Two ways to be an inefficient writer

Science is often complicated and writing about a scientific topic can be like trying to untangle spaghetti. Writing efficiently can also be a struggle if you are writing about a new topic or haven’t had a lot of writing experience. Irrespective of experience, there are two types of writing behaviour that greatly reduce productivity and confidence.

1. Writing without knowing your core topic

Your core topic is the main thrust of your story, the central theme and the key points. Starting without a clear idea about the depth and breadth of a core topic can be time-consuming. Every scientific topic may be linked to dozens of other sub-topics that at first consideration appear just as important as your original topic. It is often tempting to try and include them and look for a way to link them all together. Without clear focus, it is easy to drift off the topic and you may not realise that you are actually writing about five topics instead of one.

It can be easy to get distracted from your main story by adding shiny, interesting details. Avoid the desire to update the reader with every twist and turn, every exception to the rule, and every related, but not-so-important, detail.

2. Polishing: trying to write perfectly in a first draft

Inefficient writers often start by writing a burst of fresh thoughts and then immediately spend considerable effort rewriting, editing, and proofreading this material before writing a fresh block of text. Trying to write perfect sentences in a first draft can waste precious time as lot of this early writing may need to be discarded. This is also known as polishing your writing. Polishing can be a form of procrastination when you allow yourself to be distracted from the important thinking time and problem-solving needed to nut out your story. Polishing your sentences is necessary in later drafts when fine-tuning your ideas and improving your message for the reader. Inefficient writers polish early, while efficient writers polish after they have worked out what they want to say.

People often believe that they should be writing perfectly the first time and get frustrated at the seemingly endless amount of time it takes to complete a document. Some people imagine that innumerable drafts and rewrites will be needed and suspect that they will never be happy with the final product. Laboring over a single sentence while thinking you still have 1000 more to write is daunting.

Polishing in early drafts is an easy trap to fall into when writing on-screen: each time a file is opened it is tempting to first read, review and re-edit the existing text before writing fresh material. As the document develops, what is written earlier is continually reconsidered, rewritten and re-edited while what is written later receives far less attention.

Combining both traits can leave a writer lost in the wilderness for days. Polishing in early drafts is especially time-consuming and even wasteful, if you are writing without clear focus. A lot of this perfect writing may still need to be culled in later drafts if it is off-the-topic. You may even be tempted to keep content that is off-the-topic, simply because you spent so much time writing it. Keeping unnecessary content may weaken the impact of your story or mislead the reader.

The solution?

You still need to write to clarify your thoughts, so start with a one paragraph summary that describes the overview of your topic and includes the 3-5 main points that you want to cover; then re-formulate these main ideas while building the overall structure and mapping the scope of your document. Leave out details until later drafts. Allow your writing to be messy and clean it up later.


© Dr Marina Hurley 2017

What to read next: