Tutorial 42: how to get a paper written

May 1, 2022

Yes, we’ve touched on a similar subject in a previous tutorial, but today I want to make a really important point about writing anything of substance, whether it’s a scientific paper, a novel or the manual for a piece of software. It’s this: you have to actually do the work. And the way you do that is by first doing a bit of the work, then doing a bit more, and iterating until it’s all done. This is the only way to complete a project.

Yes, this is very basic advice. Yes, it’s almost tautological. But I think it needs saying because it’s a lesson that we seem to be hardwired to avoid learning. This, I assume, is why so many wise sayings have been coined on the subject. Everyone has heard that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, attributed to Lao Tzu in maybe the 5th Century BC. More pithily, I recently discovered that Williams Wordsworth is supposed to have said:

To begin, begin.

I love that. In just three words, it makes the point that there is no secret to be learned here, no special thing that you can do to make beginning easier. You just have to do it. Fire up your favourite word processor. Create a new document. Start typing.

And to Wordsworth’s injunction, I would add this:

To continue, continue

Because, again, there is no secret. You just have to do it.

Mounted skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84 in the rare dorsal view.

At the moment I am working on four separate but related papers. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard even keeping them straight in my head. Sometimes I forget which one I am editing. It would be easy to get overwhelmed and … just not finish. I don’t mean it would be easy to give up: that would be a decision, and I don’t think I would do that. But if I listened to my inner sluggard, I would just keep on not making progress until the matter become moot.

So here is what I do instead:

  • I pick one of the papers, which is the one I’m going to work on that evening, and I try not to think too much about the others.
  • I figure out what needs to be in that paper, in what order.
  • I write the headings into a document, and I put an empty paragraph below each, which just says “XXX”. That’s the marker I use to mean “work needed here”.
  • I use my word-processor’s document-structuring facilities to set the style of each of the headings accordingly — 1st, 2nd or occasionally 3rd level.
  • I auto-generate a table of contents so I can see if it all makes sense. If it doesn’t, I move my headings around and regenerate the table of contents, and I keep doing that until it does make sense.
  • I now have a manuscript that is 100% complete except in the tiny detail that it has no content. This is a big step! Now all I have to do is write the content, and I’ll be finished.
  • I write the content, one section at a time. I search for “XXX” to find an unwritten section, and I write it.
  • When all the “XXX” markers have been replaced by text, the paper is done — or, at least, ready to be submitted.

Caveats:

First, that list makes it sound like I am really good at this. I’m not. I suck. I get distracted. For example, I am writing this blog-post as a distraction from writing a section of the paper I’m currently working on. I check what’s new on Tweetdeck. I read an article or two. I go and make myself a cup of tea. I play a bit of guitar. But then I go back and write a bit more. I could be a lot more efficient. But the thing is, if you keep writing a bit more over and over again, in the end you finish.

Second, the path is rarely linear. Often I’m not able to complete the section I want to work on because I am waiting on someone else to get back to me about some technical point, or I need to find relevant literature, or I realise I’m going to need to make a big digression. That’s fine. I just leave an “XXX” at each point that I know I’m going to have to revisit. Then when the email comes in, or I find the paper, or I figure out how to handle the digression, I return to the “XXX” and fix it up.

Third, sometimes writing a section blows up into something bigger. That’s OK. Just make a decision. That’s how I ended up working on these four papers at the moment. I started with one, but a section of it kept growing and I realised it really wanted to be its own paper — so I cut it out of the first one and made it its own project. But then a section of that one grew into a third paper, and then a section of that one grew into a fourth. Not a problem. Sometimes, that’s the best way to generate new ideas for what to work on: just see what come spiralling out of what you’re already working on.

None of these caveats change the basic observation here, which is simply this: in order to get a piece of work completed, you first have to start, and then have to carry on until it’s done.

 

5 Responses to “Tutorial 42: how to get a paper written”

  1. aquadraco Says:

    True. As with so many people, I’d be much more productive if I could just learn to get out of my own way. How do you eat a diplodocus? One bite at a time.

  2. LeeB Says:

    Does this work with Archbishops and other church dignitaries?

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, it does! You may remember Work on the Archbishop begins! from about four years ago. In that post I explained that I am writing the paper in the open at https://github.com/MikeTaylor/palaeo-archbishop and it has progressed quite a way since then. You can see the present version of the manuscript at https://github.com/MikeTaylor/palaeo-archbishop/blob/master/archbishop-manuscript.md — I make it about 66 printed pages as it stands.

  4. LeeB. Says:

    Excellent.
    The timing just shows how long it takes to describe such a large animal; there is probably an equation that relates the size of the animal to the time needed to describe it.

  5. Carter Says:

    I do find this very helpful, seeing as I have recently started writing a research paper


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: