Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Advice to PhD students #4: write, write, write

This piece of advice might seem really silly, but it's incredibly important. The primary goal of your PhD is to produce your thesis, and that's a lot of words that need to be written. More importantly, it's a lot of good words that need to be written. So, it's essential that during your research you practice writing as much as possible. I've noticed that the standard of writing in computer science is very varied, and quite often, it's very poor. This is a terrible thing, because you may have some of the best ideas in the world, but if you can't communicate them correctly then nobody is going to bother to read your work. This is a tragedy if you want to continue in academia.

So, how can you improve your writing? The only way is to write, and to keep writing. Writing is very much like programming in that you learn by experience. One can be extremely well-versed in technique and grammar but completely incapable of putting together a sentence that reads well. Style tends to be learned through osmosis, by reading broadly from scientific papers, to fiction, to newspapers and magazines.

The more you write, the better you get, and the easier that subsequent writing becomes. I've met various PhD students who absolutely hate writing. They tend not to publish very much. As a PhD student, you can incorporate writing into your daily routine in a number of ways:

  1. When reading a paper, write a short summary once you've finished.
  2. Keep a diary of your work every day. This can include notes, reminders and other ideas that you had alongside what you were currently doing.
  3. Consistently write a weekly or monthly report of your work. You can use this report in your supervisor meetings too, as a way of tracking your progress and reflecting on how much more you know now compared to before.
One excellent side effect of performing these tasks is that nothing is wasted. Summaries of papers that you write will feed into your literature review chapter. You will have also gotten better at writing abstracts to your own papers by doing this. Your work diary will ensure that your ideas are not forgotten, and most importantly, will always remind you that you are making progress, even when you're having a terrible week. Your weekly reports, assuming that they are detailed, can be reused to show your methodology in your thesis.

Another way of improving your writing and also helping others is by offering to proofread your colleagues' papers and chapters. By doing so, you get to read a writing style that is different to your own. You can then ask some questions as you read. What's good about it? What's bad about it? How would you change it to make it better? What good points can you take away in order to improve your own writing?

As I consumed an ever greater number of scientific papers, I noticed a definite trend in the papers that I liked. That trend was a simple, yet engaging writing style with no jargon. Only use big words and flowery language if you absolutely have to use big words and flowery language. If there's a simple way of saying something, say it in a simple way. Often, the ideas in papers are hard enough to get your head around, so it's useful if the reader doesn't have to fight with the communication medium as well!

One final point about writing, and this may be a very unscientific thing I'm about to say. You have to learn to let go of what you've written. That way, if people criticise your writing you won't take it personally. If your supervisor tells you that you need to completely restructure one of your thesis chapters, you don't want to get upset about having to scratch out large portions and start them again. Your writing is merely a way of communicating with others. The words are not you, and much like you frequently kick around and change your ideas, you need to get comfortable with kicking around and changing your writing to make it better.

Keep writing, keep writing and keep writing. That way you'll always be better than the previous week, and constant weekly improvement will give you a vastly better thesis and larger collection of published papers at the end of the tunnel.

I'll leave you with some sage advice from Simon Peyton-Jones: how to write a good research paper and give a good research talk.

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