Getting Started

The First Steps

Understand your assignment. Make sure that you have understood what your assignment is and what your teacher/supervisor expects from you. If you are uncertain: ask. It is always a bummer to put a lot of work into an assignment only to realize that you misunderstood it.

Read relevant literature. Use books and other written material to get a good overview of your topic  and what is currently known and unknown (but remember to be critical of your references).

Talk and discuss. Discussing your assignment or topic with others might be a nice way to get some ideas on how to tackle it.

Believe it or not, but scientific writing is storytelling. Of course we do not tell fictional stories, but stories nonetheless. If we did not tell a story, we could simply publish our materials, methods, and results section. Instead, we add an introduction to frame our research question, and a discussion to interpret our findings. All together, our reports and articles should form a coherent story, including characters (for example, our study organisms, concepts, molecules or ecosystems), a plot (why are we performing this study and how do we plan on finding an answer to our research question?) and a resolution (research findings and interpretation). By telling our story, rather than simply presenting our data, we engage the reader and can point to the main message and implications of our findings.

To tell this story in the best way possible you must structure your content in a logical way and include only what is relevant to tell that story. NB! This being said, you should not exclude data or results just because they do not support your hypothesis. This is unethical!

Techniques to brainstorm and organize your ideas

There are several techniques you can use when trying to find the structure of your writing. Here we have listed some that have included in the book "The Scientist's guide to Writing" by Stephen B. Heard. You can use all of them in the order we have provided, or just some of them - no writer is the same.

When creating word stacks you can let go of your worry of unfinished ideas, bad transitions between ideas and structure in general. All you do is to create an unsorted list of points you want to include in your text. There does not have to be any hierarchical structure or order, and you can note down question marks behind points you are uncertain about. Write down what comes to your mind - seeing your ideas on paper might help generate new ones.

Many struggle to put the first sentence down on the paper as if it has to be perfect from the first letter. This is not true. Here are some tips on how to get the first words onto the paper:

  • Lower your standards. Rather than waiting until you have the perfect sentence, it might be better to just write whatever comes to you mind. This way you get some words onto the paper which can help you start your thinking process.
  • Write the main essential points in bullet points that you later turn into full sentences. This lowers the urge to make perfect sentences, and allows you to restructure your text more easily.
  • Do not worry too much about the first draft. You will most likely rewrite your text several times before you are done anyway (and that is a good thing!).

Many writers do at some point encounter what we call a writer’s block. This is when one does not know how to start or how to continue, and writing seems impossible. The best way to get rid of the block is to force yourself to write. Some ways to keep writing are:

  • Again: lower your writing standards. Perfectionism can easily kill creativity. Leave it until you need it.
  • Divide your tasks into smaller steps. The larger the task, the more overwhelming it can be. Try to divide it into smaller steps. For example focus on trying to write one sentence at a time rather than a whole paragraph.
  • Try to write several versions of whatever you are stuck on. There are many ways to write the same thing. By not only limiting yourself to one way, you might free yourself from the block.
  • Revisit the previous paragraph. Sometimes the problem might lie in the text prior to where the writer’s block arose. Check to see if there is anything you can change in the previous paragraph to make continuing easier.
  • Freewrite. Try to just write for a set amount of time (5-10 minutes), without thinking and without looking at what you wrote previously. Just keep on writing without caring about what goes onto the paper.
  • Read other well-written scientific works. One can get inspired to write by reading other’s works. But of course: make sure that you do not end up copying anyone. Only let yourself be inspired to write.
  • Find a writing group or someone to write with. You are definitely not alone if you ever struggle with a writer’s block. Maybe it can help if you sit together with someone struggling with the same and force yourselves to write together?

You can also try to change up your environment, take a break or perhaps discuss your ideas and challenges with other students or colleges. However, remember to make sure that your break or discussion does not turn into postponing. You have to write to get past the writer’s block.

Managing your time correctly is something many find difficult regardless of how much experience they have with deadlines. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be realistic. Set up a realistic time schedule. Being too optimistic with planning will either tire you out or leave you disappointed when you fall behind on your schedule – both of which are unhealthy and demotivating. When you plan, keep in mind that things always take more time than first anticipated, and that unexpected things can happen. For master’s students or new PhD-students, it can be a good idea to discuss with your supervisor how much time you can expect each task to take.
  • Use a calendar. This can be written or digital, but try to always keep an overview of your time and tasks. This helps you stay organized, but it can also motivate you. It is easier to complete a day of work if you start off having a set number of tasks to complete, rather than not knowing where to begin.
  • Plan your downtime. When doing research you will often encounter some downtime. This can either be while you wait for your experiments in the lab or while waiting a week or two for your supervisor to read your draft. Try to have a plan for this downtime.
  • Fight procrastination. Many have a tendency to postpone things if the deadline is far away. Try your best to avoid this. Your mind is usually clearer when not stressed by a closing deadline.
  • Schedule time off. Procrastinating your work is one thing, taking necessary time off is another. Many forget to actually include some free time in their schedules. Many students, master’s and PhD’s, tend to fall into a never-ending spiral of work, and in the long run this will take a toll on your health. Driving yourself to the ground is not going to improve your work.