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Writing Guide

This is something I wrote up for my students. It largely reflects how I tackle writing after suffering a severe bout of writers block. I did a lot of research to break the problem and came up with this. I hope it helps.

General Guide to Writing Efficiently
Christopher M. Swan, Ph.D.
April 2014

  •  Stage 1 – annotated bibliography
    • If you do not know the literature, go do the research
    • Summarize each article in 5-7 sentences, in your own words
    • If articles are hard to find, look at the literature cited for an article you found to be most useful and work from there
  • Stage 2 – design the paper
    • Write down the goal of the paper
      • This will likely be close to the sentence that appears either at the beginning or at the end of the first paragraph
      • At this point, if this is a scientific paper, you might choose to draft your hypotheses, predictions or questions
    • Outline the paper
      • Writing out the topic sentence of each paragraph can help
    • List any tables or figures that are likely to be included
      • For figures, indicate their layout if they are multi-pane
  • Stage 3 – get words on paper
    • This is the free form stage – get it out – look at the topic sentence of each paragraph and just start writing. Some freelancers that get paid per word set a timer for 20 minutes and just write. Do not worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Just write. Then, walk away and take a break.
    • Proceed with this stage until you get the document drafted.
    • You might consider 1-2 paragraphs a day. Some suggest writing first thing in the morning to get it out of the way. A U.S. General once said he did 100 push-ups first thing in the morning so he could say he already did the hardest thing that day before he got to work. Some say writing is the hardest. So, consider doing it first.
      • Do the math – 2 paragraphs a day is 10 per week (so, roughly 2000 words). A standard scientific paper is 8000 words. 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week to get the text out for a paper in a month’s time? That is a habit to consider adopting.
    • If there is a section you feel excited about writing, do not waste time feeling obligated writing another – skip to the one you want to write about and get the words out. Ride your enthusiasm.
    • NOTE: With the increasing availability of voice recognition technology, getting the words out on paper is really easy. It takes a little practice, but saying what you want to write can work. Check for apps that let you draft short snippets of text with voice recognition and email them to yourself. Soon, you will find you can draft a paragraph here and there waiting for an appointment, in between meetings, etc.
  • Stage 4 – revise
    • Go back to each section and revise. This will take some time. But, until the words are on the paper (Stage 3), there is nothing to work with.
    • The revision process is iterative. You will clean up the document and, undoubtedly, want to change something – add, delete, move. This is ok, and crucial to making a better product.
  • Stage 5 – create and place any tables and figures
    • This may be taking place outside of the process. For example, you may have given a talk and have the figures already done. Or, you have to do them from scratch. This may or may not take a lot of time.
  • Stage 6 – construct your literature cited in the proper format
    • Be sure you have invested in some sort of citation manager so that you can easily insert references and have your computer format them for you. Otherwise, this will take a ton of time.
  • Stage 7 – get feedback and revise
    • You need to turn to your colleagues for feedback. One is fine, two is better. Expect to have to return the favor later. But, do not expect your work to withstand the review process – be it an instructor in a course, a committee member or a reviewer – without having been vetted by someone prior.