26

First, my question is not about how to write a good a paper, since there are already many guidelines on the internet, e.g. this one.

What often happens to me is: I designed algorithm, did all the experiments, and got good results. Now, I only need to write up the results to submit. But I just feel I can't do it, or at least not efficiently.

Although I have everything in my mind, I just stare at the screen and can't write anything. I just can't do it. And this leads to procrastination, which I hate so much.

Sometime, when I was doing the experiment, I thought I should write this way in the paper, and it should be very awesome. But when I actually wrote the first few sentences, they were just crap.

I thought I would start by describing the core algorithm first. But I didn't know how to present the idea, so I ended up polishing the introduction first, etc.

I'm not a new researcher; I'm already nearly one year into my post-doc, and have 6 papers published. It never took me less than a month to write just a 10-page paper, after several iterations, while some of my collaborators can write a paper in just a couple of days.

I thought it would be better with experience, but it didn't and I'm really frustrated with myself.


UPDATE

I think I'm suffering from the so-called ''blank page syndrome'' (or white page syndrome), but I'm not sure.

8
  • in addition to the "how to write a good paper" advice you mention, there is also a lot of "writer's block" advice.
    – GEdgar
    May 12 '16 at 23:30
  • 3
    I think you should be more concerned with writing a paper well than with writing it efficiently. Lots of "fast" papers aren't well written. That said, have you tried outlining? And maybe writing the introduction last?
    – Kimball
    May 13 '16 at 2:51
  • 2
    It seems like you are overthinking it and also thinks it is easy to churn out good papers quickly. This is only true if you have a standard template you have developed over the years, the ideas are crystal clear in your head, and no problem with the English language. Otherwise, I would do a brain dump, throw it away if you have to, but continue to iteratively churn out better versions. May 13 '16 at 5:36
  • 2
    One month is a reasonable time to write well a paper.
    – Nikey Mike
    May 13 '16 at 13:48
  • I would suggest reading the book Publish and Flourish. May 13 '16 at 16:01
31

I'm not sure if it helps, but here are two ideas that work for me (sometimes).

  1. Don't try to write the paper in its order. Instead, start from the technical parts. This is simple - it is just writing your algorithm. Now, once you try to write the algorithm (and abstract it from code into pseudo-code), you will get stuck because something is missing (notations? a neat observation? a cool idea that makes things clearer?); note these down. Then, expand on the things you wrote down. Another way to begin is with the "cold" facts: the numbers, the experiments - just write the details down in the most dry way... (After the technical parts are written, move to writing the introduction and conclusion; by that time, you will have already broken your "writer's block", and the writing will flow much easier).

    tl;dr start with the most simple (and technical) parts just to make the writing start.

  2. Writing a paper is telling a story. You can't write it down? Try this - tell "the story of you paper" to someone else, say, a colleague or a family member. Do this twice or thrice, until you have a complete "story" in your head, and you gained some practice in telling it. Now, writing it down (just following the conversation you had with real people) may be way more simple.


Addendum: This is not a competition. Writing a paper well, takes about a month. Writing a good draft takes at least 2 weeks (of intense work!). Of course, some people can pull an all-nighter and come up with a paper. Don't pay attention to those, they are at the tail of the distribution.

2
  • Ran, thank you for the information. I end up writing most of my papers (4-6 pages usually) within a day or two, and I come out of it frazzled and really frustrated. The paper is good, but man do I feel it. Could it be, that I'm slave-driving myself to write something too quickly, causing the frustration? I absolutely hate writing due to this.
    – Dan Chase
    Jul 11 '21 at 2:46
  • 1
    @DanChase As different people behave differently, I can only share with you my experience. My usual writing throughput is 1-2 pages in a day of intense work, after which I'm quite exhausted and ineffective. Note that I'm not a native English speaker so obviously my pace might be on the slow side. Such a day of writing consists of a lot of revising, editing, and pondering on each written sentence. Maybe just try to slow things down and see if this works for you?
    – Ran G.
    Jul 11 '21 at 6:34
4

Based on my experience it helps to have the introduction and prior works at least somewhat taken care of. Then you can focus on writing up your algorithm. I do this by:

  1. Reading at least one article every 2 days and write about its strengths and weaknesses. Save this abstract somewhere - like Zotero or Mendeley notes.
  2. When you start to write your paper, chose the most relevant from the prior works that you have already read.
  3. Get the abstracts you wrote, paste in, edit.

If you use this method you will know the relevant prior works, and have a lot of the introduction already written. After that you can focus on the fun main contents. The only hard part is writing the abstract every two days.

1
  • 1
    BibTeX Anote/Annotation fields are good too, for storing notes on papers. (If you are a pure BibTeX user, or using something that directly maps to BibTeX like JabRef) Jun 14 '16 at 2:33
4

I had the same problem. My solution is ridiculously simple: just write every day.

Recipe: You write every working day a specific number of words. Start with a small amount, say 150-200, and it can be any part of the paper you are writing. When you start, most of it will be garbage, but that is fine. You can re-write it the next day and that will likely go faster and smoother. As your "writing muscles" develop, the quality will become better. When I had this problem, I had to start my day with this writing task, which is what I would recommend for you as well. Also, very important: no vacations from writing days until you have mastered the skill.

I hope this helps.

3

I got around a similar problem by using a top-down approach:

  1. Leave your desk, go outside, and take a walk. Return when you have decided on the overall story the paper is going to tell.
  2. Write down placeholders for section headings. You can change them later. They just describe the high-level structure of the paper for you.
  3. Write down subsection headings. You're probably not going to use subsections in the final paper, but the headings help laying down the second-level structure of the paper.
  4. Describe the contents of each subsection with a few bullet points.
  5. Write a little bit every day. Finish one subsection in the morning and another in the afternoon. Spend the rest of the day doing something else. Remember that the other subsections don't exist, and writing them up is not your problem.
  6. After a couple of weeks, you have the first draft of the paper. You probably didn't spend more than a couple of days on it.

The natural order of writing a paper is often different from the natural order of reading it. My typical writing order is something like definitions and notation -> technical background -> results -> experiments -> conclusions -> introduction -> abstract.

3

The "ridiculously simple" solution offered by @Aolon is, I think, borne out not only by the experience of many authors from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of material (novels, short stories, poetry, etc.), it is also one of the lynch-pins in the approach described by Wendy Belcher in her book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. If you aren't familiar with the book, I suggest that you get a copy. If you know of it, but believe that it could only be relevant to inexperienced writers, then I would like to disabuse you. Moreover, you should not be put off the idea of working steadily through the book while you write at least one paper, even though you want "efficiency" as your primary outcome. As Belcher remarks in the book, she's had many academics say to her, "I haven't got 12 weeks; I have to write my paper in a week". The fact is, that the tools in the book will help you to write any paper more efficiently that you are likely to be doing currently. I commend it to you.

There is one other point that I'd make which links @Aolon's remarks to your own. You remark that you "designed algorithm, did all the experiments, and got good results. Now, [you] only need to write up the results to submit". I would suggest that if you wrote every single day, no matter whether you think you have much to write about or not, then you would already have a considerable amount of written material about your algorithm, your experiments, and the results that you would be revising and amalgamating to turn the pieces into a thesis, journal paper, or whatever. This is not intended as a criticism; rather, I'm pressing a point made by Wendy Laura Belcher. Namely, that it is a mistake to believe that writing, thinking and doing experiments, are separate activities. For many people, writing is thinking. We discover what we think by writing. And if you're working every single day on writing something, whether it's directly connected with your thesis or not, you will become more efficient. Sure, work on the easier (non-argument) parts first, but write something every day. You don't become an efficient craftsman by slogging away with blunt tools; it is by sharpening the axe of writing that you will be able to cut through your task more efficiently.

1
  • Nice, I did not know this (I learned this from my music teacher studying composition). I will look up the book you mentioned, it looks very interesting.
    – Aolon
    Jul 11 '21 at 11:50

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