Student Notebook

The Difficulties of Scientific Writing

As an undergraduate, I typically spent one week or less on writing assignments, regardless of how much time my instructor gave me. It was my natural ability — or so I thought at the time — that made me adept at writing so well in such a short time. When I arrived at graduate school, I thought that my natural writing skills  would help me rise to the challenge of scientific writing. The goal of this article is to suggest that natural writing skills get far too much credit in scientific writing. In other words, writing is hard for everyone. In what follows, I detail some of the struggles of my early scientific writing experience while offering valuable lessons that I found helpful.

Everyone Struggles

Writing a research manuscript is difficult on many levels. The structure of a scientific manuscript differs from undergraduate writing, and this structure takes time to learn. Beyond this, data analysis can be challenging, particularly when results between studies are slightly inconsistent or if your current results show patterns that differ from patterns reported in the literature. Citing the work of others is also a challenge; knowing which articles are the most appropriate to reference in your given field requires experience. Finally, identifying your unique contribution to the literature can be challenging given all the previous research likely done on topics related to your manuscript. In light of all these considerations, it is easy for graduate students to feel overwhelmed, under-qualified, and in need of an advisor.

Every graduate student battles with these writing challenges, and others have written at length about ways to improve (e.g., Roediger, 2007). In my own experience, I have taken the behaviorist approach of B. F. Skinner (1954). For example, I tend to write in the same place and at the same time every day of each week. In Skinner’s language, the time and context reinforces the writing behavior. I find that being in a writing frame of mind helps me rise to the challenge and minimizes long spells spent staring at a blinking cursor.  Taking a second lesson from behaviorism, the rats in Skinner’s experiments developed associations between behaviors and rewards after many consecutive trials. In writing, my greatest improvements have come from practice and rehearsal, not epiphany or revelation.

Embrace Criticism

Science improves through critical review, but even knowing that, I could not help but take some of the criticism I have received personally. Given the time spent on a research project from start to finish, taking critical comments personally is a natural reaction but not a helpful one. Criticism is so important for improving one’s writing, and there are many opportunities to seek out reviews from peers. I have relied on lab meetings to solicit comments from my fellow graduate students for manuscripts I am preparing. In addition to these meetings, I joined a writing group with several fellow students to continue receiving critical reviews of my writing. I also enrolled (twice) in a graduate-level writing course taught by a psychology professor. The students enrolled in this course provided feedback that helped me improve my arguments and develop a writing style based on techniques that worked for me. Any criticism, especially that which is directed at your research, stings. What helped me was getting used to the notion that criticism helps build a stronger manuscript.

Reviews Do Not Determine Writing Success

Having manuscripts rejected from journals remains a painful experience for me. At my most unhappy moments, I think about all the work that went into the paper and all the time spent writing it, ultimately to receive a rejection letter boiled down to three, two, or even one main problem with the paper. Although I have yet to learn how to be unaffected by rejections from journal editors, I have decided instead to celebrate the submission of a manuscript to journals. Submitting an article for review means that you have reached a point where you and your colleagues believe the manuscript makes a contribution to psychological science, and that is an accomplishment worth celebrating. It is important to celebrate one’s writing independent of reviewer critiques. I find that this celebration takes some of the sting off of the inevitable negative reviews.

Enjoy Writing

One of the faculty members in our department often says that “words are your ambassadors.” Although I am unsure about the origins of this statement, its message is clear: One impacts the field of psychology through writing. The purpose of research is to enhance our understanding of the social world through communicating ideas and discoveries. Writing is at the core of any research field, and as such, it helps to enjoy it. As others have noted (Preacher, 2003), writing should be fun for you, and if it is not, then try and make it more bearable. I relish certain parts of writing, such as formulating ideas and framing research implications. These portions help me get through the tedious bits (for me, the methods section).

In my time as a graduate student, I have come to the revelation that writing is hard for everyone. Knowing this, I hope that, as a researcher/writer, you will be equal parts patient with yourself and dedicated to your improvement as you continue to hone your writing skills.

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