5 Myths of Scholarly Writing Debunked
Kimberly A. Skarupski, PhD, MPH
Johns Hopkins Medicine
1. Myth of the Muse: I need to feel inspired to write.
Myth Debunked: Other common sentiments along the lines of this myth are “I need to feel motivated,” or the corollary, “I do my best work under pressure.”
Do you wait for inspiration to see your patients, teach your classes, attend important meetings, reply to vital emails and take care of your kids? Probably not. Writing is no different.
There is NO writing muse because there is nothing magical or mysterious about it. Writing is our job! Do your job every day. It’s the currency of our trade.
Write a little every day (10-30-60 mins.), and schedule it in your calendar – respect it, show up, come on time, and come prepared. Be in the moment and avoid distractions like your iPhone. STOP WRITING when your time is up. You are trying to set realistic, sustainable habits.
What will happen? Writing will become automatic, mechanical, and less emotional – i.e., a habit!
2. I have no time to write.
Myth Debunked: Of course there’s no time to write! Academic medicine has never been busier or more stressful! Is there something you find time to do every day (e.g., exercise, Starbucks, reading the news, internet surfing)? Why not writing? Here’s an important reality: you need less time than you think. Can’t find 30 minutes? How about 10?
Don’t multi-task. It kills your focus. Delegate if possible (perhaps a co-author is much better at XYZ, than you). Schedule your priorities in a proactive way instead of prioritizing re-actively. Schedule daily writing.
3. I have trouble starting writing.
Myth Debunked: Is this your checklist: “Work on grant” “Write XYZ paper”? Of course this is an overwhelming task! It’s too big. Instead of big, hairy, audacious GOALS, think smarter, smaller objectives!
Schedule very specific (daily) writing tasks (e.g., “copy means and SDs from SPSS into Table 1,” “Outline discussion section – summary paragraph, gaps in the field, limitations, implications, next steps”).
Think like a robot (that’s right!). If you tell your robot “Finish results section” – it would say, “Does not compute.” Instead, tell the robot: “Open data file, run descriptive on final study groups, double-check ANOVA results, copy means, SDs, and p-values into table, etc.” The result would be one very happy and productive robot.
4. I’m not ready to start writing; I’m not prepared!
Myth Debunked: Are you ever REALLY “ready to write”? There’s rarely an ideal time for anything. Forget about the New Year, Monday, next weekend - just start already!
Start writing the paper as soon as you have the idea. Write throughout the process – it will help you refine your ideas; you will get more done and waste less time. Have you ever noticed that editing is much easier than writing fresh? It’s a great way to ease back into writing in earnest (similar to “warming up” to get your heart rate going before a work out).
Writing is not what you do AFTER you’ve figured it out, writing is HOW you figure it out. Expand your definition of writing. Writing is ANY activity that directly/indirectly causes more lines to appear on your biosketch (e.g., freewriting about an idea, reviewing notes, working on a table, entering references, writing a cover letter, reviewing a paper)!
5. I can’t finish writing.
Myth Debunked: Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Don’t let your perfectionism thwart your progress. Do you want to get scooped? Productivity is the metric, not perfectionism.
Limit the amount of time and effort you expend. For example, for your literature review, decide how many articles you’ll read, from how far back, and/or for how many hours. For data collection – target sample size/date and then stop.
For analysis – decide how many hours you spend, how many models you will run. For your and your co-authors’ editing – set hour-limits… set firm (and SMART) goals and deadlines – publicly state them (like we do at the WAGs!). Just get the paper out the door – give the reviewers job security!
Other Writing Myths
6. I’m over-committed, overwhelmed and I have too many personal and family commitments. PLUS I have too many meetings and grant applications to write.
7. I don’t have adequate statistics or data analytic support.
8. I can’t focus and I’m afraid of failing.
9. I feel that every topic from every angle has already been written about and published and I never know what value or contribution my work will have.
10. I enjoy the process of data analysis much more than writing.
Debunking the Myths
Have you ever played a sport, instrument or created art? It’s about repetition, habits, routine, PROPER FORM, muscle memory, automaticity and mechanics. Writing is no different.
In fact, writing is your job. Build and nurture this vital habit—the currency of our trade—by expanding your definition of writing, prioritizing/scheduling times to write (starting and stopping on time), refusing to engage in binge writing sessions and robotizing your writing tasks. Apply all that self-discipline you have to improving your writing habits!
In these digital times—more so now than ever before—we are susceptible to distractions that destroy our writing productivity, but at the heart of WAGs and all its core principles is overcoming that noise by adopting writing as your newest, most inflexible routine.
Read more about how to build habits to destroy myths 6 - 10 by checking out Dr. Skarupski’s new book called WAG Your Work: Writing Accountability Groups Bootcamp for Increasing Scholarly Productivity. Wag Your Work captures the essence of WAGs and how to make your scholarly writing as automatic and mundane as detailing the new car in your driveway.
Want to learn about starting a WAGs program at your institution? Dr. Skarupski is passionate about getting the people of academic medicine to write better and write more, and she’s happy to provide advice directly to you on how to start a WAGs (or something similar at your institution). Simply get in touch and ask!