All right, you’ve researched and reviewed the literature, you’ve gathered and analyzed your data, and you’ve determined you have enough results to write up and submit your research to a peer-reviewed journal. But how on earth do you start writing the paper? Staring at a blank screen or blank page can be intimidating and mind-numbing.
Writer’s block can strike anyone, especially when starting a new paper. I may be a seasoned medical editor, but I readily admit it is SO much easier to edit existing text, rather than start writing from scratch. I struggle with that, too. Today I’ll share a few tips on how I get past that blank page, things that help me get started to fill in the content and help the paper take shape.
For the moment, don’t focus on formatting too much – unless this task helps you get centered and creative. At the minimum, I suggest you set the page to double line spacing and use a font you enjoy looking at and read easily. A recent Twitter survey revealed that most of us are quite particular about our preferred font, so go with whatever is your favorite. Then add the following headings and prompts:
Title – to be determined
Authors & suggested order -> add the names
Abstract – to be completed after comprehensive first draft is completed
Patients & Methods (or Materials & Methods)
Figures and Tables
Now you have the sections of the paper that need to be fleshed out. It’s not a blank page anymore, and you can feel a sense of accomplishment – I’ve started it! I can do this! But having only the headings may still be intimidating.
Have you submitted your research as an abstract to a meeting? Have you presented your research anywhere? Perhaps as a poster presentation at a conference? Or as a podium presentation at a conference, or a departmental talk? If so, use your abstract, poster, or PowerPoint presentation as a starting point. Copy the text and figures from your presentation and paste them into the appropriate sections of the manuscript. Your purpose statement and hypothesis go into the Introduction. Transfer any Methods text or bullet points into the Methods section. Put your resulting data in the Results section. Using bullet points is fine. Add your tables and figures either here in the Results section, or at the end of your paper – however your brain handles it easier. If you put them at the end of the paper, then add prompts within the Results section for each one: the table number, title, and key takeaway point(s); or the figure number and key takeaway point(s). In the Discussion section, paste your presentation’s conclusion sentence, any study strengths or limitations statements you may have, and bullet points for items to be discussed.
There – now you’ve got a decent outline, and you can start building the paper into full sentences. It’s probably easiest to tackle the Methods and Results sections first. They don’t require much creative thinking; rather, these sections need to present thorough, complete details and facts. Flesh those out. Look up the picky details, add them. Now you’ve made real progress! Finally, ensure that the Methods and Results you include are all relevant to and directly in line with the study purpose and hypothesis.
Once you’ve got a clear picture of your Results, you can start adding content to the Discussion section. Feel free to use bullet points, informal language, free-flow statements – whatever works to get your ideas down on paper.
Some people prefer to tackle the Introduction last, as they find it easier to wait to provide context in terms of summarizing previously conducted studies until after they have a clear picture of what their own study adds (i.e., the Discussion section). I’m the opposite – I prefer to approach the Introduction before the Discussion because I like to be clear in my mind about what’s been done before, what do we already know, before I present what’s new with our research. It provides me with a clearer picture of what’s new and special about this study, and how to differentiate it from what’s been done before.
In an earlier blog from October 2, I shared some points on how to approach the Introduction and Discussion sections and add existing literature to those sections.
Still struggling with getting text on paper?
Remember – writing is a process. Don’t fuss with a single sentence or paragraph for ages – that’s my biggest struggle, because I’m always wearing an editor’s hat. The preliminary draft can be poor language, badly written. Four bad pages are better than no good ones. You’ll edit, re-edit, and re-edit later. And then you’ll edit some more. The key is to get words on paper. Use bullet points, free flow (typing your thoughts as they come), whatever works for you. Chaotic ideas written down are better than perfect ideas trapped in your head.
Still stuck? If you’re used to working at a screen and keyboard, maybe pick up pen and paper instead. Your brain might find that liberating.
Or, walk away from the computer and desk altogether, grab a recording device, walk around the room, and pretend you’re telling a friend about your research or giving a presentation. Then transcribe your recording into the relevant sections of the paper.
Finally, if you’re still stuck, here’s a fun incentive to get you started: Go to https://writtenkitten.co/ , the best write-reward system on the Internet. Write one hundred words, and get an image of a kitten!
I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. I look forward to receiving your feedback, and I welcome suggestions for future weekly writing tips. Now get writing!
I’d like to thank Dr. Miranda van Tilburg for initiating this discussion on Twitter and giving me the inspiration for this blog.
Great article! A must read for science writers at any level – student to professor. Thanks!
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