Lyn’s research hacks: Writing

Lyn Lavery

Writing – some of us love it, others hate it. Regardless of your feelings about it, it’s a task that we need to do a lot of as researchers! In this second part of my research hacks series, I’m sharing some of my favourite advice to hopefully make the writing process as efficient as possible.

Hack #1: Write with a style guide and personalised style sheet

There are numerous style guides available for different disciplines. I’m from a psychology background, so I’m always referring to the American Psychological Association manual which tells me everything from whether numbers should be presented as words or digits, through to how my tables and references should be formatted. Find out if there’s a style guide for your discipline before you start writing as this can save a significant amount of time in the revising and editing stages.

You should also consider having a personalised style sheet. This not only saves you time, but also helps avoid inconsistencies in your writing. It’s essentially a set of rules that you follow – you decide what those rules are – the purpose of it is to stop you procrastinating about minor details. Some suggestions as to what you might include in a style sheet are which words should be hyphenated, the capitalisation of certain words if ambiguous, or perhaps the formatting of certain words (e.g. whether they should be italicised).

Hack #2: Avoid perfectionism – don’t get it right, get it written

Also watch out for being a perfectionist. One of the pieces of advice we often give students is “don’t get it right, get it written”. If you’re a perfectionist as you draft, it’s going to be very difficult to get your writing completed. As I’m drafting, if there’s a word or phrase that I’m not happy with, rather than sitting agonising over another way to convey it, I highlight the text. I then go back at the end and review all highlighted sections, by which stage I usually know exactly how I want to phrase it (or I realise there was nothing wrong with the way I worded it in the first place!).

Hack #3: Park downhill

There’s nothing worse than picking up a piece of writing that you were struggling with the previous day. To avoid this happening, I suggest that you always ‘park downhill’. Parking downhill simply refers to the idea that it’s best to leave your writing at a point where it’s easy to pick back up again. It’s based on the idea that if you have an unreliable car, then it’s always best to park downhill in the hope that this will help you get the engine started!

Hack #4: Write with purpose

There’s no point writing a huge number of words if they’re not moving you towards a larger goal, such as getting published or finishing a thesis. I think it’s really important to always write with a purpose as I don’t like wasting time. I have a couple of tips for this. Firstly, if you’re completing a piece of writing based on research, keep your research question in plain sight while you write – this will help keep you on track and stop you going down rabbit holes.

Secondly, sketch an outline for the piece of writing you’re about to tackle. An outline can help you focus before you get started, help structure your ideas, and also identify any gaps in your analysis or understanding. If you’re more of a visual person, create an outline in a mind map – your ideas can be simply mapped out on paper, but if you’d like to try mind-mapping software I’d recommend taking a look at XMind. One advantage of using software over pen and paper is that you can quickly make changes to your map as ideas develop.

Hack #5: Have a writing routine

Having writing routines can be really useful to help you get underway with your writing, therefore saving you time. Try writing at the same time each day – this can make it much easier to get started for each writing session. You might like to try to always work in the same environment, have a ‘writer at work’ sign for your office door, or use a specific playlist to help you focus. Writing with others is also a surprisingly effective routine – you may have heard of “shut up and write”, which is when a group gather in a café or other meeting area to sit and write for a set period of time. We run regular Shut Up & Write groups as part of our Research Accelerator membership. Likewise, if your university runs writing retreats, try and get yourself along to one – it’s always nice to connect with other people that are engaged in the same task as you.

If you need some assistance with your research writing, don’t forget that we can help you with proofreading and formatting, when you’re at the final stages of polishing your work.