Category Archives: Writing

How to write from home

If you need to write from home or in a new or unfamiliar environment, you might find it challenging to stay focused. This guide suggests ways to help you maintain focus and improve your productivity when writing at home. In this guide I refer to ‘writing sessions’. These are activities planned in advance, last for a certain period of time and during which you only write, rewrite or edit. 

1. Create a Zone of Silence

The principles of creating a Zone of Silence at home are similar to creating a zone of silence in your workplace. The rules of the Zone of Silence are that you:

  • work in an area that is devoted to writing.
  • only work on one project at a time.
  • only have access to the writing and reading materials needed for your current project.
  • turn off your access to the internet and telephone.
  • limit any unnecessary interruptions and distractions.

Although these conditions may be hard to meet at home, the following suggestions may also help you follow these rules:

  • Complete all internet-based research before you start your writing sessions.
  • Wear headphones and listen to background or instrumental music while writing.
  • Choose times to write when your house or apartment is empty or quiet.
  • If you normally write with a desktop computer, occasionally try switching to writing with a laptop; you may then find it easier to confine yourself to smaller writing-devoted areas.

2. Turn writing into a habit

When you regularly repeat a task, it takes gradually takes less motivation to start and complete this task.

Try setting up a writing routine by planning regular writing sessions, either daily or every second day. However, don’t be too optimistic when setting time limits for your writing sessions. It can be difficult to turn writing into a habit if you think you need to set aside large blocks of time before you can write (e.g. a full day or 2-3 days in a row), so establish a writing routine by starting small. Shorter tasks are easier to complete and are less likely to be put off.

First allocate short writing sessions, e.g. 15-minute duration. As you develop your routine, gradually increase your time limit to 60-minutes per writing session. Allocate longer sessions if appropriate or if working to a deadline.

Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you skip some days while developing your routine. Don't let the fact that you’ve skipped a few days be an excuse for avoiding further attempts to establish a routine.

3. Get started by reviewing your previous draft

Getting started is a common problem no matter where you write. One suggestion is to routinely begin each writing session by first reviewing what you wrote during your last writing session. Refreshing your thinking about what you were working on previously may make it easier to start writing. But first print out your previous draft instead of just viewing it on screen, then edit it with a pen. Periodically printing out your document makes it easy to view your draft in its entirety which is difficult to do via a computer screen. When you finish each writing session, print out your final version, so you have physical evidence of your writing progress and are ready for your next session.

4. Find a writing buddy

A writing buddy is someone you might work or study with who also needs to write regularly. A writing buddy is someone who reads your writing and gives you feedback and in return you read their writing and give them feedback. You can email documents to each other and critique each other's work for clarity or complete general editing or proofreading.

You might find that committing to swap editing and feedback will help you be more productive and to create regular writing routines. You might also want to schedule regular catch-ups to discuss your work, either face-to-face or through online meeting platforms.

Remember…

Avoid creating unrealistic expectations on how much writing you can do in an unfamiliar environment. It is unrealistic to expect that we can be super-productive writing machines that can write anything, anywhere and at any time. Aim to write in intensive pre-organised, short blocks of time in an environment that is as comfortable and distraction-free as possible.

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Handwriting notes and to-do lists is still a good idea

Writing to-do lists on paper might seem a waste of time if you already prepare to-do lists with software. Project management software such as Asana and Trello are effective and powerful tools and I am not suggesting we stop using them and go back to paper. My concern is that relying on software might cause a lack of spontaneity when doing research and in capturing ideas when working on other tasks. Well-designed paper lists and organised note-taking can still play an important role in project management and be used in conjunction with software. 

There are important benefits to hand-written note-taking that we might overlook if we decide to only write electronically:

1.  It’s quick and easy to jot down short tasks and simple ideas on paper

When we are in the middle of a task and come up with a good idea or something we need to remember, it may be easier and less distracting to just jot these thoughts down on paper. Having to open up software, allocate an idea or task to a project description, describe the task, decide who is responsible for a task and when it should be completed is time-consuming.

2. Not everything we write needs to be kept

 Not everything we write down will be worthy of further consideration. Occasionally, ideas or tasks will become inconsequential or lose attraction if they are left for a period of time. If paper lists are reviewed every 1-2 days, items or ideas that are no longer relevant can simply be crossed off or ignored. While improved technology may allow us to collect more information, it can contribute to information overload. Using electronic tools to capture everything we have to do or every idea we come up with might mean we end up with huge lists of items that will all need to be reviewed at some point.


3. A paper list is easy to refer to and doesn’t need batteries

Using paper lists to record tasks and ideas is easy to refer to. Even with multiple computer screens it is difficult to keep more than 2 or 3 pages of anything open at the same time. You can also take a quick snap of your paper list with your smartphone if you need a quick backup or want to share it.

4. Handwriting can force you to summarise effectively

Note-taking helps to focus attention on more important items and reviewing notes is also beneficial for recall (Kiewra 1985, Kiewra et al. 1991). While note-taking by typing or vocal recording is effective and easy with software, what you record still requires effective classification for easy retrieval. If you tend to take too many notes indiscriminately, it may be difficult to later decide what is important. As the act of handwriting is usually slower than typing, we are forced to highlight what is most important. Therefore, compiling paper lists may help you to summarise important information quickly. Ideas and tasks that remain after reviewing paper lists can then be transferred to software.

What are the features of a well-designed to-do list?

Ultimately what works best for you will depend upon how you work and organise your time. I have developed the Daily Task & Ideas Workbook and offer it here free of charge (and no email signup). This workbook is designed to be printed out and used to capture ideas and tasks on paper, while simultaneously allocating the priority and stage of completion of different tasks. This workbook can also be used to help you identifying new tasks and projects. The workbook has two pages (Page 1 - Daily Task List and Page 2 - Ideas & Brain Dump) with the following sections:

Page 1 – Daily Task List.

ROCKS (Must do today); PEBBLES (Must do soon); SAND (Short, discrete tasks)

The three sections in the first column are used to record tasks of different priorities. I use the ROCKS/PEBBLES/SAND analogy where the difference in sizes between ROCKS, PEBBLES and SAND mostly relates to the priority of the task. The general idea is that you can only fit in a certain number of large ROCKS in a container but the container is not yet full as you can still fit in smaller PEBBLES. After you have placed in all the pebbles that will fit into the container, you can still pour in SAND.  I have adapted this idea so that ROCKS are the tasks that must be completed today, PEBBLES are tasks that must be completed soon while SAND tasks are the short, important tasks that can be completed in between other tasks or when you lack energy or time to complete larger tasks.  When your list is reviewed, invariably, PEBBLES and SAND will become ROCKS if they are left incomplete and grow increasingly important.

The three sections in the second column are used to record tasks that are COMPLETED; STARTED/ONGOING; and OVERDUE/SCRUB TICKS.  Personally, I like to highlight tasks that have been COMPLETED during the day as this gives me a visual reminder of what I have achieved and helps me to feel productive.

Page 2 – Ideas & Brain Dump

This page is designed to capture brand new ideas and to identify new projects, sub-projects and tasks. It also includes a section to record topics that need research and projects that need updating.

My recommendation is to use the Daily Task & Ideas Workbook it for 1-2 days then review the content. Items that haven’t been crossed out or completed can be either moved to a fresh workbook or to project management software. The Daily Task & Ideas Workbook can be downloaded here: version 1 or version 2. You can also download an example workbook that includes hypothetical tasks and ideas. 

REFERENCES 

Kiewra, K. A. (1985). Investigating notetaking and review. A depth of processing alternative. Educational Psychologist, 20, 23-32

Kiewra, K., Mayer, R., Christensen, M., Kim, S., & Risch, N. (1991). Effects of repetition on recall and note-taking: Strategies for learning from lectures. Journal of Educational Psychology., 83(1), 120-123.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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How to build and maintain confidence as a writer

Why is it crucial to develop confidence?

If writing is central to your profession, it is crucial to build and maintain confidence in yourself as a writer. Being confident about your writing is being able to:

  • rely on yourself to regularly produce high-quality material
  • concentrate on creating and developing new ideas and solutions to new and existing problems, instead of worrying about whether your writing is good enough
  • consider writing as a tool rather than a chore
  • find writing enjoyable and rewarding

If you are committed to improving your writing, then your self-confidence will build as your writing improves. No matter how you feel about your current level of skill, commit to continual self-improvement and aim to feel satisfied with what you have achieved so far. This is what I do.

Realise that writing consists of separate tasks

Rather than considering writing as one discrete task, identify the different activities associated with writing and review how proficient you are at each one. Then work on improving each task separately. For example:

  • Getting started
  • Conceiving and developing ideas
  • Word choice: Choosing the right words to say what you mean
  • Phrase construction: Choosing the right group of words to say what you mean
  • Clause and sentence construction: Expressing ideas concisely, logically and coherently
  • Paragraph construction: Linking ideas in a logical order and developing a stand-alone story
  • Developing an argument: Identifying different viewpoints and effectively stating your case
  • Forming unique conclusions: Outlining your contribution to your discipline

Be kind to yourself

It is important to critique your writing and identify what can be improved, but avoid harshly criticising yourself.

(Everyone knows this but…) Be realistic about the time it takes to write

The time needed to complete a document is always underestimated. You need to allocate sufficient time to write regularly. Be realistic when working out how much time is needed to write. Make sure you plan your writing before you start. Avoid work procrastination.

Never compare yourself to others

Only compare your current level of skill to your past level of skill. Regularly look back at your past work and identify how your skills have improved. Observe how far your skills has progressed and allow yourself to feel satisfied with any improvement, no matter how small. Identify areas that need further improvement and allow yourself to gain confidence from your ability to identify what needs improving. An important part of skill development is getting better at recognising what needs improvement.

There are many ways to improve your writing

Identify the ways you can learn to improve your writing; for example, resources, books, blogs, writing workshops, online courses or one-on-one coaching assistance.

Get regular feedback

Always ask colleagues for feedback. Always. But make sure that you critique the feedback you receive, as not all of it may be useful or correct. Avoid taking any constructive criticism personally and avoid seeking feedback from those who regularly deliver overly-harsh criticism or tend to only give you praise.

Find a mentor or a colleague who can regularly give you constructive feedback. Join a writing group and share drafts with each other for peer-feedback and community support.

Blog

Set up a blog. Even if it is on a topic unrelated to science writing. Find a type of writing or topic that you really enjoy. Any type of writing will help improve your science writing skills, especially if you blog regularly.

Break through writer’s block

Use the tools that help break through writer’s block. Regularly having problems getting started may add to a lack of confidence. One quick and easy way of getting your thoughts down for a first draft is to record yourself speaking about your topic. Most smart phones and tablets have voice recognition software that can easily record or transcribe your speech.

Keep a portfolio (or library) of everything you complete

Keep a record of everything you produce. Create hard-copy portfolios of all your documents and include a table of contents with dates and titles. These portfolios can serve as a physical reminder of your productivity. Write one-page summaries of all completed projects in plain English with an eye-catching photo or diagram, and a good title. These one-page project summaries can be used to promote yourself and can also be prepared as a portfolio to show prospective employers.

Build confidence from your ability to learn

Remember that writing is like any other task with obstacles to overcome. Although it takes time for to become proficient at any skill, you can still be confident about your ability to learn.

Keep going

Keep writing, keep putting your work in front of an audience and keep getting feedback.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2018 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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Never label yourself a POOR writer

Both inexperienced and experienced writers attend my writing workshops and courses to learn how to improve their writing skills. Some display a distinct lack of confidence in their writing ability and describe themselves as poor writers with statements such as, “I am not a very good writer” or “Writing is something I have never been very good at”. Not only does this lack of confidence stem from a lack of experience, but is exacerbated by professional pressure to write well.

Being aware that your writing needs improvement is necessary in order to improve, but a lack of confidence might indicate that you regularly have negative thoughts about your level of skill. These negative thoughts may hinder your ability to improve the quality of your writing.

How low self-confidence can reduce the quality of your writing

Writing for an audience is a type of performance, similar to getting onstage to sing or act or to give a talk at a conference. Performance anxiety is common for artists and performers and is based on the fear of appearing incompetent. Similarly, many writers that lack confidence may suffer from a form of performance anxiety and worry about appearing incompetent or inexperienced. Writers who regularly suffer from low-self confidence could also suffer from “imposters syndrome” which is defined as, “…a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill”.

Not only can low self-confidence make it difficult to improve your writing, it can hamper efforts to improve your professional development and advance your career.

Examples of how low-confidence can adversely affect writers:

- Not applying for the ideal job. Having well-developed written communication skills is a key selection criteria for most science-based professions.

- Spending too much time editing and rewriting in an effort to be absolutely sure that each and every sentence is perfect. This habit of inefficient writing leaves less time for other tasks.

- Overusing the passive voice when presenting your conclusions or the implications of the findings of your study. While the overuse of active voice is also problematic (for other reasons), passive voice can obscure the identity of who is making certain conclusions and it may mask any unique contribution you’ve made to your work. For example, stating “It was thought that X+K = B” leaves the reader unsure whether, (a) it was the author that thought this, (b) it was another uncited author that thought this, or (c) that this statement was simply common knowledge.

- Not submitting a paper to a high-impact journal for fear of rejection or not re-submitting a paper to another journal if first rejected by the initial journal.

- Reducing the impact of your research by using overly cautious language when presenting your findings, even when you have strong supporting data.  For example, writing “This study’s findings may prove to be important when considering the impact of diet on gut microflora.” instead of “Our findings are important when considering the impact of diet on gut microflora”. Writers often overuse cautious language when they fear criticism.

- Reducing the impact of your research by using overly cautious or apologetic language when describing the limitations of your study. While it is wise to always mention any factors that limit how widely your findings can be interpreted, it is important not to appear apologetic or lacking in confidence. While it is important to mention factors that might reduce the robustness of your data, it is important to be confident when discussing the design and execution of your study. If you are not confident in the design and execution of your study, then get extra feedback from your supervisor or colleagues about whether to rewrite your limitations.

Avoid labelling yourself as a poor writer

Applying labels to summarise behaviour is problematic if you want the behaviour to change. Continuing to label your skill as being ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ may reinforce negative thoughts about your writing and may it difficult for you to improve and view yourself as a ‘good writer’. Similarly, allowing your colleagues to hear you describe yourself as a poor writer, may reinforce any negative views they may have about your writing skill. Instead:

  • Acknowledge the parts of your writing that are good and gain confidence from this.
  • Identify the parts that need improving and work at improving these skills.
  • Monitor your progress in improvement in those skills you are working to improve.

Generally-speaking, self-confidence in your writing ability will build as your writing improves but allowing yourself to feel self-conscious about the quality of your writing may make it hard for your writing to improve. Rather than worrying about your current skill level, commit to continual self-improvement and aim to feel satisfied with what you have achieved so far.

In the next blogpost I discuss how to build and maintain your confidence as a writer.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

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Eleven common mistakes when writing an abstract


An abstract is typically the summary or overview of a scientific paper, thesis or report. The purpose of the abstract is to give your reader a complete summary of your entire project. As there is a never-ending supply of papers and reports to read, you only have two chances to engage your reader and to convince them to keep reading. The first is the title (and the keywords) and the second is the abstract.

A well-written abstract will maximise the chances of your document being read, understood and even enjoyed. If writing a research paper, a well-written abstract will maximise your publication success. Not only will reviewers appreciate a good abstract, it may be the only part of the paper they are sent when invited to review a paper.

This focus of this article is to highlight what is commonly wrong with abstracts. Please note: The relevancy of some issues raised here might depend upon your discipline or document type. For example, some academic journals do not require abstracts at all or only require a very brief project overview.


These common mistakes are not listed in any particular order and some overlap:

1. Not writing a summary

The abstract should be a complete, succinct summary of your entire project. Summarising is being able to identify and highlight key points using as few words as possible.

2. Not paraphrasing your own work

Paraphrasing is when you use your own words to convey meaning from another source, with the aim of improving clarity. Paraphrasing often includes summarising. One common mistake is to copy entire sentences from different parts of the paper into the abstract. This is not summarising or paraphrasing.

3. Not summarising your entire project

A common mistake is to only include certain parts of the project in the abstract. If your paper is structured into Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion sections, then your abstract includes a summary of each section, often written as a complete paragraph or with headings. If the abstract lacks key information, for example the aim or the conclusions, the reader may not appreciate the strength of importance of your project and not be convinced to keep reading. Don’t assume your reader will search through your document for this information if they can’t find it in the abstract.

4. Using the abstract as a de facto Introduction or Discussion

After writing important introductory and conclusion explanations in the abstract, some authors then don’t include these details in the body of the document, fearing it will look repetitive. This can happen if the abstract is written before designing the rest of the document. Although drafting an abstract in the early stages of writing is a good idea, it is best to finalise your abstract when you have finished the rest of your document.

5. Including too much (or not enough) background

If the abstract is considered a de facto introduction, too much background may be included. Alternatively, a brief summary of the background might be omitted if the author assumes the audience is completely familiar with the project topic and the background. Never assume your reader knows your topic or project as thoroughly as you do; some of you readers might, but they will still need this information to appreciate what your document is about.

6. Including too many (or not enough) methods

A brief summary of the methods or procedure is important as they are a key component of any project. Given the potential complexity and diversity of a scientific study, it is easy to add too much detail about methods; an example is the unnecessary listing of all data collection instruments and their brand names. The following example from a research paper abstract is a concise summary of the methods. “Methods: We systematically reviewed the literature and meta-analyzed risk estimates from longitudinal studies reporting the association of coronary heart disease (CHD) or heart failure (HF) with risk of dementia.” Wolters F.J. et al. (2018)

7. Not explaining what your results mean

As your abstract should include a summary of all parts of your project, this includes a summary of the discussion or conclusion of your study. Some authors omit interpreting their results, expecting the reader to wait until they have read the entire document. They may not.

8. Including citations, abbreviations and detailed measurements

Standard convention is to avoid writing abbreviations, detailed measurements or citations in an abstract. In some cases, and in some disciplines, it may be difficult to avoid using abbreviations if they are used as terms, are not written in any other format, difficult to write in full or impractical to leave out.

9. Including information not presented in the paper

It may be tempting to include extra information that is not in the rest of the document but this is misleading. Stick to your key aim.

10. Not following the Instructions to Authors of your target journal

A journals’ Instructions to Authors are just that: instructions; they are not suggestions or simply good ideas, nor are they meant to replace a science style guide. Depending upon the extent of this omission, not following a journal’s Instructions to Authors can dramatically increase the likelihood your paper will instantly returned for further changes.

11. Not including keywords

Keywords of your study are essential to ensure that your paper is correctly indexed and so your document will be visible in different search engines. Some authors assume this step is not necessary, assuming that all terms will be visible. Keywords “help promote an article’s visibility within the publications iceberg”.


Remember:

  • Don't assume your readers know everything you do.
  • Don't assume all published papers have good abstracts.
  • Seek feedback before finalising your later drafts.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2020 www.writingclearscience.com.au

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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