5 things I’ve learned while writing my first journal article

In September 2011, my advisor gave me a previous grad student’s project to complete and then write up for publication.  As a one-month-old grad student I jumped at the opportunity to get a publication under my belt so soon. But now, over a year later, I have a real picture of the time that goes into not only data collection and analysis, but into drafts upon drafts of writing and (finally!) preparing a paper for submission to a journal.  So I have some reminders for myself later and in case for some reason these might benefit someone else, here are 5 things I’ve learned while writing my first journal article:

1. Find the right music to get into the mood.  For me, getting the writing vibe going is the result of a ritual. Emailed checked. Facebook/Twitter off limits. Ear buds in. And, most importantly, the right tunes in my ears to get my mind going.  The music I choose when writing varies by the hour. I’ll be jamming to Of Monsters and Men, then suddenly I’ll need to switch to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to stay focused. (I’m checking out Milo Greene while writing this post, by the way.) Needless to say, Spotify and I have become best friends this year.  And when I am having listening block, inevitably to be followed by the much dreaded writer’s block, I turn to this blogpost for inspiration.  Now I know that when I’m having trouble “summoning the [writing] muse,” as the post states, I need to make sure I have the right music accompanying me.

2. Get some space. Right before I took some time off for Christmas last year, I was so burned out with writing this paper that I was about to rip my keyboard out and bend it around a tree.  I could literally feel my computer-strained, twitching eyes glaze over while reading over (and hating) what I’d already written.  Much frustrated, I decided to completely forget about the paper for two whole weeks. Turns out, it was the best thing I could have done.  When I sat back down at my desk and opened “Publication draft 12_17_12,” I felt my work ethic flow back into my typing fingers.  Suddenly I cared about writing the paper again, and, even better, I was enjoying it.  Next time I feel the need to dismantle my computer or just plain quit, I’ll get some space from the paper, trusting that later on, it will become my friend again.

3. If you love it too much, get rid of it. To be honest, I learned this lesson in undergrad, but I’ve applied it countless times while writing this paper.  During my junior year at Baylor, I received my first ever C on a paper. After a near mental breakdown (grades used to matter WAY too much to me), I gathered my pride from my dorm room floor and headed to the so-thought evil, C-granting professor’s office hours.  He gave me a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which I still have, and explained why he gave me a C. He said that too many of my sentences, while sophisticated and eloquent sounding, didn’t contribute any meat to my argument.  He suggested that when I spend a lot of time time crafting a lengthy, complicated sentence and come to love it so much that it becomes like a child of mine, I need to kill it.  Get rid of the sentence-baby and replace it with a concise statement that actually has meaning.  Nowadays, when I catch myself lovingly admiring one of my verbose sentences, I know that, instead, I need to be hitting the delete key.

4. When you need to write, read. At times when the words would just not come, I found myself reading through some of the papers from my reference list or browsing through the science posts on my Google Reader.  Just as Erin Podolak said in her blogpost at Science Decoded, “if you want to write well, you must read good writing.” When I come across a really great piece, in which the writing just flows together so perfectly and clearly, I find I’m re-inspired to get my nose back to the grindstone.

5. Sell it!  One of the notes my advisor gave me on my first draft was that my emphasis in the discussion section was way too negative. He said that after reading a paper like mine, a publisher would think “Heck, why publish this at all? Everything was all wrong with this project!” Apparently, I went a little too far while writing about the limitations of the project.  Now I know that alongside a healthy discussion of what could have made a project better, I need to express why the findings contribute to existing literature and inform future research.  I need to sell it, or no one will buy what I have say.

Now onto draft #257.  Not really, but that feels about right.

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