As we’ve seen before, becoming a better communicator requires writing more. And the best way to write more is to create a regular habit around it. So what are some ways that you, as a scientist, can write more regularly instead of waiting to write until it’s time to submit a journal article? Below are five methods I recommend — most of which allow you to practice your writing in private, which may feel more comfortable than doing so publicly.
Over the years I’ve kept countless diaries, journals, bullet journals, and personal blogs. Some have been public and some extremely private. I most often use them to record day-to-day events, special occasions, and my feelings. In other words, they’re not at all technical in nature. But they do encourage me to take the time to write and express myself, and that very act of practice helps me to communicate better with others when the time comes.
The concept of Morning Pages comes from Julia Cameron, who advocates writing three pages by hand to start each day. The topic can be anything and the results are for your eyes only. When I’ve done Morning Pages, they’re often a stream of consciousness narrative on what I expect to work on for the day and how I’m feeling about things. I sometimes go back and populate my to-do list based on the day’s entry, but otherwise, they’re just free-writing.
I find this habit helpful for clearing my mind of anxieties before I focus on work. By writing without editing myself, I also train my brain to get words on a page before worrying about their quality. This, I find, is an excellent way to get past the pressure of a blank page.
I won’t say too much about this one since I’ve covered it previously, but taking some time to re-express the works you read into your own words is invaluable for building expertise and helping out your future self. Check out the link above if you want some guidance on getting started.
Yes, we’re all told to keep lab notebooks with the relevant parameters for each experiment and simulation we do, but that’s not quite what I mean. A lab journal is also a space to chronicle what you’re doing (beyond data-taking) and how you feel about it. Are you struggling to understand a paper you’ve been assigned? Write about that. Did you blast out 500 words toward your dissertation and feel like you were flying through it? Talk about that, too.
Since I’m not active in a lab anymore, I now keep this habit with a writing journal that’s dedicated to my current book-writing project. Whenever I’m making progress — or struggling — with writing my book, I take a few notes in my journal, recording both the triumphs and frustrations of the process. It allows me to have a better record of how my thinking has evolved than I can manage through memory alone, and, like all of these habits, it keeps me regularly putting words on a page.
And, finally, we come to the most public of these writing habits: blogging. I started my blog over twelve years ago and committed to writing a short post five days a week. Day in and day out — through my PhD, jobs, travel, pregnancies, and life in general — I’ve kept this habit of sitting down each weekday and writing about science. I’ve produced over 3,200 posts and nearly half a million words. (That’s multiple books’ worth!)
It’s not always easy. Some days it feels like I’m prying every word out letter-by-letter. Other days I blink and I’m done. But I think that no other habit has had as great an impact on my communication skills as this one. The fact that I’ve committed — publicly — to producing content regularly has forced me to write — and to try to write well — even when I don’t feel like it. That means that when deadlines roll around, I know how to hunker down and get the job done. It’s not always pretty — I wrote most of my PhD while sick and feverish with H1N1 — but I hit my deadline. Without the habit of writing every single day, I couldn’t have done it.
Now, you don’t have to have a public blog to write every day, but it’s useful to have accountability to ensure that you are meeting your commitments. You could accomplish that end with an accountability buddy, who you notify when you complete the day’s writing, or even simply by posting on social media that you’ve met your writing goal. You might be surprised just how encouraging it is knowing that someone out there cares that you’re writing!
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