The writing journey: how to develop successful researcher writing habits
What makes for successful researchers?
As successful researchers come in all shapes and sizes, the first question to ask is ‘what makes a successful researcher?’ Most people, if asked, would define a ‘successful researcher’ as someone who:
- Publishes a lot of papers
- Wins substantial grant funding
- Has developed a stable and productive career (or has the potential to).
What makes for successful researcher writing habits?
The next question to ask is: What sorts of writing habits do successful researchers have?’ This means being able to:
- Write up your research quickly and clearly.
- Use clear and effective English so that your papers have a higher chance of passing editorial checks and peer review.
- Select appropriate wording so that native speakers can understand your meaning and the nuances of your research.
With this in mind, let's look at some ways – macro and micro – in which you can develop successful researcher writing habits.
Write everything down
The first and perhaps most important tip is: write as much as possible and write everything down. Note down ideas to develop later, even just fragments of text, and never throw anything away. Documents written months, sometimes years before, can later prove very useful when you return to work on the same, or similar, topics.
Organise files on your computer according to themes or questions and perhaps consider using some filing software (or just a spreadsheet) to keep track of what you have already written in certain areas so you can easily return to these documents later.
Think and write in your target language
Effective writing is difficult in any language, but especially so in your second (or third) one. One key thing to keep in mind when starting to write, to put your ideas down on paper (or on your computer screen), is that it’s much more effective to think and write in English (if your goal is creating an English document) than to think and write in another language and then translate later. This is because information and structure will be lost in translation.
We recommend that if you have the confidence to think and write in English then preferably try this when putting documents together. However, if you can’t – if you feel that you just aren’t at that level yet with your written English – then find a translation service that you trust, and that has experience working with technical documents in your field.
Deciding on the voice
Decide on a voice in your writing that also works for you. Addressing this issue is actually one of the most common questions that we are asked in our author workshops. This is an interesting topic and actually often debated in academic writing and teaching circles. Most writing courses will teach (and most colleagues feel that they have been taught) that it’s good practice to use a passive, third person voice when writing up academic research work, such as:
An experiment was performed.
The following methods were used in this study.
Reagents were added to the PCR mix before further cycling was performed.
However, an increasing body of literature is arriving at the consensus that actually, the use of an active, first person voice in academic writing is a better and more effective way to communicate and keep a reader engaged. First person writing is simply easier to follow and, thus, easier and more enjoyable to read.
We performed an experiment.
We used the following methods in this study.
We added reagents to the PCR mix and performed further cycling.
Our advice is to have a look at some recently published papers in your field that you think are well-written and that have been widely cited and see what voice is used. Go for active, first person writing in your papers if possible and, above all, be consistent.
Be consistent in the voice
Indeed, one of the most common mistakes that non-native speakers make in their written English academic articles is to jump between active and passive voices in the same paper. They might start off in the Introduction, for example, writing in the active voice (‘we did this’ and ‘I did that’) but then switch to passive when putting together the Methods section (‘a reaction was performed’ and ‘the following chemicals were added to the mixture’). This is one key thing to try to avoid in your written work.
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