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Mastering Paper Writing: Strategies for Students

Mastering Paper Writing: Strategies for Students
The challenges of writing.

This week I have been busy with writing my last paper for my dissertation 🧠. In general, I felt this was the hardest paper I had to write, as it was about a topic I know relatively little about. As I am nearing the end of the PhD, I want to share some of the strategies that I have uncovered to overcome slumps like this. Improving your writing will take time and dedicated practice, but if you work on it a little day by day I am sure you will improve. In the end, I think being able to look back at some of your earlier work and see how much your writing has improved is the most important. In this post, I'll share tips and tools that have been valuable in my writing journey, in hopes that they'll be equally beneficial for you.

1. Create Your Outline

When crafting an outline it is important to follow your general working style: While some people prefer extremely structured outlines, others - like myself - work better with a more flexible outline. However, over the years I have learned that it is important to have a general sense of the argument you are crafting. This could mean a short skeleton, highlighting a few key ideas, or it could be a detailed visual representation mapping out the entire narrative of your paper. The clearer your outline and structure is the easier it will be to start writing your paper.

2. Visualizing Idea Connections

Visualize the connections between your ideas: I think I am quite a visual thinker and I have noticed that sometimes the ideas that I want to write about become clearer when I draw them out. One technique that I have been using is to draw by hand the three to five main arguments of the paper in a visual representation. Then I jot down the connections between these ideas in a kind of flowchart or map. I like to also discuss the final flowchart with co-workers, to see if they also get the main ideas of the paper. This process helps me gather my thoughts and bring more clarity to the ideas I want to convey.

3. Envisioning Your Research

This concept was inspired by a writing course I attended. The gist is to visualize your main research question as a bubble in the center (see the diagram below). Surrounding it are the overarching disciplines your research question falls under, alongside the reasons driving your inquiry—whether scientific, societal, technological, etc. Then, there's the anticipated answer or hypothesis to your question. If you lack results at this stage, you can populate this section with ideas from prior research. Lastly, there's the strategy segment, where you outline how you intend to tackle these sub-questions. While with more experience and papers under your belt, you may adopt a less structured approach, I find it particularly helpful, especially in the initial stages of writing a paper, to adhere to this framework. The clearer you are about the main ideas, the smoother the writing process becomes.

Research Overview

4. Start Writing Early

Avoid procrastinating until the last day and embrace writing as a tool for clarifying your thoughts and uncovering new insights early on in the research process. Don't postpone writing until you have finalized the results (or completed your thesis)! As emphasized in the video How to Write a Great Research Paper (7 Excellent Tips), "writing is not just a way in which to report research it is a way in which to do research." This has certainly resonated with me during the past few months of thesis writing. Engaging in the act of writing and reflecting on the various chapters of my thesis has deepened my understanding of the work I am addressing.

5. Reading More and More

To evolve as a writer, aim to become a better reader: In the lab, I have seen that PhD students who read more are also better writers. This reading can come in many forms, such as scientific books, articles, and papers. One trick that I used at the start of the PhD was to try to read around one paper a day. When reading these papers I would recommend not only looking at the ideas being presented but also how they are presented. Is the sentence structure clear? How do they cut up the argument in different paragraphs? Are there certain analogies they use that resonate with you? etc. Sometimes, it is not the argument itself, but a particular kind of clever phrasing or a metaphor that is especially convincing. Try to collect these little phrases in a booklet or on Notion yourself, as a library that you can reference later.

📚 Something to Read

📕 Book - Stigma: Notes on the Mangagement of Spoiled Identity

This week, I'm looking at the role of language in shaping our ideas and perceptions of mental health and disorder for my thesis. While working on my thesis, I have realized that the language we use can hold a lot of unconscious bias. If we are not careful these biases can lead to stigmatizing and alienating the very people we aim to support. While doing this research I stumbled upon a book titled "Stigma and Social Identity," which I highly recommend to all. It delves into the different layers of stigma and highlights how we can perceive ourselves as so-called 'normals', creating an inherent division with people that fall outside of this perceived norm.

🎧 Something to listen

🎧 Podcast - Reputation - Overthink

Overall, "Overthink" remains one of my favorite podcasts, and I thoroughly enjoyed this week's episode on Reputation. Our reputation holds increasing significance, especially with the increase in data traces. These traces can either uphold or tarnish someone's reputation more easily than ever before. Something that I also have been considering is how different work can be perceived as 'good' depending on the role or part we are playing. For example, the videos I make for YouTube may be well received by the general audience, yet it might be taken as frivolous and not sufficiently 'serious', by my fellow academics. As I continue to write and create online I wonder how I should resolve this perceived dichotomy.

👩‍💻 Weekly Quote

“The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, origi­nated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signi­fier.”
― Erving Goffman - Stigma: Notes on the Mangagement of Spoiled Identity