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

How to Start Writing a Paper

How to Start Writing a Paper

Do you suffer from the fear of the empty document? Find yourself procrastinating or having writer’s block? Getting started is for most scientists the hardest part of the whole writing process. Here’s how to conquer the blank page.

You’ve been meaning to start writing your paper for weeks. You’ve opened a new document, looked at it and started to panic a little. You probably wanted to close it again right away. Sounds familiar? I bet it does because I get this question a lot: How do I start to write?

Having a blank page stare back at you can be unnerving. I get it. Starting a new writing project is the most difficult part of the whole process for most researchers.

Today I’m sharing seven strategies that I’m teaching the members of the Researchers’ Writing Academy (my course on scientific writing), so you too can get started with your paper quickly.

How to start writing a research paper 

1. The Mind-Dump Technique

Sometimes we fear to start writing because we are afraid that it won’t turn out perfectly. We think that we just have to think the project through a little more before we can put our ideas down on paper. You know what? It’s hard to think the whole structure of a manuscript through in your head. It’s a lot easier to structure, rearrange and identify gaps once your ideas are written down. Remember, you can always delete and edit everything you put on that page. This is just your first mind dump – nobody is going to see or judge you for it. This technique also helps when your thoughts are spinning and you feel stuck in your thinking process.

2. The Outline-Approach

A great way of making the blank page disappear quickly is to fill it with an outline. I recommend to start with the easy things, for example spelling out the different section headings, even if it is the common “Introduction”, “Results” and “Discussion”. From there, you can just fill in the info that you think the sections and perhaps subsections should contain using keywords and bullet points. Then you can move on to deciding what the different paragraphs should look like. Writing the paper is now only filling the gaps with coherent sentences – easy-peasy!

3.  The Scientific Story-Telling Framework

Developing the story is the first step of the Journal Publication Formula, the writing system that I teach inside the Researchers’ Writing Academy. The beauty of using the scientific story-telling framework is that your paper’s story will be coherent from the first sentence to the last. Defining what I call the key story elements of your paper forces you to get clarity on what your paper is actually about. And this makes writing your paper a lot easier! Your key story elements also define the overarching structure of your sections, which guides you in the outlining step (see point 2).

The free writing class walks you through the writing system that helps you start writing your research paper

4. The Mix-It-Up Hack  

Sometimes the task of opening a blank document has so many negative feelings attached to it that every other strategy is destined to fail from the start. If that’s the case for you, you have to switch things up. For example, you could use a different program – LaTeX for example already has so many commands on a blank page that it might help. Or maybe pen and paper are your best friends. If you are into stationary, getting a nice notebook might give you the positive association with starting up your writing that you needed.

It could also be that not opening the word processor is the devil but your physical location. Perhaps you just need to get out of the office. Is there a café you like the atmosphere at? Take your laptop and sit down for a focused hour or two and I promise the blank page will transform quickly.  

5.  The Cherry-Picking-System

You don’t need to start writing your paper at the beginning. A great way to fill the blank page quickly is by starting with the bit that feels easiest. For some of my clients, that’s the Methods section, for others the Results. Some actually think the Introduction is the best way to start. It really doesn’t matter as long as you know what the story of your paper is (see point 3!).  

6.  The Pressure-Method

Sometimes we don’t start doing things because we have too much time. Without a deadline it’s really hard to start writing a research paper. Ever experienced a rush of productivity close to a deadline? When you know you HAVE to write, you’ll most likely get it done. Use that to your advantage by creating deadlines for distinct parts of your writing process and tell your co-authors about them so that you have some social accountability. Or even better: Develop a plan for your paper together with your co-authors from the very beginning of the collaboration.

7. Have a writing system

My experience is that many researchers start writing too soon (yes, really!). There’s this myth that writing a paper takes so much time that it’s best done while you’re still collecting data. What then tends to happen is that researchers rewrite their drafts many, many times until they’re actually submitted, which is just a waste of time. What I recommend doing instead is following a clear writing system and only starting to write AFTER you collected your data.

When you have each step of the process written down (or even better: integrated in a project management system), you can just tick off task after task without having to think much about the writing process. The best thing about this? You only have to develop your system once and then you can use it again and again and again. If you want to copy paste the proven writing system I’m teaching inside the Researchers’ Writing Academy, start with our free training.

These were my 7 tips to fight procrastination, the fear of the blank page and writer’s block. So, go now and start writing your research paper!

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

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How to Start Writing a Paper

Do you suffer from the fear of the empty document? Find yourself procrastinating or having writer’s block? Getting started is for most scientists the hardest part of the whole writing process. Here’s how to conquer the blank page.

You’ve been meaning to start writing your paper for weeks. You’ve opened a new document, looked at it and started to panic a little. You probably wanted to close it again right away. Sounds familiar? I bet it does because I get this question a lot: How do I start to write?

Having a blank page stare back at you can be unnerving. I get it. Starting a new writing project is the most difficult part of the whole process for most researchers.

Today I’m sharing seven strategies that I’m teaching the members of the Researchers’ Writing Academy (my course on scientific writing), so you too can get started with your paper quickly.

How to start writing a research paper 

1. The Mind-Dump Technique

Sometimes we fear to start writing because we are afraid that it won’t turn out perfectly. We think that we just have to think the project through a little more before we can put our ideas down on paper. You know what? It’s hard to think the whole structure of a manuscript through in your head. It’s a lot easier to structure, rearrange and identify gaps once your ideas are written down. Remember, you can always delete and edit everything you put on that page. This is just your first mind dump – nobody is going to see or judge you for it. This technique also helps when your thoughts are spinning and you feel stuck in your thinking process.

2. The Outline-Approach

A great way of making the blank page disappear quickly is to fill it with an outline. I recommend to start with the easy things, for example spelling out the different section headings, even if it is the common “Introduction”, “Results” and “Discussion”. From there, you can just fill in the info that you think the sections and perhaps subsections should contain using keywords and bullet points. Then you can move on to deciding what the different paragraphs should look like. Writing the paper is now only filling the gaps with coherent sentences – easy-peasy!

3.  The Scientific Story-Telling Framework

Developing the story is the first step of the Journal Publication Formula, the writing system that I teach inside the Researchers’ Writing Academy. The beauty of using the scientific story-telling framework is that your paper’s story will be coherent from the first sentence to the last. Defining what I call the key story elements of your paper forces you to get clarity on what your paper is actually about. And this makes writing your paper a lot easier! Your key story elements also define the overarching structure of your sections, which guides you in the outlining step (see point 2).

The free writing class walks you through the writing system that helps you start writing your research paper

4. The Mix-It-Up Hack  

Sometimes the task of opening a blank document has so many negative feelings attached to it that every other strategy is destined to fail from the start. If that’s the case for you, you have to switch things up. For example, you could use a different program – LaTeX for example already has so many commands on a blank page that it might help. Or maybe pen and paper are your best friends. If you are into stationary, getting a nice notebook might give you the positive association with starting up your writing that you needed.

It could also be that not opening the word processor is the devil but your physical location. Perhaps you just need to get out of the office. Is there a café you like the atmosphere at? Take your laptop and sit down for a focused hour or two and I promise the blank page will transform quickly.  

5.  The Cherry-Picking-System

You don’t need to start writing your paper at the beginning. A great way to fill the blank page quickly is by starting with the bit that feels easiest. For some of my clients, that’s the Methods section, for others the Results. Some actually think the Introduction is the best way to start. It really doesn’t matter as long as you know what the story of your paper is (see point 3!).  

6.  The Pressure-Method

Sometimes we don’t start doing things because we have too much time. Without a deadline it’s really hard to start writing a research paper. Ever experienced a rush of productivity close to a deadline? When you know you HAVE to write, you’ll most likely get it done. Use that to your advantage by creating deadlines for distinct parts of your writing process and tell your co-authors about them so that you have some social accountability. Or even better: Develop a plan for your paper together with your co-authors from the very beginning of the collaboration.

7. Have a writing system

My experience is that many researchers start writing too soon (yes, really!). There’s this myth that writing a paper takes so much time that it’s best done while you’re still collecting data. What then tends to happen is that researchers rewrite their drafts many, many times until they’re actually submitted, which is just a waste of time. What I recommend doing instead is following a clear writing system and only starting to write AFTER you collected your data.

When you have each step of the process written down (or even better: integrated in a project management system), you can just tick off task after task without having to think much about the writing process. The best thing about this? You only have to develop your system once and then you can use it again and again and again. If you want to copy paste the proven writing system I’m teaching inside the Researchers’ Writing Academy, start with our free training.

These were my 7 tips to fight procrastination, the fear of the blank page and writer’s block. So, go now and start writing your research paper!

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

Share article

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Photography by Alice Dix