Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Nothing like riding a bike

Posted by Peter Tennant

I probably shouldn't admit this on a public health blog, but I don't know how to ride a bike. I thought I did. But then I took a short (and particularly painful) ride into a ditch. Ever since, I've found myself rather nervous whenever someone describes something as: "just like riding a bike". No thanks. I have enough bruises.

Thankfully, writing academic papers is nothing like riding a bike, not least because there's less scope for physical injury. Firstly, writing papers (apparently unlike cycling) is about constant practice. The more time you spend writing, and the less time since you last wrote, the easier it seems to be. PhD students demonstrate this quite excellently. Their first year review is often a tortuous affair. But come back two years, and 40,000 words, later and they'll be churning out words like a printing press.

Writing academic papers is helped by the fact that most of them follow the same format: introduction, methods, results, discussion. The odd journal might try to stand out with a bit of thesaurus work (e.g. using background instead of introduction), but don't be fooled.

The methods section is simultaneously the easiest bit to write and the most boring bit to read. So boring, that some journals now print it in a smaller font, saving paper in exchange for illegibility. Nevertheless, I always start by writing the methods as it helps me 'warm up'. At least as much as some gentle jogging helps a footballer 'warm up' for an afternoon of theatrically falling over.

Next up is the results, which is again fairly easy to write and fairly dull to read. But at least the results section provides scope for a pretty picture. And there's nothing quite like drawing a picture to relieve the tedium of writing.

Finally, there's the introduction and the discussion. At best, these provide a coherent narrative, elegantly weaving a story around a clump of otherwise meaningless mess. If that sounds hard, that's because it is. I can spend hours struggling to write a couple of sentences. And that's on a good day.

Still, if writing the first draft is tough, it's nothing compared with what's to come. Woe betide the poor soul who thinks the first draft heralds the beginning of the end. Oh no. The real challenge are your co-authors. Those people who seem to take great pleasure in rewriting almost everything you've so carefully crafted. Write more about this. Less about this. Reorder that. Move those. Do a dance. Stand on your head.

In fact, the majority of the time spent drafting a paper seems to be about sending it to your co-authors, making changes, sending it back, making more changes, over and over again until - finally - everyone is equally unhappy. At which point, exhausted, you're ready for submission. Which is a whole other story in itself.

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