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Don’t Know Where to Start Your Writing Project?

One thing about being the writer among engineers is I tend to get a lot of calls that start with, “I’m supposed to write a scientific report/journal paper/thesis but I don’t know where to start…”

At some point I decided to compile a list of problems non-writers have but the comprehensive list is somewhere in a notebook in a box in a bigger box in a container on a ship that’s slowly crawling across the Indian Ocean at the moment. However, I’m whipping up a quick post here summarizing the main ideas;

1- Avoid starting with a blank page. There’s something psychologically intimidating about starting with a blank page. It feels as though the page is challenging you to “Go ahead and try make this your piece of genius.”

Whatever your project is, you probably have a write-up to start with. Maybe it’s the proposal of the project or an abstract you had quickly written three minutes before the conference. If you’re really, really starting from scratch then write something stupid like, “I have a deadline and I don’t know where to start.”

Just make sure you remove it once you’re done.

Writers know to freewrite or journal before every proper writing session. The idea is to somehow shut down the self-critical part of your brain while you write.

2- Start with the methodology of your work. A lot of non-writers get stuck because they assume that writing needs to be done starting with the introduction. However, practically, putting together a methodology is much easier because it’s a series of steps you probably know like the back of your hand (I hope). If you don’t, then I think your problems are bigger than the paper or report you’re putting together.

3- Use simple plain language at first. I’m not going to waste time telling you about how Hemingway’s works are considered classic despite his simple, unadorned prose. But writers know if you pepper your writing with big complex words, the reaction you’re going to get out of your reader is not comprehension but rather frustration.

The problem is, as engineers, you probably open Springer and read all these papers that feel like they were written using the most unrecognizable term on thesaurus.com then you think your paper carries no weight unless it’s written in a level of English that only a few people understand. The problem is a lot of academics seem to miss the point that the goal of their papers is to convey a message to the audience. I.e. the paper is for the audience not for the writer.

Of course, I’m going to get so much heat for saying this because scientists are used to jargon and using hard, hard words to explain simple, simple ideas. That’s why I said start writing in simple language at first…Later on, you can try to moderately sophisticate it.

4-Avoid the “I want it to be perfect” mentality. This comment always makes me laugh. It usually comes from A-students who haven’t even started writing a single word. It’s their way of procrastinating. Trust me on this, and I’ve been writing since I was 13. Your work in progress is always going to be a work in progress (WIP). I’ve written more about this here.

5-Don’t write and edit in the same session, which means…for those students who don’t start until the last 5 hours before a deadline, this comes as bad news. The more time you give between the writing and editing sessions, the more aware you become of your mistakes. I don’t know why, but if you write long enough you’ll notice that reading when you’re in writer mode is different from reading when you’re in reader mode. When you’re in writer mode, it becomes very hard to catch your own mistakes as you write. It’s also not always easy to switch between reader mode and writer mode in the same session. Even the big writers say that. In his book “On Writing” Stephen King suggests that you put your WIP in the drawer for a few days before returning to it with fresh eyes.

6-Stop reading advice on writing and actually start writing.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Tweet me @ahechoes to let me know.
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Published inEngineeringWriting