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I have seen several questions on this forum that have similar things and some of them have been quite satisfying for my quest. But I want to mention my specific case and want to have some useful suggestions, so I am writing this, which maybe or may not be a redundant question.

In my work as a research associate, I always have this problem which sucks me a lot.

Every time at the start I have to study something, of course related to my area but a some what new for me (painful, but this is what anybody has to take it to get the job done), learn it and apply it (I would say the apply part is the sweet/joyful pain).

Suddenly the next demand comes as "Write down" and it is where the pain concern ends and I start feeling as if my hands are cut and my mind is blank and "ME" can never do it.

Sometimes the demand is "Write down and make it as long as you can and we will make it short later", the torture is, for God sake I do not have even a few words to write!!!

Problem as I feel it:

Even after doing every thing by myself, I feel that I can not describe it in writing. While if it is about describing it orally I am confident that I am much better than many.

When it comes to writing, I never know what to include and what not, especially when the demand is about as long as you can. I have had read tens of writings and have had done the things practically by myself but no idea what makes my mind blank about writing technical things.

I feel myself really good at doing technical things and love it.

Finally, I think I am missing some steps involved in that writing and I never miss the steps of doing things practically making me successful in that.

If these are steps, what are these?

If these are not the steps, what else are these?

Many times I have got my office reputation destroyed because of going blank even after many days/weeks given to me for writing. I want to get rid-off this problem and want it never happen again. I would love to be the guy who satisfies the demand of as long as you can?

A foot note: In general I do not feel myself bad at writing, though my answers to most emails and my own emails are mostly brief but satisfy the receivers. One more thing to mention that might be useful to asses/suggest me is that it took me around 1 hour to complete this question from A-Z.

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Perhaps try focusing on writing smaller chunks. Some people take time to perfect their writing, so emphasizing writing "as long as you can" seems like a recipe for disaster in this case. –  Mad Jack Apr 30 at 15:43
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Stop trying to write well and just spew. Let your first draft suck. Make your first draft suck. Just get words on the page, no matter how sloppy or incoherent. Then edit/rewrite to make it suck less. Repeat. –  JeffE May 1 at 0:17

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I suspect you are finding this difficult because you are trying to write in an academic style, and are judging yourself as you are writing. I think the secret to easier writing is to spend as little time as possible "writing". Instead, spend your time jotting quick emails and editing stuff. Let me explain what I mean.

  1. Get together with someone who knows nothing about your research, and explain it to them. Record yourself, or at least take notes on the main points that you address.

  2. Now write your explanation down, but informally, as if you were writing an email to a friend. Better yet, make it a real email -- that will help you keep it informal.

  3. Also gather any other emails you've written to your supervisor, or colleagues and friends. (If you're not already doing so, get into the habit of writing those emails regularly, while ideas are fresh in your mind.)

  4. Take those emails, and paste them into an empty document. This will be the starting point of your paper.

  5. Now rearrange the information as needed, to make it coherent. Everywhere there's a gap, stick in a message like NEED TO EXPLAIN X HERE.

  6. At this point, you're beginning to have an idea of the structure of the paper. This would be a good time to write an outline, to see if you've left anything out. This outline goes into the document along with everything else. (You can delete it before submitting the paper.)

  7. Now fill in the gaps. But write informally, as if you were writing an email to a friend.

  8. Now go through your document, and make the sentences more formal. Don't overdo it, though. You don't want your writing to be stilted; you want it to sound natural.

Congratulations. You have the first draft of your paper, and you barely did any real "writing"; it was mostly just writing emails and editing.

It's much easier to make informal, but clear, writing more formal, than it is to make formal writing more clear!

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+1, I wouldn't have started my answer if this was already here. :) –  badroit Apr 30 at 17:07
    
"Instead, spend your time jotting quick emails and editing stuff." That's the brief sentence I will keep with me :). Thanks very much. –  tod May 1 at 9:31

Just some thoughts that occur to me while reading your question:

"Write down and make it as long as you can and we will make it short later"

To write well is to make every word count: to not waste a reader's time. Length should never be the goal. Say what you have to say as concisely and clearly as you can. Do not get into the habit of writing "filler".

Even after doing every thing by myself, I feel that I can not describe it in writing. While if it is about describing it orally I am confident that I am much better than many.

Writing well means keeping the reader in mind: what will capture their attention at the start of the paper, what they will need to understand before the next section starts, what are their expectations for what is going to come next. As such, a good starting point for writing is to consider that you are discussing the paper orally with an imaginary reader you meet over coffee. How do you get them interested in the topic you want to discuss? How do you convince them of the novelty of your idea? How do summarise your unique contribution? If you had a pen and paper to sketch some ideas down, what would you sketch?

If these are steps, what are these?

First you need an idea of the scope of what you want to write about.

Second you need a frame for the paper, typically the section headings, a rough idea of the goal of each section, how they will fit together, what the reader will learn from each part.

Third you may need a detailed frame for the paper. For example, I have given students headings (as comments in the file) for each paragraph. In the introduction:

  1. "What is the setting/area?"
  2. "What is the specific problem?"
  3. "Why is it interesting?"
  4. "What has been done about it before (on a high-level)?
  5. "What is our unique perspective for solving the problem?"
  6. "How will that be achieved concretely?"
  7. "What are our contributions / How is the paper structured?"

Some paragraphs can later be joined together, as necessary. Having this framework for (at least) an introduction in mind, I find, helps inexperienced writers get over the "cold start" problem. (More experienced writers may not need to follow this structure.)

Then you start ... at the start (well skip the abstract ... do that last). Take it piece by piece. If you feel you don't have enough information yet to write a part, skip to a part you can write and come back later.

Write your abstract and conclusion last. Make your conclusion reflect what was promised in the introduction (but now providing concrete details, such as a summary of results).


Many times I have got my office reputation destroyed because of going blank even after many days/weeks given to me for writing. I want to get rid-off this problem and want it never happen again.

Sitting there frustrated isn't going to help. But even though I would consider myself fairly experienced at writing, I often have the same problem.

Each paper is different so if you're not sure about creating the outline, you have to talk with someone else to help you plan out the paper/report or even just to get your own thoughts straight.

Even if you're not sure what to write, just write something. Most papers will go through several drafts so the first draft doesn't need to be perfect ... each draft just needs to be an improvement. And a first draft can help you get feedback from others to point you in the right direction.

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Quite useful. Thanks very much. "But even though I would consider myself fairly experienced at writing, I often have the same problem." is the statement which has made me feel comfortable. Thanks again. –  tod May 1 at 9:38

First, "Write down and make it as long as you can and we will make it short later" is probably one of the best advices you are going to get in your entire life in terms of technical writing. As you progress, writing large text is always the easy part. Writing a self-contained text with the required theorems, proofs, results to fit within a conference / journal paper page limits is the real hard part.

You say you do not know what to write. Then you must write everything. What is your input data? High level description and in detail stats. What is your output data? Again high level description and in detail stats. What do you want to do with your methods? What are your methods actually doing? And how are they doing it? Again top-to-bottom. A high level description first and then move into extensive details.

Also compare with previous methods. What do previous methods do? What are their strength and weaknesses? What are YOUR strength and weaknesses? For what datasets your method performs best etc...

Go into exhaustive detail. E.g., in a CS reports you may say "we use Java and Hibernate on a Intel i5 workstation running CentOS with 6Gb of DDR3 RAM."... Initially do not omit anything. Write anything relevant to fill the pages. As you become more proficient in writing, you will see that you may distinguish what is really important to say and what to skip. Do not overthink. Start writing, even it initially seems not good enough. There is no need to be perfect initially. Once you have some pages written, come back and edit. Repeat the cycle with every couple of pages added. Soon, you will find that filling the pages will not be a problem. Trimming unimportant things from these pages will be the real challenge. Good luck!!

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Hopefully this will help me a lot during my journey to achieve the goal. Thanks very much. –  tod May 1 at 9:22

I thought of leaving this as a comment but ran out of space so moved it to answer.

As user11192 says start with smaller chunks. What I have found to work for me (engineering) is to start with the plots or the results that I want to talk about.

First I decide what results I want to present and the conclusion I want the reader to draw from them. Then write a few (2-3) sentences for each of them (usually a presentation file works better for this) stating the observation and conclusion.

Next it try to decide how to arrange the results and how to group them. This is subject to change if I later realize that some other grouping or arrangement works better. Here I am thinking of "what is the better way to convince the reader of my conclusion". At this step I also decide on a rough outline for the whole report.

Next I describe the setup. I try put in details to make sure that if I were to do it from scratch I would have all the details required. This will end up being long and needs lot of trimming depending on what kind of report I am writing.

Afterwards I go back to the results and expand on the sentences. Think of it like telling a story you want to guide the reader to your way of thinking. Tell whatever comes to your mind (imagine you are talking to someone if that helps) and decide what to cut out later.

Next to make the report complete I add in some motivation. Here again it helps to start with few key sentences and then join them together.

This forms the rough draft. I sleep on it for a day or two and the come back and edit it so that it makes sense. If I feel overwhelmed or satisfied I send a draft to someone else for a cursory review. I can then use the feedback to improve the draft.

Often times I am lost as to what to talk about. In that case I just make a list of all things that seem relevant to me. Try writing down short incomplete sentences. If you can talk about you can write it (just write down the dialogue that you thought of while talking).

You need to realize writing a report is not one time thing. I usually go through 2-3 reviews (except for online posting ;) before I am satisfied. So get the first draft out (even if it is list of disconnected sentences), afterwards it is easier to make edits because you now have a better idea of what the report should look like. Most of the time it is the lack of idea of what the final product will look like that makes one avoid doing anything.

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"Most of the time it is the lack of idea of what the final product will look like that makes one avoid doing anything." Agreed 100%, this is my case too in writing. Thanks very much. –  tod May 1 at 9:27

Don't want to write? Make a video instead.

There is actually more to it, but I am guessing that your "blank mind" phenomenon occurs when you are making notes to yourself as well for any project. So as a first step, use a camera phone or tape recorder or videocam to record your notes and impressions.

Let's back up a bit. You are asked to write up stuff at some point, and the horrible blankness descends upon you, and this is what you want to avoid. I recommend talking to the asker and find out what is wanted. Will a journal of notes suffice? Is this for internal distribution to be polished later, or are you expected to produce publishable material? Just how is what you write going to be used?

When that is clear, you will have a better idea of the expectations, which my gut tells me is part of what causes the anxiety. You might even talk to the asker about the process, and if they are willing to review/revise alongside you as you produce.

In any case, you will need to collect material to put into your product. Let me assume that you like the video idea. Here are some concrete suggestions.

  • Make a collection of short videos rather than one long video. That way reviewing and transcribing will be less of a hassle, and may help in the organizing process.

  • For each video, start by saying "This clip is going to be about ...", so that you (sort of) embed the title into the clip. This helps in organizing. Use "Take 2" or "part 3" if that helps you break a long subject up. Don't worry about mistakes, you can always make a corrective clip.

  • For each video, end by saying "This clip was actually about ..." so that you can record major discrepancies between content and the embedded title at the beginning. That way you can go to near the end for additional and possibly more accurate metadata.

  • For each video, rename the file containing the clip so that it reflects the content title, or whatever else you need for your organizing system. At this stage, THIS IS THE ONLY WRITING YOU NEED TO DO.

Now, you don't have your product, but you have a bunch of material. How do you organize it? Make another video!

You can videotape your process of rearranging the material, making a priority list from a directory listing, making an outline verbally or typographically as you wish. You can also make verbal notes as to which stills from the video you deem worthy of inclusion.

I suggest this because you seem more comfortable at telling your story with your voice than writing it with your hands. This idea does not circumvent the writing part, but relegates it to transcription, which I hope does not trigger a mental block. (There may even be software to aid in transcription, but I do not feel qualified to make recommendations.)

Also, this idea may not work for you, but you might give it a try and (wait for it) videotape the process and your conclusions. I wish you every success, even if video is not the answer for you.

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