How to start writing – the most useful tips!

This was the first time in my life to listen to a motivational speaker – Hugh Kearns, a psychologist and scientist who is trying to figure out why smart people procrastinate, and more importantly – how they can overcome that.

In the Young Scientist Club event that opened the BSSC2017, Hugh gave us an inspiring three-hour workshop, mostly revolving around the question: “How to start writing (down the new words)?”


The typical day

Hugh opened the workshop with a humorous, but quite true sketch about how your typical day might look like – when you know that this is the day that you should start writing something. It is very likely that you’ll manage to fill up that day with number of “important” tasks (from carefully prepared breakfast, well-cleaned kitchen, to checking the emails, re-organising our files or whatever else we possibly can, using any chance to help other people or go to meetings), in short – with whatever that feels like “busy enough” and helps us to avoid sitting down and writing something new.

Typical myths to postpone writing are:

  1. I’ll write when I feel ready. Reality: you will never feel ready. You have to start writing before you feel ready. Best is to do it NOW.
  2. I should get it all clear in my head, then I can start writing. Unfortunately that’s not the case. You should start writing first.
    In fact, you should start writing the very first day of your studies: for example, you can write what you think you are going to do, what you already know, or what you don’t know (and need to find out). These first written thoughts will take you straight through the collection of needed information, and in an organised way, so you won’t get lost.
  3. Reading more papers will make things clearer, and then I will be ready to write. Be assured that you’ll never be able to read everything that is out there, or relevant; you will never memorise most of the things you read, unless you write it down, and the more you read, more likely the more confused you will become. Writing is, in fact, thinking!
  4. Writing will come easy, when you are ready. Writing is not easy, it will never be. It is actually work. If it happened to you once, that you got a nice flow of words – then this was your lucky moment, but it won’t happen again. You simply need to allocate the dedicated time, sit down, and stay sitting down, and just start writing words.


2 golden hours

I think that the rule of “2 golden hours” was, for me at least, most important insight from Hugh’s talk. Because you will be doing amazing lot of progress, if you spend as little as 1-2 hours couple of times a week to write new words. That’s it. You most likely won’t even be able to do it for more than 1 or 2 hours in a row, but the good news is that you don’t really have to. That will be enough to become productive, get your papers done, and your thesis finished. And after this one or two hours, you can spend the rest of the day happily doing whatever you like. The most important part is done.

But be warned, that it will be difficult (in the beginning), so don’t let yourself be fooled or discouraged by your own clever mind. Also, these two hours should be your best hours – don’t leave the writing for the evening, or the time of day you are tired and not so sharp. Because all these other things – answering/checking emails; Facebooking; cleaning the desk; cleaning your home; going to meetings, helping others – that you can do when you are not at your best.

Some tips on how to stay focused for these 2 hours:

Switch off your phone. Facebook. Emails. Close the door. Put out the “don’t disturb” sign. No matter what – for the next 1 or 2 hours, you only write down whatever comes to your head. Your brain and body will fight against it at first. It may be uncomfortable, make you angry or even anxious. But you simply need to practice sitting down and staying focused, detached from everything else. When you force yourself to do this again and again, then you slowly get used to it, the anxiety will reduce, and after some time, it may even become enjoyable.

What is writing (vs what is not writing?)

Lot of the following things feel like writing, but is not: e.g. Editing is not writing. Looking up references is not writing. Reading literature is not writing. Sharpening your pencils is not writing. Writing means putting new words & thoughts to the “paper”.

Why should you share your first draft with supervisor or co-authors rather sooner than later

Now this is especially important for young scientists. Because most of PhD students, working on the first draft of their very first paper maybe, are afraid to show the draft to the supervisor before it’s really well polished, and nearly perfect (in their opinion).
It takes about 20% of the time that you altogether spend on one manuscript to put together 80% of its content and words. The remaining 80% of the time will be editing, formatting, polishing (i.e. on the remaining 20% of its content).
The right time to send out the first draft is when that first 80% is done, before you start to cleaning and polish it.


Why? Because:

  1. you get the first feedback on whether your direction of ideas was right. No point in polishing the text, when your supervisor will prove your conclusions wrong.
  2. The more perfect you think your draft was, the harder it is to take the critics afterwards
  3. If you fix and improve the draft with no feedback, you might be actually making it worse.

So just write, in the normal language at the beginning, get the ideas down, switch off grammar check. Academic language is a different kind of language, and once you have written down your story in simple words, you can translate it into academics. But this is again editing, doesn’t count as writing.

TNT: The next thing – setting priorities, when you have many projects going on at the same time

Most of us have many projects going on at the same time, and having multiple choices what to do makes us unhappy and confused and bit nervous. Most likely, we’ll keep switching between all of them all the time, because once you focus on one thing, you start to feel you should rather be doing the other thing.
Simple advice: make the list of your papers/products and decide, which one of them requires least work to complete it. For example, when you just got the paper back with reviewers comments, then the first thing to do is to fix the paper, and resubmit – it will take you to publication of this work, and you will have one thing less to choose from. Do it before you return to something that you only recently started, or needs still lot of work (and definitely before starting new things).

“Snack” writing vs binge writing

Many of us dream of the writing sessions somewhere away from all the distraction, in longer blocks of uninterrupted time. But this is a delusion for most of us. We are all too busy, and won’t have time to do so very often, so if you convince yourself that only meaningful way to write is when you can do it for longer time at once, then you won’t write much at all.
The productive alternative is snack-writing – short but regular writing sessions on a daily or weekly basis. This way, the time between the two writing sessions is much shorter, you won’t forget yet what you wrote the last time and won’t need as much time to get back into the topic; and, as the studies show – snack type of writers get significantly more done than the writers who wait for the opportunity to write longer in one time.

In short: JUST START WRITING. NOW. Also, because that’s actually your job, whether you like it or not.

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