Monthly Archives: March 2013

How Long Does Your Writing Take?

Let me ask you a quick question. Do you normally read in bed before falling asleep every night? If so, how long do you read for?

candleI certainly do. Yet, I only manage to put together five or six pages at most before abandoning myself into Morpheus’ arms. The whole process probably takes me 15-20 minutes every night and, as a positive side effect, I have noticed that the quality of my sleep is far better than if I tried to fall asleep without reading.

But I am digressing…

So, here is my point:

I have managed to read lots of books in my life, just by spending a few minutes every night reading only a few pages!

This is remarkable for me because all too often I have a strong tendency to wait for the perfect circumstances, the perfect settings, the perfect time, before actually getting a start on what I want or have to do.

Say, for example, I have to prepare a talk for a conference. I typically wait to have a whole half-day free from any other commitment before even thinking about making a start.

Guess what?

The perfect time never comes. I wait and wait and wait… and then I have to rush through preparing my talk at the very last minute when I cannot procrastinate anymore.

Sounds familiar? Maybe you do the same with your writing.

You wait for the right time, the right context, or the right inspiration.

The trouble with this approach is that we seldom get anything done and end up feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and guilty.

Admittedly, finding large chunks of time to devote to one single activity is often difficult in our busy lives. Yet, we can still accomplish a lot by using whatever 15 minutes we can find here and there. That’s how I have read hundreds of books. And that’s how I have written some of my papers.

More than that, setting aside just 15 minutes may be far more productive that setting aside 3 consecutive hours (assuming you have them!).

So, if you are struggling to find the time to do some writing, here is an excellent way to making a start:

  • You schedule one 15-minute session in your diary (ideally at the same time every day, just to get into the right habit)
  • You protect this time from external invasion (this is essential or you’ll let any excuse distract you)
  • When the time comes, you set your timer (any timer would do!) and just write. For 15 minutes. Every single day. A few sentences a day. A figure. A table. However small, it’ll be more than you had yesterday. Just do it, day in day out.

After a few weeks (apparently it takes 21 days to establish a new habit) feel free to increase the time (not by much!) and keep going.

It does not matter if the quality of what you write is not good at first. You can always revise later once you have put together enough content. Your aim here is to get into the habit of writing and to stop procrastinating.

And remember: if you start today, even for as little as 15 minutes, you won’t have to start from scratch tomorrow. And writing tomorrow will just feel a bit easier.

I have done it. And it works.

Ok. Enough said. I’d better go and make a start with that talk of mine!


You ARE a Writer, Whether You Know It or Not

writerPaul*, a colleague and dear friend of mine, called me on Skype the other day to mourn about the referee response he had received for a recent paper.

He was clearly annoyed, and probably rightly so. I have known him for many years and without doubts he is one of the best researchers I know. And I could share his frustration.

I let him speak and vent off his resentment.

Then, after a while, I asked him half-jokingly whether he wanted to write a guest post for my blog and share his experience.

His reply, however, took me by surprise!

“No, it’s not really my thing – he said – I am not a writer.”

I was baffled, but decided not to insist as he probably would not be bothered and certainly was not in the right mood to discuss this further. In my mind, however, I could not avoid thinking that he was wrong.

You see, as an academic, writing is really at the core of what you do.

Actually – you may argue – research is our top concern!


But what would our research be worth if we were not able (or willing) to write about it and to communicate it effectively to our readers?

How could we pass on the knowledge, advances, and breakthroughs if not by writing about them in a way that would make sense to others?

And yet, arguing the importance of writing as a vehicle to communicate our research is only too easy. Of course – you’d agree – we need to write and share the results of our research!

But, perhaps you too, like my friend Paul, do not regard yourself as a writer.

But think about this… As an academic, you are expected to write all sorts of things: grant applications, research proposals, letters of reference, articles for journals and magazines, review papers, books or book chapters, conference papers, facility-time applications, annual reports, research statements, job applications, cases for promotion, resumes, Curriculum Vitae, exam papers. The list goes on.

I cannot think of any other job – apart from being a professional book writer or a journalist – whose core activity is so much centered on writing.

So, even if you do not regard yourself as a writer, the truth is that you are!

More than that, your success as an academic may well hinge on how well (and how much) you write, as Patricia Goodson rightly argues in her recent book, Becoming an Academic Writer. In fact, writing may well be the single most important tool of a successful academic career [1].

And it certainly pays off to learn to do it properly.

[1] P. Goodson, 2013: Becoming an Academic Writer – 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing, SAGE Publications Inc.

*Not his real name

International Women’s Day: The Gender Agenda in Science and Engineering

A few days ago, I had the opportunity and pleasure to attend a very interesting lecture  – albeit with some depressing stats – by Prof Lesley Yellowlees on The Gender Agenda in Science and Engineering.

Lesley became the first woman President of the Royal Society of Chemistry in July 2012 and is currently Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. She was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to science, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2012.

Clearly, a very successful woman by all accounts.

Sadly, also one of the very few women to climb the highest ranks of an academic career in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) sector.

So, why are women so under-represented in STEM subjects?

What are the barriers they face from the moment they graduate?

And perhaps more importantly, what can be done to change the current status quo?

These are some of the questions that Lesley addresses in her lecture. And yes, things are changing. But slowly.

It’s been estimated that if we move at this rate, equality between female and male academics in STEM subjects will be achieved in 100 years from now! A bleak prospect. But at least in the right direction.

I hope you’ll enjoy the video.

Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing

Some years ago I attended a workshop on academic writing at the University of Edinburgh. To be honest with you, I do not remember much about it. But at some point the instructor said something that really resonated with me.


She said that writing happens in two main stages – drafting and editing – and that it is imperative that one should approach each separately.

Now, this may sound pretty obvious to you, but for me it was a revelation. I had never realized the importance of such a distinction, even though – with hindsight – this is exactly what my PhD supervisor used to do every time we were writing something together.

In truth, writing has never come easily to me. Being a perfectionist, I would like to produce the perfect draft in one go. Sadly, this is the worse possible recipe for major frustration. So, over the years, I have had to remind myself about keeping the two stages separate.

So, how does it work? and why can this improve your writing?

Here is the answer.

In the drafting stage, all you have to do is to fix concepts to the paper. Put down your thoughts, ideas, and key concepts. Do not worry about their proper layout or whether something should actually come before or after. Do not bother too much about style. In fact, do not even worry about grammar, or punctuation. Make sure you draft something as quickly as possible, almost without interrupting the flow of thoughts in your mind.

At this stage, your main focus should remain on the message you want to convey. To use the analogy with cookery from my previous post, this is when you mix all your ingredients together (it is not the time to put the decoration on your cake!).

Then, once you feel you have committed most of your content to the page, move away from your piece. Literally. Save it and store it. Hide your printout in a drawer and forget about it for a day or two.

When the time has passed, retrieve your script and critically review what you have written. This is the editing stage. Here – first and foremost – remember that “the structure is king”. Make sure that the content flows in the right logical order and strive for clarity.

This is often achieved by going from the general to the specific. At this point, you can still retain most of what you have written in its original form (again no worries about style, grammar, or punctuation. Yet!). If you need to re-arrange any material, just cut and paste entire blocks of text until you are satisfied that the order in which they appear makes sense.

Now, you can proceed to the next level down: editing individual sections, paragraphs, and sentences. This is the time to experiment with better ways of expressing a concept; refining the language; getting rid of the clutter. Probably, you will need to iterate this process a number of times before producing a text that flows and is stylistically pleasing to the reader.

Some people find editing boring, but in fact this is where elegant writing is crafted. It is in the final polishing of style that mastery is achieved. Keep this in mind and you may find editing a very rewarding aspect of your writing.

So, why do you need to keep the two stages separate? Well, if you are anything like me, chances are you will start writing something (just a sentence or two), read it, realize you do not like it, and start it all over again.

Some people call it zig-zag writing: going back and forth on the same line without actually achieving much. It is a surefire way to spend hours after hours trying to compose something, only to realize that the page is still mostly blank at the end of the day. Frustrating, isn’t it?

So then, every time you sit down to write up, resist the temptation to achieve something good the first time round. And remember: (almost) anything you read that has been published will have undergone far more editing and polishing that the authors themselves are willing to admit. And most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself expecting your first draft to be the polished final one.

Mastering good academic writing takes time. And effort.

The good news?

It can be learned.