Want to be successful? learn to write quickly and efficiently

We had a little discussion going on in this post where two readers commented that they prefer to print out manuscripts and mark them up physically. This is a bad idea that all trainees should break themselves of. First off, shame on you printed paper types, you’re ruining our planet. Okay, that’s a bit harsh… but, secondly, and more seriously, as your career progresses those stacks of paper are going to get completely out of control and you will not be able to stay organized. Invest in a PDF organizing program (I suggest Papers) and learn to annotate the PDFs in a systematic way that can help you write. Write your annotations to those PDFs in such a way that you can cut and paste those ideas into manuscripts, grants and reviews to make yourself more efficient.

Allow me to give an example.
I am currently writing 3 grants and 2 reviews. I used my annotated notes organized in the past year on Papers to cut and paste almost an entire review (and not a short one) in one day last week. All I really had to do was write an intro and discussion and make some short transitional statements. I am going to write the background and significance section on a grant today and I am completely confident that it will be done because all my notes are in place and ready to go (neatly organized into Paper’s folder options).

You may recall that Physioprof made a fuss some time ago about becoming an efficient writer being one of the most important factors in being a successful PI (and I’m sorry but I cannot find that post again). Few commented on that fact but it is of the utmost importance. The sooner you get started on setting yourself up to be an efficient writer the better off you will be and the faster your career will advance. I will never believe that printing and marking up a manuscript is the best way to go. Make use of the technologies that are available to make yourself more efficient and start doing it now. You will thank yourself for the rest of your scientific life!


14 responses to “Want to be successful? learn to write quickly and efficiently

  1. Fuss? Moi?

    Yes, it is essential to be an efficient writer. But it is important to recognize how idiosyncratic writing is. For some people, marking up paper copies of papers may, indeed, be most efficient for them. Your computerized note-taking system may be most efficient for you.

    I take no notes, do not print out papers, and do not have any sort of computerized paper organizing or note-taking system. I read a paper once, and enough of its content stays in my brain that it can be readily accessed for purposes of writing. I am constantly writing subconsciously in my mind pretty much all day every day. So when I sit down to actually put words to paper, they just flow right out in close to final form (including with citations).

    The point isn’t that what I do is what other people ought to do. In fact, most people find it wackaloon insane and/or think I am lying about how I read and write.

  2. While I like the idea of using an online system to manage and keep track of papers, I have a hard time giving up the paper form entirely…any time I’ve tried to switch over I’ve failed miserably because for some reason the act of physically marking up a paper with pen (and maybe highlighter if I’m really into the paper) seems to store the paper’s contents in my memory…I don’t remember papers that I read on a screen or that I print off but don’t mark up. I think every one is different in this regard…what I do (rely almost entirely on memory) wouldn’t work for most people, but it does for me so I use it.

    I totally agree that at some point it becomes impossible to organize the paper copies (which is why I’ll probably just go ahead and recycle them after I finish writing my thesis, right now they’re a safety net and I’m not ready to let them go)…I recently started using Papers for the organizational aspect. I still need to scan in a lot of papers (I actually have been known to read papers that you still have to get at the library!) and really figure out how to use the program though.

    As for writing, I do type up random paragraphs that come to me and have found this to be pretty useful–my problem with writing is transitions, which I think will just come with time.

    Thanks for the advice, I may try to use Papers to organize my random thoughts/paragraphs that I write and maybe link them to the groups of papers that they’re about…that would be pretty useful.

  3. PP, First of all, you are a freak! I actually know several people like you (but not in our profession, they are all attorneys) so I believe your claim. I am very jealous of this ability; however, I am endowed with a severe deficit in memory for details. I like to think that this flaw originated from a traumatic brain injury I suffered in my football days. There are many ways to rationalize inferiority :-) On the other hand, I also formulate a variety of written words in my head throughout the day. I do this especially well when riding my bike or lifting weights (my primary hobby). Basketball is also a good time to formulate ideas into a written form. Sitting in the office is almost never a good time for these creative activities, the office is the place to hit the keypad and not much else (at least for me).

    My point, which I stand by, is that the method of taking pen to paper (on a printed manuscript) is suboptimal and will prove to be overwhelming for organizational purposes in the long run. No one will ever convince me that this should be considered a viable way of organizing your writing especially over the long-term.

    On the other hand, I completely agree that one should do whatever suits them best when becoming an efficient writer (just don’t use printed manuscripts!! you’re ruining the environment!!)

  4. Neuorstudent,
    Whatever you do, don’t recycle those marked up manuscripts prior to scanning them. It is likely a waste of time for you to do it yourself. There are services out there that can do it for you cheaply and quickly. I recently had most of mine (from the PhD days) scanned and sent to me on a DVD. Easy as pie to get them into Papers and out of my file cabinet (and all the paper was recycled).

    It sounds like you are already on your way to becoming an organized and efficient writer. Keep it up.

  5. Your rave about Papers echoes many others I’ve heard, and I’ve love to use it. However, it’s exclusively for the Mac. FAIL.

    I’ve yet to see a similarly well-reviewed program for non-Mac users. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  6. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    Buy a mac.

  7. :) I haven’t seen any either and I’ve looked–my lab computer is a PC because of the data acquisition/analysis software we use.

    Technically, you can install OSX on a PC (I’m not sure how well it works now…it used to run pretty slow when I tried it a few years ago), but you can easily run Windows on a mac (which is what I do when I want to analyze data at home).

  8. Betsy, we had a discussion on this over at our blog and got a bunch of different suggestions. Maybe you’ll find it useful:


  9. Most papers I peruse on the computer and they never get printed. But the significant number I really want to read in detail need to be on paper. It needs to be a physical object, and I need to be able to carry it with me everywhere I go – I try to avoid sitting and staring at the computer as much as possible. If someone ever makes a re-usable portable digital paper, I’ll be all over it.

  10. Bayman, take a look at Amazon’s Kindle: It’s not reusable paper, but it’s the next best thing right now.

    I use Papers too and I love it. Most of my reading is on my computer, but once in a while I’ll print something out for a flight or the bus. I have always preferred reading from actual paper, but as JP says, it’s easy to lose control of all the papers and it’s a waste of trees.

  11. I’m with PhysioProf and neurostudent that reading and remembering is too idiosyncratic to force in one manner or another. I need physical printouts. I print double-sided, and I have a GREAT filing scheme that makes it easy for me to find papers.

    Also, I find it easier to organize physical papers into stacks. I can have fifteen papers simultaneously open to relevant figures on my coffee table, and refer to them as I type, without tabbing back and forth to different programs. Nyah nyah.

    Also, it’s harder on the eyes to read stuff on screen, for most people. And I’m with neurostudent that the physical instantiation of the paper is important to my memory encoding.

  12. Thanks, Andre. I’ll check those out.

    I work on a PC at home and at work. Switching to Mac isn’t feasible. I work at a small biotech, and our database software isn’t compatible with Mac. I’ve never worked in a lab that used Macs primarily. I think you still get more bang for your buck with a PC (though the disparity isn’t what it used to be).

  13. Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde…

    do share with us hard-copy learners your filing scheme!

  14. Pingback: Around the Blogs | Bitesize Bio

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