6 min read

From data to draft: my messy pre-writing process

Although people often think I am very organised, my writing process is complete chaos, and it doesn’t at all match the neat, stepwise process writing is often presented to be. In the spirit of academic writing month, and also in the spirit of me currently drafting up three papers (at the same time… see? chaos!), I thought I’d share my writing process, in particular my pre-writing process: how I get to the first draft.

One of the first hits you get when you google “how to write a journal article” is an Elsevier page describing the steps I’m sure anyone who’s ever taken a scientific writing class is familiar with: first the methods, then results, then the discussion, then the intro.

Although it’s helpful to know the structure of a paper, that’s not what I am looking for when I write a journal article. What I want to know, is the steps in between looking at my data and starting to write.

Maybe my search was wrong. Let’s try another search. “How to write the first scientific draft?” Here’s what the internet says:

“Think about the topic for a bit, then write”

“Know what you want to write before you write”

Great. But honestly, that still doesn’t really get me anywhere. Here’s an analogy (because I love analogies!) to explain why:

Let’s assume that the process of writing a paper is like baking one of those cakes they make on The Great British Bake Off (very difficult, very technical, very delicious!), and you, as a novice writerbaker, have never cooked anything beyond an egg in the microwave before. You’ve been given a recipe (e.g. the IMRAD structure of scientific papers). You also have your ingredients (and in our parallel research world: the raw results).

So here you are, with your recipe and your ingredients. The ingredients make no sense (?!), and the recipe calls for methods you have never heard of in your life. “Alright, it looks hard, but let’s give it a try. Where do I get started?” you ask. And your teacher responds: “Just think about it for a bit, then bake”.

Ok, I got my results. Now what? - Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

See what I am getting at? We’re missing something in the process, the little steps in between: how to separate the eggs, how to fold in the flour, how to… How to think before we write.

On top of not knowing how to bakewrite, we often don’t have all the ingredients the recipe calls for. That carefully crafted research question and elegant experimental design you came up with? They no longer match the dataset you have in your hands. Because things go wrong:

Field sites burn down

Your colleague throws out your samples

Equipment fails and batteries go flat

You made a mistake (we’re humans!).

So here you are, with an imperfect dataset and the advice to “think” about it. What next? How do you get from data to draft? I published exactly one paper so I definitely know what I am talking about…Ahem. Anyway, here is messy approach I take:

Thinking, part one:

I usually start with looking at my analysed data, in the shape of exploratory plots I made. Then I leave my brain alone to churn on it for a bit. My brain does this: the story I have in my head, my understanding of the system with hypothesis and all, starts to shift. The story doesn’t match the results I expected to have, so I try a new story, and that fits, but then I look at some more results and my story gets messed up again.

Then my brain really fires up and starts trying to fit the results over and over in every possible angle to try and build a coherent story again but there are so many factors in play that is impossible and I try again and again but my brain overflows and

BOOM

My brain explodes and I am left frustrated and confused, with a messy jumble of arguments and counterarguments all over the place.

And now, somehow, I have to make sense of this chaos.

Thinking, part two:

So I start writing down all my thoughts: all the results I have, and any consequent implications I can think of, and everything I know the literature says, every bit of thing I now know about my research question.

I use a lot of different tools in this process including freeflow writing, half-drawn mindmaps, starts of drafts with random pieces of text, a gazillion quickly rendered graphs (is this thing I’m thinking true let me just check by spending the rest of the afternoon frantically making graphs in R) and post-it notes everywhere.

The essence of this process is to capture all the thoughts I have about my data and my story. This way I can assess each of them individually and see if they make sense.

The hard part about this process is that more thoughts keep emerging as I go through this ‘thought-capturing’ process for a while. That’s super annoying, but the good thing is that at some point I’ve captured the most important stuff and the endless stream of thoughts and ideas start to slow down.

This is usually the point where patterns start to emerge: the data starts to make sense and I start to see clearly how the results answer my research questions. I start to see which findings are extremely important, which ones are relevant and which ones are just fun to have. This is the point where I first start working towards an actual first draft (instead of the messy half-drafts from my earlier thinking process), with an Intro, Methods, Result and Dicussion section and all that stuff.

Why you should write down your thoughts if your brain has exploded

I think that if you are more familiar with your topic (and with paper writing!), it’s probably easier to pick out the big arguments and important thoughts, and you don’t need to write them down. You can build the story right there in your head. Just like with any skill, it almost becomes intuitive if you practice it long enough. Unfortunately, as a beginner you don’t have that skill yet. So it’s a lot harder to figure out which thoughts and ideas are important and which are not. That’s why it helps to capture all of them in a more tangible medium than thoughts.

Of course, you may have a different system of ordering your thoughts than my chaotic postitnote-halfdraft-halfmindmap-halfgraph system (for example, Pat Thomson presents a much more organised “planners” approach). The importance is that you find a method to capture, asses and order them. Otherwise it remains just a messy jumble in your brain.