10 Tips for Writing

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Raymond Tucker, a clinical psychology graduate student at Oklahoma State University, suggested the topic for this blog post and co-wrote it with me.

The late A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former physicist, aerospace engineer, and president of India once wrote, “Writing is my love. If you love something, you find a lot of time for it. I write two hours a day, usually starting at midnight; at times, I start at eleven.” For me (Ray), this sounds about right… well…. not the first half of the quote… or most of the second half actually… well, really just the starting at midnight part is spot-on. My association with writing during graduate school may not be quite so romantic. Hours of fumbling over sentences, second-guessing work, and responding to endless amounts of track changes, red pen scribbles, and obscene suggestions made by Reviewer 2 (it’s always Reviewer 2) has, at times, left me considering the option of hurling my laptop out of our third story laboratory window.

However, developing skills as an efficient writer is of the utmost importance for a young scientist. It is the goal of this blog post to detail some writing “tidbits” to help young scientists become disciplined writers. Honestly, our goal could most easily be accomplished by telling you to read Dr. Paul Silvia’s book, How to Write A Lot. His book details common misconceptions about writing and important characteristics of highly successful writers. Our hope is to cut some of Dr. Silvia’s thoughts into easy-to-digest chunks, as well as add some insight of our own.

  • Schedule your writing time and guard it ferociously. Schedule when and where you will write. Although this simple scheduling can help you stay more disciplined (even if only 15 words make it onto your Word document), this tip is only helpful if you guard your writing time. Treat it like a meeting with your laptop that simply cannot be rescheduled. Would you cancel a meeting with the Dean? Nope! Heck, name your laptop Dean if that helps. Just guard this time.
  • Writing does not always need to occur in one sitting or during large periods of time. It is easy to get in the habit of saying things like, “I do best when I can sit down and just write the whole paper.” This may feel true, but likely is not. Writing every day, even for 10, 15, or 30 minutes helps keep information fresh in your mind and prevents the dreaded procrastination writing binge that can negatively impact the quality of work produced. Dean Laptop will appreciate more consistent, short periods of attention in comparison to sporadic, long work dates.
  • Know that you are likely to inaccurately predict how long your writing task will take you to accomplish, and just write when you can. This definitely goes along with the previous point, but does expand by noting that predicting time needed to complete a writing task is an imperfect science. One way of behaviorally avoiding a writing project includes feeling like it will take forever to finish and that you need to block off a large chunk of time to write. The opposite can be true. Putting off a writing project because you believe it will only take an hour or two may be another way to avoid buckling down with Dean Laptop and crossing off a project on your to-do list.
  • Be prepared for additional writing time. If you are a graduate student, you know the life of 101 meetings with professors, mentors, clients, and supervisors. These meetings are with pretty busy people which result in them occasionally getting canceled. Always take your writing to meetings or times you work with a client in case you wind up with some unexpected free time. Dean Laptop is highly mobile and enjoys your unexpected company.
  • You learn to write from BOTH writing and reading a lot. This is a sentiment that has been expressed to me (Ray) by advanced graduate students and leaders in the field. Of course, you learn from receiving feedback on your work, but you also learn to write by reading the works of others, especially those who are more advanced than you. I especially appreciate Dr. Thomas Joiner’s advice to make a habit of reading outside of your discipline. This not only helps you develop innovative research ideas, it potentially exposes you to very different writing styles. Read outside of your discipline, not only for content, but for writing structure and style. Dean Laptop is not only a great place to save your written work, but pdfs of others’ works as well.
  • Know that writing distractions can take many different forms. Writing procrastination is definitely a shape-shifter. Sometimes its disguise is fairly easy to see through, taking the form of Netflix binges, texting, and knee-jerk tweeting, pinning, Facebook creeping, and Instagramming. These distractions/procrastination vehicles can be pretty easy to spot. Sometimes the writing procrastination shape-shifter brings its A-game. Nitpicking outlines, fiddling with fonts and formats, and believing that you have not read enough yet to begin writing are all potentially shapes of this behavioral avoidance of the nitty-gritty task of writing. Reflecting on how you might avoid writing can be important. Below are some of our personal ways of avoiding quality time with ol’ Dean Laptop:
    • “I write best when I am at the coffee shop. I will have to go there to finish this.”
    • “I can definitely write with Orange is the New Black on in the background.”
    • “I don’t feel inspired to write.”
    • “My laptop is almost out of battery.”
    • “I haven’t printed out the Gordon et al. (2010) article yet.”
    • “I will write this weekend.” HA!
    • “I am feeling (insert psychosomatic complaint). This wouldn’t be my best work.”
  • Understand that struggles during the writing process are common and that perseverance is key. It’s important that you don’t misinterpret the experience of having difficulty with writing as an indication that you are incapable of writing well. To the contrary, many award-winning, accomplished writers have openly discussed the challenges they have faced. For example, Felicia Day wrote about the process of writing her award-winning web series, The Guild, in her New York Times bestselling book You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).

Every second of writing that script felt like walking barefoot over shards of glass. I would write a bit and then I would sob, wanting desperately to erase what I’d just written…Then I would force my fingers to type more, every word feeling like I was bleeding from every orifice. I was engulfed with fear of making mistakes, of writing something stupid…I was, in short, terrified of the process. It was not fun. What drove me to continue? Sheer obstinate grit. (pp. 142-143)

Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates said that during the process of writing Between the World and Me, he felt “total despair” and thought, “I am about to fail and everyone will know it.” He stuck with it, and Between the World and Me went on to become a New York Times #1 Bestseller and earn a National Book Award in 2015. Coates also won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015 for his work. Coates shared more of his advice on writing and struggles with the process here and here.

  • Remove obstacles caused by perfectionism. There is an old saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” I (Katie) try to keep this in mind as I write. In particular, this means that I start typing what I am going to write well before the sentences are formed “perfectly” in my head, knowing that effective writing is typically the result of a process that involves multiple revisions rather than the first thing that comes to one’s mind on a topic. Secondly, I set time limits on my other tasks (preparation of teaching materials, responding to e-mails, blog posts) that allow for high quality (but not perfect) work, so that I can protect and prioritize writing time.
  • Use exposure to overcome writing anxiety. Worry about writing can come from multiple sources. The biggest areas of anxiety for me (Katie) come from a concern about being unable to complete a project and worry about other people (e.g., co-authors, reviewers, etc.) not thinking my work is good enough. When anxiety strikes, our urge is usually to avoid – avoid writing, avoid sharing your work with others, etc. The most effective way I’ve found to counter this anxiety has been to treat it like I would clinically – repeatedly put myself in these situations until they don’t feel as scary. Putting myself in positions where I need to complete projects with tight timelines and share my work with others teaches me that I can, in fact, handle these aspects of writing, even when it means receiving criticism of my work and other types of pressure.
  • Create interpersonal accountability for your writing. Publishing is often viewed as one of the main responsibilities for academics, and yet, it can be the hardest activity to get to in light of the clearer expected timelines for other responsibilities (e.g., meeting with students, teaching, seeing clients for therapy). For me (Katie, again), one of the most helpful strategies has been to work collaboratively with others who are expecting writing from me within a specific time frame. Setting these dates and goals, particularly when others are aware of them, increases my motivation to find the time to write despite all of my other responsibilities. This group can be other grad students, professors, co-authors, or just other individuals who have projects where they benefit from checking in with others. I often use this strategy with my lab group.

By no means are all of these suggestions easy to accomplish. Just like any good skill, practice is key. We hope you can test drive some of these tips and see what helps you become an effective and disciplined writer. We wish you the best of luck in your academic pursuits!

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My Top 10 Tips for Grad Students

The transition from being an undergraduate student to becoming a graduate student can be challenging. One aspect that graduate students may struggle with is the ability to decipher faculty expectations. A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation on this topic that included my top 10 tips for graduate students. I am posting them here in case they are helpful.

  1. Clarify expectations, and then put forth your best effort to meet those expectations. Sometimes students feel embarrassed to ask faculty to spell out what they want for a particular project due to fear that they will look unprepared or unintelligent. However, taking time to clarify expectations typically leads to a better outcome both in terms of completing a task correctly and decreasing uncertainty and anxiety for the student during the process.
  2. Practice conversational skills, listening, and otherwise refining your interpersonal interaction style. These skills are important to develop for networking, job interviews, and opening up collaborative opportunities. I recommend seeking out ways to practice in order to feel more comfortable and confident interacting with other professionals in your field. If you want feedback about your interpersonal skills, I recommend asking faculty or more senior graduate students who you trust to be honest and constructive.
  3. Complain discreetly. Almost all (if not all) people vent or complain about the less desirable aspects of their work and life from time to time. It can be a helpful way to process emotions and garner social support. However, if complaining about graduate school-related topics is done frequently, particularly in public domains (e.g., in public hallways and public places, social media), it may suggest to people that you are dissatisfied with your line of work and may fit better in a different field.
  4. Act respectfully toward others, not just people you view as crucial to career advancement. Though it’s a rare occurrence, sometimes people will only act respectfully toward certain professors that they view as vital to their advancement and less respectful to others, including their peers and administrative staff.  Word gets around about people who do this, and it can reflect negatively on you.
  5. Respond well to feedbackOften students who enter graduate school are used to being among the top students from their undergraduate classes. It can feel especially difficulty to start receiving more in-depth criticism on writing, presentations, and other aspects of your work. It is important to keep in mind that you are working to attain a much higher skill level than before, and feedback is necessary for you to reach that higher skill level. As best as you can, try to accept that feedback is part of the learning process and not a personal attack or sign that you are incapable. Try to be open to feedback and respond well to it.  You are not expected to do something perfectly the first time you try, but it will reflect positively on you if you listen non-defensively to feedback and incorporate changes based on it.
  6. Be mindful of your online presence. Many employers, students, and clients will look you up on social media. Keep this heightened visibility in mind as you transition into a more professional role as a teaching assistant, begin practicum experiences and internships in your field, etc. Try to keep in mind that anything posted with a public setting may be viewed by people other than your friends and family, and tailor your online presence accordingly.
  7. Show interest. If you are passionate about your field and demonstrate that through enthusiasm about your work and the work of others, people will be able to see you as a professional in the field. If it appears that you are doing the bare minimum asked of you, tuning out in class or lab meetings, or otherwise going through the motions, you may want to consider whether you would be happier in a different field.
  8. Be engaged. In my seven years as a faculty member, I have repeatedly heard other faculty members talk about graduate students who impress them. Consistently, they are students who demonstrate that they are engaged through consistent, hard work, going above and beyond what is asked of them, and seeking out additional opportunities for learning (e.g., attending presentations or reading materials that are not required), and independently seeking out professional growth opportunities (e.g., initiating research projects and papers, presenting at conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, attending specialized workshops).
  9. Act with integrity. Regardless of achievements or talent, if a person does not act with integrity (e.g., treats people disrespectfully, acts in an aggressive or discriminatory manner, lies, or cheats), then faculty will be reluctant to work with or hire them. On the other hand, if a graduate student treats others fairly and acts honestly and ethically, then faculty can wholeheartedly recommend them to future employers and collaborators without reservations. In most cases, if you make a mistake, you can still prove that you have good character by taking responsibility, apologizing, making amends, and proving that you have changed your behavior.
  10. Take care of yourself. Finding a balance between working really hard and taking care of yourself can be difficult. Yet, it is essential to prevent burnout, maintain productivity, and, most importantly, to protect your physical and mental health. If you find yourself struggling to strike this balance (as most of us do), consult faculty members and peer role models for advice, and please consider seeking counseling as an option as well. Discussing your values and well-being needs with a person outside of your program can help to clarify what you need to do to take care of yourself while balancing the important, hard work that you need to do in order to succeed professionally.

Navigating graduate school can be a challenging process. You were admitted into your program because the faculty in your department have confidence that you have what it takes to succeed. I hope that you can take some comfort in that fact while balancing the numerous demands of graduate school.
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 Maplewood State Park, 57 miles from NDSU