadays most people will write using some sort of electronic device. Do you need any specific software to implement this approach? In short… NO. I confess to collecting and using multiple word processors on the Mac OSX, and use this approach independently of which one I am using for each document. Scrivener, developed by the folks at Literature and Latte for creative writing, makes it easy to implement this approach for any type of writing, but I am only highlighting it because it is my favourite writing software!
I hope this is of help to students and post docs trying to write technical documents and struggling with the “blank page” nightmare. It has worked wonders for myself and many other around me.

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