Writing suppliesThousands of books, manuals and how-to guides offer advice on research writing. Of course, if the advice given in these books were definitive, there would be no reason to publish new volumes year after year. Individual writing processes vary depending, in part, on personal preference and disciplinary expectations. Although there is no single recipe for success, here are some practical suggestions to keep in mind when approaching a research writing project.

  • Plan for the long process ahead. Establish deadlines for yourself when it comes to data collection, analysis, and the actual writing phase. Aim to meet or exceed these deadlines.
  • Figure out who you are writing for. What are the expectations of your audience? Consider writing for readers with less background knowledge than your target audience. This should help improve your clarity.
  • Decide what shape your research writing will take. Carefully analyze the writing style of articles in your target publication and emulate that style.
  • When writing about your methodology, simply tell readers what you did. Keep your discussions of various possible methods to a minimum and avoid excessive detail.
  • Write in a straightforward manner, avoiding clichés. Re-examine any uses of jargon, as they could be covering up unclear thought.
  • Decide which of your findings are important and give them a prominent place. For the sake of clarity, be prepared to relegate some of your findings to the appendices.
  • Be prepared to struggle with the presentation of statistics. Remember that tables should speak for themselves. Readers should not have to dig through the main text to make sense of them.
  • Strive for clear, straightforward sentences. The simplest form is best. Recognize that revision will be necessary.
  • Share your writing with readers of various levels. Their input can prove illuminating.
  • Always proofread a hard copy of your writing. If possible, work with a partner and read your prose out loud, punctuation and all.

Common myths about writing

Good writing …

  • must be perfect, the first time – Expecting your first draft to be your final product is unrealistic and demands perfectionism that can be paralyzing.
  • requires me to know exactly what I think before I even start writing – Writing is a process of discovery. Attempting to write in a linear fashion can be overwhelming and often results in procrastination. Outlining is an excellent first step and is much less daunting.
  • emerges spontaneously as a result of inspiration – Waiting for the muse to strike is a common pitfall that can lead to procrastination and self-doubt.
  • should proceed quickly and effortlessly – Perpetuated by impatience, this myth can result in frustration and binge writing. Expect to spend time making necessary revisions and spread the writing process out over a reasonable amount of time. Good writing takes work.
  • comes from extensive training or an innate “gift” – There is no secret formula for writing success; although, much like physical exercise, the more writing you do, the easier it gets.
  • requires large blocks of time – Whole days of uninterrupted writing time are hard to come by, so this myth can result in procrastination and anxiety.
  • must be all consuming – Devoting all of your time and attention to your writing is unrealistic and unnecessary.

Towards productive writing

  • Make writing part of your regular routine. Writing researcher Robert Boice suggests that writing for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week makes it possible to produce two journal­ length articles over the course of a year. You can't write a final draft in 30 minutes, but you can use this time to chip away at your writing project. Work on your bibliographical notes, outline a chapter – these small steps add up and go a long way in reducing writing anxiety.
  • Make these sessions automatic. Regardless of mood, try to work on some aspect of your research writing project every single day. Consider making a recurrent activity (like phone calls to friends) contingent on writing for a minimum period of time first.
  • Set realistic goals for each session. Divide large projects into a set of smaller tasks. This practice helps prevent binge writing and results in a sense of accomplishment.
  • Write when you’re fresh. You’re more likely to be productive when feeling energized and alert. Know your own peak periods and work with them rather than against them.
  • Be task specific and plan ahead. Take a few minutes near the end of each session to gauge your progress and map out your next steps so you can easily pick up where you left off.

Resources

  • Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater: New Forums Press, 1990.
  • Booth, Wayne C. et al. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Delamont, Atkinson & Parry (eds.). Supervising the PhD. Buckinham, UK: SRHE and Open University Press, 1997.

teaching tipThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Ten Tips for Effective Research Writing. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.