Quite often, I see competent and hard-working people spending extra-hours in the lab, gathering loads of data, but having a hard time to produce papers or a thesis out of all that work. If you see yourself like that, I have a few tips that may help.
1. Think (a lot) about your work
At the end of a successful scientific project, we should be able to tell a story. We should be able to tell in simple terms why we studied that topic, how we approached it, what we found, and why that’s important.
Trivial, no? But the secret is that you shouldn’t wait for the end of the project to create this story. It should be clear for you during the whole project. It should be clear even before starting any measurements or simulations. It means that you shoud spend a lot of time thinking about your project.
Naturally, in the beginning, this story will be a piece of fiction based on your experiences and expectancies. It will deeply change during the execution of the project. With every new result, you will need to review what was right or wrong about your earlier versions and adapt it accordingly.
To be able to look at your research project as a story helps to focus on what is important to make it publishable.
2. Do not wait to start the analysis
Some people spend months accumulating data before starting the analysis. They are like the little pig with a house of straw. It won’t survive the first blow.
Other people collect the data during the execution and fill tons of Excel worksheets. It’s better, but still a weak house.
The brick house of a science project is to collect the data, immediately analyse and put them already in the final form. Make always tables and graphs with publication level. It takes more time, much of this material won’t appear in the publication, sometimes you have even to start over, but this strategy pays off.
It improves the communication with co-workers and it allows you to keep close track of your aims. You know exactly what’s missing to make the project publishable. You literally have only to fill the blanks.
3. Start writing soon
In the same way you should start the analysis very early in the project, you should start writing soon.
A good moment is to start writing as soon as your results indicate the story that you are going to tell won’t change too much (and if it occasionally does, it doesn’t matter).
Again, the strategy is to fill the blanks. Writing the first draft, you will get a feeling of what is missing. You can’t get the Introduction right? It may mean you should go back to review the literature. You can’t get the results presented in a logical way? It may mean that some more analyses or measurements are needed.
Make it beautiful. Work with a formated template. Include title, authors, references. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed of doing it still months before the last results be finally available. To be in front of something that looks like the final product of your work has a tremendous positive psychological impact.
4. Keep the aim in mind, but be flexible
To have a clear story is important, but don’t be stubborn about it. Most of time, your first expectations won’t be satisfied. In general, you will be disappointed with the results. Other times, you will just find out things that have already been reported. On the bright side, you may also be luck of stumble across with something amazingly new.
If, however, you keep a too inflexible mind set, you may not be able to overturn a disappointment or to profit from positive surprises.
Always revisit your work from different angles. Try to find other ways of seeing and telling it.
5. Get used to write
If, like me, you aren’t a native English speaker, writing may be specially challenging. Take sometime to read general stuff (Facebook and Twitter don’t count). Go for science popularization books. More than technical papers, reading them will expand your vocabulary, improve your style, and give you more freedom to express yourself.
Even if you are native English speaker, writing can still be frustratingly hard. Usually, it’s because the story to be told isn’t clear for yourself. Work on that. For young people, however, the lack of experience writing papers may also be a reason.
In this latter case, I suggest you do like a young colleague of mine did early in his career. His first papers were like copies of mine. Not in content, of course, but in structure and style. He used my papers as a template for his.
Find people in your field writing in the way you would like to do. Use their papers as templates. That’s a good strategy to gain confidence and to start to develop your own style.
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- The missing entry in the crossword is STORYTELLER.