Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers
Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

5 Lessons My Dog Taught Me about Academic Writing

5 Lessons My Dog Taught Me about Academic Writing

Have you met my dog Zuza yet? She’s my furry companion. In fact, I’m so rarely without Zuza that I will frequently command human company to “wait” at a crossing even when she is not there. 🤣) 

She is obviously the cutest dog in the world but I realised she has also taught me a great deal. While wandering the streets of Prague one day, I started to think about all the parallels between training dogs and writing papers. 

Academic writing coach Dr Anna Clemens with her dog Zuza who taught her lots of things about academic writing

Here are the five things Zuza has taught me about ACADEMIC writing: 

1. The positive reward cycle works

I don’t know if you have ever trained a dog, but the basis of dog training really is quite simple: Dogs do what feels good. This means that if you want your dog to do something, you have to reward them for the behaviour. After sufficient iterations, the dog will happily do the desired behaviour when asked to. What continues to baffle me after four years of living with Zuza is just HOW WELL this works.

That led me to start to observe myself more. I noticed just how many of my actions are being steered by those exact reward cycles that get Zuza to do things that keep her safe and happy. 

And writing is just one of these actions. When writing doesn’t feel good, we procrastinate on our paper or end up with a drawer full of half-finished articles. And there are lots of reasons for why writing may not feel good: We may be dreading a conflict with our co-authors (however minor), we may not be so sure about what to write, we may be annoyed that we have to rewrite or edit a draft yet again, or we may be frustrated that what ends up on the page is just not as good as what we were able to communicate orally just perfectly…

The take-away is: If we want to write more, we first have to make sure it feels good.

2. Ignore when you fail

While the principle of dog training is simple, you won’t get a well-trained dog over night. It’s bound to happen that your dog won’t respond in the way you intended, especially in the early days. The abandoned cheese sandwich on the pavement may just be more interesting or rolling in a dead mouse more enjoyable than the treat in your hand (aka the reward). 

Instinctively, it’s hard not to tell a dog off when they don’t follow your cue. What I learned from Zuza is: That just doesn’t work. The dog doesn’t learn anything from being told off because from their perspective they just engaged in something enjoyable and have no idea why you are so angry about it.

What I learned to do when Zuza isn’t responding to my cue is to ignore it. Yep, that simple. I just don’t react and keep rewarding the behaviour I want to see. It’s truly a simple strategy but trust me, it can get challenging to implement. 😅 

So, ignoring is the best course of action for you too – should you experience any writing failures. Whether you didn’t show up to a writing session you had scheduled in your calendar, or didn’t receive as good feedback as you hoped for on a manuscript – maybe even got a paper rejected –, don’t let your inner critic tell you off and don’t beat yourself up about it. 

Failing and making mistakes is human (and canine, as I can confirm 😁), so the best we can do is to accept it and just keep focusing on keeping that reward cycle running (see point 1).

Mockup of the free interactive writing training for researchers

3. Integrate writing in your workday

When Zuza had just freshly moved into my home, I would dedicate whole hours to training sessions. What eventually dawned on me was that these extended training sessions were really exhausting for us both. And Zuza of course wasn’t just learning when I had declared it was “training time”. She is always learning! Nowadays, the training is integrated into our day — I always keep treats in my pocket. 

In the same way, I think that to be a productive scientific writer in the long-term, you need to make writing part of your workweek. It’s not necessary (and sometimes counter-productive) to spend whole days or weekends on writing a paper. A healthier and more effective approach is to develop a regular writing practice and to have a system in place that guides you through the process of writing a paper. Then all you have to do is hit repeat on that process with each new article. Once you have a system in place, you’ll be astonished how much progress you can make on your article in as little as a 20-minute gap in your schedule.

4. Focus on the process, not the goal

While living with Zuza is now pure joy, there were times when I was extremely frustrated with the seeming lack of progress we made in the training. I remember a particular Saturday in spring when I got so fed up with her pulling on the lead that I carried her home. 

What I started to notice after a while though was that she did make progress! It just took longer than I thought it would. That’s when I decided to stop judging how good she is at certain things.

I now trust that she will eventually learn or at least get better at something. While I still can’t have her off lead in the forest because of her desire to hunt the wildlife, I’m genuinely pleased about how far we have come.

Therefore, be aware of setting unrealistic writing goals! Chances are that you’ll just be disappointed. You may even find that goal-setting just isn’t your thing and that’s fine too – as long as you make sure that you have a process in place, that system to follow when you write a paper. 

5. Get help and community

Three years ago I hardly knew anyone else who had a dog. Whenever I had a question (and I had a lot of them), I googled and found random blog posts or YouTube videos. The problem was that there is so much misinformation out there when it comes to dog training (some trainers seriously still recommend to punish your dog with electric shocks…). So you can imagine that it took me a lot of frantic online searching and disappointment when I couldn’t find the detail I was looking for.

Luckily, I stumbled across an online course and community that taught me science-based techniques to get Zuza used to a crate, to not pull on the lead or steal other dog’s toys in the park. When I had questions about a specific situation I encountered, I would get in-depth answers from experienced dog trainers. I’m forever grateful I found that resource!

The odd thing about writing is that hardly anyone gets proper training on it in academia. This seems to suggest that training isn’t necessary and that academic writing is something we should all know how to do intuitively as researchers. This is far from the truth. Almost all researchers I talk to struggle with writing in one way or another. If that’s you, I really recommend to look for a course that teaches you a system to write papers – whether that is our Researchers’ Writing Academy or another program. Extra points if you can join a community too, because having that support and exchange is worth so so much (you’ll of curse get access to our member-only community once you join the Researchers’ Writing Academy)!

There you have it: Five things I learned from my dog about writing.

Actually, there’s one more thing she continues to teach me– and that is to do nothing. Her ability to rest is seriously inspiring. 😄 And being well-rested is the prerequisite for effective writing every day of the year!

Have you ever found writing wisdom in unexpected places? Leave a comment and tell me about it, I’d love to know! 

Promo graphic for our free scientific writing course

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5 Lessons My Dog Taught Me about Academic Writing

Have you met my dog Zuza yet? She’s my furry companion. In fact, I’m so rarely without Zuza that I will frequently command human company to “wait” at a crossing even when she is not there. 🤣) 

She is obviously the cutest dog in the world but I realised she has also taught me a great deal. While wandering the streets of Prague one day, I started to think about all the parallels between training dogs and writing papers. 

Academic writing coach Dr Anna Clemens with her dog Zuza who taught her lots of things about academic writing

Here are the five things Zuza has taught me about ACADEMIC writing: 

1. The positive reward cycle works

I don’t know if you have ever trained a dog, but the basis of dog training really is quite simple: Dogs do what feels good. This means that if you want your dog to do something, you have to reward them for the behaviour. After sufficient iterations, the dog will happily do the desired behaviour when asked to. What continues to baffle me after four years of living with Zuza is just HOW WELL this works.

That led me to start to observe myself more. I noticed just how many of my actions are being steered by those exact reward cycles that get Zuza to do things that keep her safe and happy. 

And writing is just one of these actions. When writing doesn’t feel good, we procrastinate on our paper or end up with a drawer full of half-finished articles. And there are lots of reasons for why writing may not feel good: We may be dreading a conflict with our co-authors (however minor), we may not be so sure about what to write, we may be annoyed that we have to rewrite or edit a draft yet again, or we may be frustrated that what ends up on the page is just not as good as what we were able to communicate orally just perfectly…

The take-away is: If we want to write more, we first have to make sure it feels good.

2. Ignore when you fail

While the principle of dog training is simple, you won’t get a well-trained dog over night. It’s bound to happen that your dog won’t respond in the way you intended, especially in the early days. The abandoned cheese sandwich on the pavement may just be more interesting or rolling in a dead mouse more enjoyable than the treat in your hand (aka the reward). 

Instinctively, it’s hard not to tell a dog off when they don’t follow your cue. What I learned from Zuza is: That just doesn’t work. The dog doesn’t learn anything from being told off because from their perspective they just engaged in something enjoyable and have no idea why you are so angry about it.

What I learned to do when Zuza isn’t responding to my cue is to ignore it. Yep, that simple. I just don’t react and keep rewarding the behaviour I want to see. It’s truly a simple strategy but trust me, it can get challenging to implement. 😅 

So, ignoring is the best course of action for you too – should you experience any writing failures. Whether you didn’t show up to a writing session you had scheduled in your calendar, or didn’t receive as good feedback as you hoped for on a manuscript – maybe even got a paper rejected –, don’t let your inner critic tell you off and don’t beat yourself up about it. 

Failing and making mistakes is human (and canine, as I can confirm 😁), so the best we can do is to accept it and just keep focusing on keeping that reward cycle running (see point 1).

Mockup of the free interactive writing training for researchers

3. Integrate writing in your workday

When Zuza had just freshly moved into my home, I would dedicate whole hours to training sessions. What eventually dawned on me was that these extended training sessions were really exhausting for us both. And Zuza of course wasn’t just learning when I had declared it was “training time”. She is always learning! Nowadays, the training is integrated into our day — I always keep treats in my pocket. 

In the same way, I think that to be a productive scientific writer in the long-term, you need to make writing part of your workweek. It’s not necessary (and sometimes counter-productive) to spend whole days or weekends on writing a paper. A healthier and more effective approach is to develop a regular writing practice and to have a system in place that guides you through the process of writing a paper. Then all you have to do is hit repeat on that process with each new article. Once you have a system in place, you’ll be astonished how much progress you can make on your article in as little as a 20-minute gap in your schedule.

4. Focus on the process, not the goal

While living with Zuza is now pure joy, there were times when I was extremely frustrated with the seeming lack of progress we made in the training. I remember a particular Saturday in spring when I got so fed up with her pulling on the lead that I carried her home. 

What I started to notice after a while though was that she did make progress! It just took longer than I thought it would. That’s when I decided to stop judging how good she is at certain things.

I now trust that she will eventually learn or at least get better at something. While I still can’t have her off lead in the forest because of her desire to hunt the wildlife, I’m genuinely pleased about how far we have come.

Therefore, be aware of setting unrealistic writing goals! Chances are that you’ll just be disappointed. You may even find that goal-setting just isn’t your thing and that’s fine too – as long as you make sure that you have a process in place, that system to follow when you write a paper. 

5. Get help and community

Three years ago I hardly knew anyone else who had a dog. Whenever I had a question (and I had a lot of them), I googled and found random blog posts or YouTube videos. The problem was that there is so much misinformation out there when it comes to dog training (some trainers seriously still recommend to punish your dog with electric shocks…). So you can imagine that it took me a lot of frantic online searching and disappointment when I couldn’t find the detail I was looking for.

Luckily, I stumbled across an online course and community that taught me science-based techniques to get Zuza used to a crate, to not pull on the lead or steal other dog’s toys in the park. When I had questions about a specific situation I encountered, I would get in-depth answers from experienced dog trainers. I’m forever grateful I found that resource!

The odd thing about writing is that hardly anyone gets proper training on it in academia. This seems to suggest that training isn’t necessary and that academic writing is something we should all know how to do intuitively as researchers. This is far from the truth. Almost all researchers I talk to struggle with writing in one way or another. If that’s you, I really recommend to look for a course that teaches you a system to write papers – whether that is our Researchers’ Writing Academy or another program. Extra points if you can join a community too, because having that support and exchange is worth so so much (you’ll of curse get access to our member-only community once you join the Researchers’ Writing Academy)!

There you have it: Five things I learned from my dog about writing.

Actually, there’s one more thing she continues to teach me– and that is to do nothing. Her ability to rest is seriously inspiring. 😄 And being well-rested is the prerequisite for effective writing every day of the year!

Have you ever found writing wisdom in unexpected places? Leave a comment and tell me about it, I’d love to know! 

Promo graphic for our free scientific writing course

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Photography by Alice Dix