Paper Prep Panic

Well maybe panic is a bit strong, but you gotta love alliteration. In any case, it’s that time again when my boss pops by almost daily to ask me where we are on my current paper. In many ways it’s a good thing, meaning that this one part of my research is almost ready to be packaged as a paper and sent out to be decimated by reviewers. Trying to publish in science (and I’m sure in other fields too) can be a disheartening experience, but having been through the process once before I’m slightly better prepared. There is less concern of the unknown and I’ve learned a bit over the years about how to present my work. Still starting out “from scratch” to sit and write the paper, it’s not the easiest thing for me. So as I stare hopelessly at the blank paper searching for a way to explain my experiments, conclusions and their significance, instead I’m going to write a blog post. Allow me to present my 7 essential things for writing a good paper!

  1. EndNote: I’m embarrassed to admit it took me until my 3rd year of grad school to discover EndNote, but now I could not write a journal article without it. If you don’t already know the joys of EndNote, it’s a citation manager with plug-ins to Microsoft Word. You can import all of your references directly from PubMed and it automatically updates as you move your citations around. Another upside, McGill students can download it for free here. Highly recommend!
  2. Coffee: Cliché, yes I know, but nothing clears my mind and gives my typing fingers energy quite like coffee. But really any hot beverage (tea, hot chocolate, etc.) will do, because there is something so comforting about holding a steaming cup of whatever as I mull over my phrasing or evaluate the aesthetics of my figures.
  3. Music: Again not exactly original but necessary. I find silence oddly distracting and overheard conversations strangely engrossing so music is a must. I usually go for classical, instrumental music otherwise lyrics magically appear in my manuscript.
  4. Lack of Internet: This one might sound counter-productive, surely the internet is an essential tool? What if I need to look something up? These things are true, however, for me, someone with mild self-control issues, the internet is a never-ending source of distraction. Personally I like to go to a coffee shop to write and refuse to connect to their free wifi. I download the papers I need first and if there is something I find I need to look up, I jot down a note and do it later (see #5).
  5. Notebook and Pen: Despite doing all my actual writing on my computer, I like to keep a notebook and pen close at hand. I use them to jot down ideas I get as I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a paragraph and think “Oh what if I did this experiment” or “Hmm maybe I should include some background on that”. Instead of stopping what I’m doing to go searching for a new paper or planning an experiment (distractions!), I write down my idea to deal with later, and to make sure I don’t forget.
  6. Motivation: This is probably the most elusive thing I need. It can be really hard to get in a good writing mood. Sometime I’ll try and stoke my motivation by giving myself deadlines. I always seem to make my concrete deadlines, though I’m not so successful with self-made ones. And sometimes the motivation just doesn’t come. So I’ll go and do something else (hopefully) productive and come back to the writing later. This one is tricky, because I can’t always be putting it off.
  7. Data: Well I need something to write about! In the end, it’s the data that’s important. So as long as you’ve got that (easier said than done) everything else is just window dressing.

So now that I’ve got all my essentials, I just need to start! But is there anything I’m forgetting? What are your writing essentials?

Banner Photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @falisha.k // @gradlifemcgill

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