Struggling with writing?

When you think it's only you.

People say 'Face your fears to overcome them'. And for the last 12 months, I’ve been afraid of writing. Yes, that's right, not wild animals or global warming, not even heights, but the process of describing my research progress and results in a certain order on a paper – that is what made me feel terrified. So, to overcome my fears of writing I've decided to write a scratch about what makes writing so difficult for me. You see the logic, right?

It’s worth noticing that there are many articles about the life of PhD students and many of them give nice tips and tricks for those who are just starting the PhD. However, I will not promise that you'll find here a magical pill that will make you a good writer (if you have one, we want it). I’m not even going to tell you how to write a paper, because I know you've read about it in many sources, you took courses in academic writing, you've asked your colleagues and your supervisor. We all did! For me, in the beginning, it all went away like water in dry soil. Frankly, the author of this text is far from being decent in this craft. But if you do struggle with writing and are sick of it I want you to know: 'you're not alone'. And maybe after you finish reading this post, you will feel better about yourself.

Once I have decided to write this piece, I asked my colleagues if they suffer as much as I do when it comes to writing. And you know what? They don't. Yes, they find it difficult. Why? Generally speaking, because of lack of experience. Finding novelty, describing the state of the art to make an introduction without making your paper look like 'Engineering for dummies', maintaining the flow and the structure of the paper to not jump from one subject to another like a hyperactive kid - those three were the main reasons to consider writing as the major tool for torturing young researchers. This is frustrating, this is troublesome and upsetting, this makes you rewrite your paper for hundreds of times and then rewrite again after your supervisor gives his comments. Sometimes (all the times), after the review your paper looks like the brave and initiative soldier after the final battle – covered in blood.

Astoundingly as it may sound, this is all fine! You might not believe me now, just as I couldn't believe my supervisor in that matter, but it is. Quite easy to understand: the more mistakes we do - the more we learn, so every next paper is supposed to be better than the previous one.

So we remember now, the Novelty and the Flow – those are the guys we want to be best friends with, but they're busy and inaccessible, so we need to earn it. Try to write more, write little pieces every time you do something new. Write just a few sentences describing the paper you've just read. Don't try to make it 'publishable', but still, keep it accessible to the imaginary reader. Assume, you're discussing the subject with your fellow researcher, so keep it simple.

Why would you do that? Well, there are at least two reasons:

1. There is no pressure. You do this for yourself. You’re allowed to make all the mistakes you can possibly make.

2. It helps to slowly break the ice between you and the writing process. The period from the moment you've created the icon on the desktop for your actual paper, until the moment you started to type some words, just becomes shorter. I’m not a gamer but I like to imagine this as a game, you collect experience points by writing these small and ‘useless’ pieces and eventually you can beat the boss – write the full paper.

On the other hand, there is this guy, we will call him Tutorial Style, that seduces you to explain in detail everything you know. Because in the beginning we spend all our time learning and we enjoy the knowledge we gain! So why not tell the world about everything we found out? Well, the world already knows it. There is this thin line between acknowledging the work that was done before in the field and explaining the whole concept of somebody’s research and the basics of physics and math. If you’ve known it from the book or paper, your reader can find it in the same place. So, we need to assume that the reader already knows everything you’ve known from the other sources. We need to let him know that we’re aware of what is going on in the field but leave him the chance to choose himself whether he wants to go through it again or not.

I know what you’re thinking. I told you my colleagues don’t suffer from writing and then kept going about all the difficulties they experienced. Let me explain, please.

The reason is that the problems of others always seem smaller than ours. I’ve been falling into this trap many times, thinking that what I experience now, nobody ever did. Why trap? Because this is how you not letting yourself learn from the experience of others. I thought my problems are special so require special solutions, but what I was doing in fact, is inventing the wheel, while everyone else already built their rockets.

From the courses and experienced colleagues, I know that to write a good paper you need to make a storyboard, then start to write with the easiest part to describe. And the most important - start early!

'You can write an introduction way before you started to do measurements'. That was almost irritating.

'What? Maybe you can, I cannot! It doesn’t make sense, I'm not familiar enough with the topic, I don't know what results I’ll get, I'm not an expert in the field, how can I start to write about something that not even happened yet?'

It took me a year to understand that they're right! I actually can start once I know the problem I want to solve in the paper. Or once I think I know the problem. Thanks to the technical progress we're not using the feather and the ink for writing and editing is easy now, that’s why in the beginning it doesn't have to remotely look like a research paper. But once you've started with the awkward sentences describing the papers you've read and the questions you want to address, it's so much easier to continue!

Apart from all this, the Novelty, the Flow, the Tutorial Style, we all find ourselves in the position when you’ve done some work and it seems like you have some results, but still: is it good enough, does it deserve to be published? And what do I want to say at all? How not to sound silly to the experts that are, hopefully, going to read it? How to find the right English words, because this is not your first and maybe not even a second language?

As we confessed in the beginning, we don’t know. But you know what? It does seem to be a little easier every time you write.

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