How to Get Around to Writing



I've just published some work I did last century. It wasn't a big splash paper, but now that its place in history is secure I feel a great sense of peace--it has finally been laid to rest. You might wonder why it has taken me so long to get it 'out', especially as I've been known to hammer on about writing-up as early as you can. Here's the crux of it: I just didn't get around to it. Other things seemed more important.

Have you ever heard a colleague say something like: 'I know I must focus on writing the paper soon, but I'm just going to get this next experiment up and running first. It's important.' No? OK, then try this one: 'I haven't got enough for a paper yet'. OK, so both statements may be true. But what if these people are missing the point?

As scientists we are totally absorbed in the search. It's what keeps us going. Most of us thrive on pushing back the perimeter fence of our own little field of research, even if our total estate only grows by a few square centimetres each working week. But this imaginary field is just that, imaginary. That is, unless we publish what we've discovered promptly. If we don't, we might find that we 'own' rather less of our field than we thought. Aside from hindering the progress of other scientists who could have built on our work we might stuff up our career prospects by getting scooped. What's more we might diminish the research standing of our host institution.

Funny how the most obvious things are also the easiest to lose sight of. In practice, many of us do it--stall, delay, wait. Don't get me wrong, this delay is all very proper when we need to check our results or are trying to save them up for a high-impact publication--but what if deep down it also has something to do with not liking the idea of knuckling down to writing. What if, secretly, we find it easier to keep on working in the lab than ever putting finger to key?

If we don't get down to writing we are forgetting the true purpose of our jobs. I mean, we can all listen with bated breath to explosive new data presented at a conference with a stack of supporting slides and a lot of panache, but unless the paper eventually comes out, who will ever be able to refer to it? 'Ah, they must have been unable to confirm those results', we say.

So, if you are amongst the literary-challenged population, how do you ever get around to such a seemingly enormous task as writing a paper? Get your elbows ready, we're going to push and shove to make you some room to write.

Focus on success. Being a winner is not just about following up the experiments that work the first time as these might not be that exciting. It's about having the discernment to pursue those questions that, although they may be harder to crack, are crucial to getting a big paper. So the key is to face up to cutting down your experiments hit-list accordingly. WARNING: If you apply this principle you must accept that you will NEVER be able to do some of the most interesting experiments that came to you in the middle of the night. Why, because they are not that important. (For 'Important' read 'Impact Factor'.)

Each time you get a publishable result (definition of 'publishable': a result that arouses some excitement in your boss and that you know is 'real' because you've already proved it to yourself), prepare a figure or table and a brief legend immediately--or you most probably won't get around to it. You'll not only make the most of that spare half an hour here and there fiddling with Excel or Photoshop but you'll also avoid the terrifying thought of preparing all your figures and tables from scratch. Beware another pitfall: If you have many similar results to choose from, you might kid yourself that you'll have time to go back and select the ideal representative for your figure. You probably won't. So, select 'the one' now and believe in it.

Use other spare half hours to get together most of the literature you'll need to refer to in your Introduction. If you're lucky there'll be a big recent paper in your field that'll cite almost everything already and save you a lot of searching--make sure you don't miss it, but be sure to read anything you do end up citing.

Remind yourself constantly that the reason you get up in the morning is to write scientific papers. Even if you are not convinced that this is your raison d'être, remind yourself anyway. Like most forms of mental programming it sort of rubs off.

Once you half believe this you'll have to get over the next hurdle: convincing yourself that you are in a nonurgent situation in the lab. Lab work can get pretty frantic, especially when things go wrong, but also when you're on a roll. I know how the next experiment can be just begging to be done. But even if you work in a very competitive field, things rarely move that fast. Finding time to write requires the same foresight as taking a well-earned holiday--your career won't stop just because you have. In fact, just like taking a much-needed rest at the right time, getting that paper out is likely to give your research a massive boost.

Finally, remember there's a law of diminishing returns with experimental results that clearly states another 6 months' work on the same thing will still not get you into Nature or Science. Let it go and accept what you've got. "A bird in the hand ..." as they say.

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