15 Tips for Improving Your Writing in Graduate School
A few weeks ago I submitted an application for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, commonly known as the ‘F31.’ While the experience is fresh in my mind, I figured I’d share reflections and resources for writing in graduate school. Since I’m certainly not an expert at this yet, I also reached out to friends at my own institution and around the country to see what peers I respect have to say on the subject. While this list leans heavily towards advice specific to grant writing, many of the lessons can be applied broadly to academically writing such as the qualifying exam, the thesis, or publications. Please comment or tweet at us with suggestions of your own!
- You can’t start too early. I struggle with allotting enough time for big projects like writing and presentation preparations. I make any excuse I can, and sometimes end up cleaning my entire apartment (which I’ve dubbed “procrasti-cleaning”) before sitting down to write. But the reality is that academic writing requires time and revision. And lengthy grant applications often have multiple sections—you don’t want to be one day from submission and discover there is a section you hadn’t noticed before. You’ll also likely find that as you do the background reading that you’ve been meaning to do forever in order to write your introduction, that you might come up with new ideas for experiments. You’ll need time for major edits like this. I suggest setting internal deadlines for yourself, for example, pick a date for sending a draft to friends and actually hold yourself accountable to sticking to it. This will cut down on stress in a big way.
- Make a timeline & tack on extra days for the non-science sections. My graduate school has grant writing workshops which force you into a timeline of working on specific sections of the application at specific times. I think this was a great idea, although I suggest giving yourself extra time for any non-science sections. Grant applications can have multiple sections other than the actual research proposal. For example, the F31 requires a ‘Facilities and Resources’ document and an ‘Equipment’ document. It may seem like the research proposal is the only part of the application that should really matter, but all the other sections are still part of your evaluation. Whatever time you think it will take to write these sections, add a few extra days—you may be surprised how long it takes you to complete these documents.
- Motivate yourself with scheduling tricks. Of course, setting internal deadlines is a great goal, but you may still find it hard to get started. Fellow PLOS ECR editor Mary Gearing suggests scheduling specific time for uninterrupted writing. No running a gel or incubating samples at the same time—just writing. She also sent along this link about the “Pebble Rock Boulder” method of timing yourself in increasingly long increments to help you get started and stay on task. For something a bit more whimsical, I suggest you add cats.
- Take breaks and try new writing locations. This hearkens back to my point about starting early. It’s important to be able to take a break from writing so that you can return to it with fresh eyes and a rested mind. It’s also not a bad idea to try out different locations for your writing. Think about what matters to you in a work spot (outlets, snacks, and a nearby bathroom are the trifecta for me) and then try out places until you see where you work best.
The Actual Writing
- Read good writing! The more you read the more you will gain a knack for writing like a scientist, and you’ll be able to pick up on things you like and don’t like. My friend Vidur Garg, a fellow PhD candidate at Weill Cornell Medical College, suggests that to get a better insight into the style of science writing for your field, read reviews and previews in the journals your field respects most. These are generally put together by experts in the field, and as Vidur said via email, “They put the scope and results in a simpler format and are also more informal in style with the goal of communicating to a broader audience.” You can set email alerts for these summaries and briefings for pretty much any journal, and if you discover authors whose writing you really respect, you can set a PubMed alert so you don’t miss anything they publish.
- Know your terminology. Vidur also pointed out that making sense of scientific terminology can be a major challenge for new writers. Word choice and usage can lead to confusion at best and fierce debates at worst. Read as much as you can to get a sense of what terms currently mean in your field (definitions change as new discoveries are made), and if you aren’t sure about something speak up and ask your mentors.
- Be aware of how different writing training experiences compare and contrast. While working on my grant application, I found that I was treating it like a qualifying exam—discussing the potential pitfalls in great detail to demonstrate I could think critically about the project. This is great for a qualifying exam, but labmates pointed out to me that when you are trying to get funding, you need to focus more on the reasons why your project will work than why it might not work. You still need to discuss pitfalls of course, but be careful to drive home why you have confidence in your plan.
- Talk to students who have applied successfully. I was fortunate to have this built into my graduate school’s grant writing workshop, as they had surveyed past grant awardees to get their advice for us. Your graduate school likely has kept track of who has won in previous years and can connect you if you ask.
- The more eyes the better. Asking a friend to proofread a draft is always a good idea, since they introduce a level of objectivity that cannot be achieved by self-editing. They are familiar with science, and maybe even your field, but they don’t know the minute details of your project until they read your proposal. I find it most valuable to ask labmates who are older (and wiser) than I am for advice, and then someone in a different lab or program to diversify my proofreader portfolio. I have found discussing my work with my grad school friends has led to some of my favorite moments of my PhD thus far. Of course, if your work contains proprietary information of some kind, getting proofreaders may be more difficult. And for a qualifying exam, there may be restrictions on who can read your work. Before getting proofreaders, always be sure of any rules in the grant or exam and discuss with your PI who is authorized to read the work.
- Keep your sources organized. I remember in undergrad, before I learned to use a citation manager, I tried to keep track of all my sources myself and typed out each citation. Do not do this!! You’re making unnecessary work for yourself and are likely to forget a citation or make other mistakes. I love Mendeley for keeping track of citations, and it’s free too. There’s also a number of programs like Endnote where you can keep track of your citations; some of these programs do cost money, but some university libraries can offer discounts. Try a few until you find one that works for you. I’ve been using Mendeley long enough now that I have a nice record of all the publications I’ve ever used in my writing. This was helpful for my NIH Biosketch, where I had to document previous contributions to science. I was able to easily go back and refresh my memory by skimming through the papers I read for my undergrad thesis.
Where to Turn for Help
- Draw on the resources your graduate school offers. My graduate school offers many programs throughout the year to improve writing, which allow for discussion with peers and provide useful handouts and online resources. Keep your eyes peeled for emails from your institution about workshops or classes, and then actually go. You may feel like you had enough experience writing in undergrad and don’t need further instruction, but these programs can offer great value. My school’s F31 workshop brought in previous awardees from our school to discuss how to apply, and brought in professors who had served on study sections to share advice. If your institution doesn’t have something like this, try petitioning to get one started. It’s in the best interest of the institution to have graduate students winning grants, both from a reputation and a financial standpoint, so there’s no harm in going for it.
- Look for workshops in your community. If your aren’t finding adequate resources through your graduate school, check for events at other local universities and institutions. For example, the New York Academy of Sciences is having a grant writing event later this fall open to members and non-members alike (for a fee). Agencies such as NYAS and even journals may have webcast events like this as well, so you can tune in from around the globe. Alternatively, you can find online workshops too.
- Read old applications if you can. You’ll be able to get a feel for good formatting, language, and logical flow. I find this is a good way to get started, since reading the work of others who’ve been there can help you get your head in the game and get inspired. Of course, this should go without saying, but when reading old applications never, ever plagiarize and make sure the format of the grant/exam hasn’t changed since their submission.
- Carefully read the instructions for the grant. Following from my last point, read the instructions well and be wary of modeling your work off of a friend’s old submission rather than the actual instructions. The NIH and other granting agencies can change the required forms or instructions from year to year. The ‘Funding Opportunity Announcement’ or FOA is dense and confusing to read, but you must slog through it carefully. The NIH also has ‘Grant Writing Tips Sheets’ which can help you prepare.
- Online advice is out there if you look. From a quick search about advice for grant writing, I found a series of posts from over the years in PLOS Computational Biology. Here they are curated for you:
- Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants by Philip Bourne and Leo Chalupa, published February 24, 2006.
- Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review by Marco Pautasso, published July 18, 2013.
- Ten Simple Rules for Writing Research Papers by Weixiong Zhang, published January 30, 2014.
- Ten Simple (Empirical) Rules for Writing Science by Cody Weinberger, James Evans, and Stafano Allesina, published April 30, 2015. Note that this is not an opinion piece, but a survey of literature to see if common advice for writing actually led to more citations.
- Submit even if you don’t think you’ll win. As Wayne Gretzky (and then Michael Scott) once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Grant writing is not just about winning the funding and the ensuing resume glory. It’s a way to force yourself to sit down and think hard about your project on a grander scale than the daily grind of running experiments. You’re likely to get into some great discussions with your sponsor and your proofreaders which may lead to new ideas. Some of the non-science sections require you to discuss your future plans, so you will have an opportunity to reflect on your goals, which may have changed since writing your grad school application essays. Also, failed submissions may come back to you with useful comments to help you improve. They may also come back with some tough love (minus the love), which has its place too. And you might surprise yourself — but you won’t know if you don’t try.
NIH Individual Fellowships https://researchtraining.nih.gov/programs/fellowships/F31, NIH, 2016.
Writing Rocks http://www.facultydiversity.org/?page=MM_WritingRocks, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, The Monday Motivator.
Written Kitten http://writtenkitten.co/, Josh Walcher.
How do I set up auto alerts from PubMed/Medline? https://library.uthsc.edu/faqs/current-awareness-services-email/how-do-i-set-up-auto-alerts-from-pubmedmedline/, The University of Tennessee Health Science Center, January 30, 2012.
Workbooks http://www.grantcentral.com/workbooks/, Grant Writers’ Seminars & Workshops LLC, Training in the Art of Grantsmanship, 2016.
Grantsmanship for Students and Postdocs http://www.nyas.org/Events/Detail.aspx?cid=acfa5398-dfd5-4b3a-a5b4-c1cf68d2d7e1, The New York Academy of Sciences, 2016.
About https://suwtuesdays.wordpress.com/about-2/, Shut Up & Write Tuesdays, Siobhan O’Dwyer, 2016.
Grant Writing Tips Sheets https://grants.nih.gov/grants/grant_tips.htm, NIH, March 30, 2012.
Bourne PE, Chalupa LM (2006) Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants. PLoS Comput Biol 2(2): e12. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.0020012
Pautasso M (2013) Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review. PLoS Comput Biol 9(7): e1003149. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003149
Zhang W (2014) Ten Simple Rules for Writing Research Papers. PLoS Comput Biol 10(1): e1003453. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003453
Weinberger CJ, Evans JA, Allesina S (2015) Ten Simple (Empirical) Rules for Writing Science. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1004205. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004205
Featured image: Photo of the author’s workspace during the writing process of her qualifying exam, modified from her Instagram post.
very nice post this blog is realy helful for me and u reach this blog every day when i open my laptop because this is the blog where we find good though. nice work admin..
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Meredith, thank you for these insightful tips! It is always smart to have a plan and be stick to your writing schedule.
When there is a way to bring some extra motivation to your writing, you should use this chance in any case.
WrittenKitten is a wonderful tool, it brings cuteness to such serious process as scientific writing! It helps to stay motivated during the all stages in the writing process. You mentioned that you use Mendeley – I think that it is awesome too. Keeping all your citations in a one place is essential, if you want to create a really well-researched article.
Another tool which I find useful for research purposes, because it gives an honest feedback on your writing, is Unplag https://unplag.com. It is an intuitive plagiarism checker, that have some cool features such as detecting citations and references and ability to exclude them from the similarity report.
P.S. Michael Scott has got the point. Beau Taplin once said: “Better an oops than an what if”. Well said, truly.
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Thanks Christine! I’ll have to check out Unplag. Glad you caught the Michael Scott reference 🙂
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Thank you for the useful tips, Meredith. Motivation and schedule are the hardest thing for me.
very nice post this blog is really helpful for me