How Researchers Can Beat Writers’ Block

Suffering from writer’s block? Here are some tips and tricks from our expert writing team on how to beat the block!

We all know that it’s often much easier to come up with ideas for research projects and to carry them out than it is to write the work up at the end and get it published in a decent journal. This is especially the case when writing in English if this is your second (or third, or fourth) language.

How do you get started?
What do you first?
How do you overcome writer’s block?

You know the feeling: sitting in front of your computer, getting nowhere, making no progress, not writing any down words?

TWO things to know BEFORE you start to write

Planning your paper properly is the answer. There are two things you really (really, really) need to know before you start to write an academic article:

• WHAT is the key take-home message of your work?
WHO is your target audience? (in other words, which journal are you going to submit to)

What is your one key message?

The first of these might be easier to address and define; as this is your research project, and (presumably) you did most of the work, then it should be relatively easy to write down in one or two sentences what the main message of your work is.

What is the one thing that you want someone to take away from reading your paper? Imagine discussing your research with someone who knows little or nothing about your field, such as your bus driver, or grandmother. This technique is useful because it’s a key skill to be able to explain your research to everyone; one of the most important parts of effective communication.

In any case, if you write down the key message of your academic paper in one or two sentences then you can use this later when working on the Title and Abstract of your study. Think: How are you going to explain the key message of your work to someone you’ve just met on the bus, perhaps.

Who is your audience?

The other thing then that’s also hugely important to know before you start to write is your target audience, your target journal.

This is not just because most journals have different formatting and style requirements, but, more critically, the kind of paper you would write for a local audience, say, will be hugely different from the kind you would write for an international, multidisciplinary outlet. Usually, if our research results are good enough, we are going to be aiming for the latter; getting those papers into the best possible journals with the highest circulations, readership and hence impact factors.

We teach PhD students to collect a list of about 10 journals in their field that they’d like to publish work in and then rank the list from best to worst according to impact factor. At the top, depending on your field, should be one or two really multidisciplinary journals that you aspire to get your work into; top target journals like Nature and Science, for example. I

t’s then a good idea to aim your papers as high as possible and then work ‘down the tree’; rejection is, of course, part of academic life, but be realistic with your submissions. Talk to colleagues, peers, with publishing experience and take advantage of your international contacts; reach out to people and ask them where they think your research results should be published.

If you have these two key points decided before you start to write – what is your message and which journal are you writing for – then it becomes much, much easier to start putting a paper together. Indeed, you probably even have a good idea (from your key message) what the Title of your article might be and have a few sentences in place to go into your Abstract.

Finally, structure your ideas

The final key starting point then, before sitting down to write, is having a structure. You need to know (based on your choice of target journal, of course) what the shape of your paper is going to be. You’ll know what the key sections will be.

Of course, most academic papers are similar in structure, but there are always key differences; above all, remember that putting together an article is really no different to any other piece of creative writing – a plot is needed.  A reader needs to know where they are at all times, where they are going, and where they have come from. The only to do this is with a clear structure.

We recommend, for example, the use of templates for different article sections. Our tools, templates and easy-to-use guidelines take the pain out of article writing.

One trick is to set up a structure when writing a Methods section for your paper, taking the reader on a journey through the different stages of your study’s development: how you collected data, for example, and how you then performed an analysis. You’ll see this kind of structure in well-written articles; to convince yourself, have a closer look at some papers you’ve read recently that you think are well-written.

The sections you set up in your Methods section can then be re-used in both the Results and Discussion, creating a clear structure that helps the reader know where they are within your paper. Give this a go the next time you’re putting a paper together, or get in touch with us for more details, templates, and advice.

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