How to start writing a paper or proposal

Do you suffer from the fear of the empty document? Getting started is for most scientists the hardest part of the whole writing process. Here’s how to conquer the blank page.


You’ve been meaning to start writing your paper or proposal for weeks. You’ve opened a new document, looked at it and started to panic a little. You probably wanted to close it again right away. Sounds familiar? I bet it does because I get this question a lot: How do I start to write?

Having a blank page stare back at you can be unnerving. I get it. Even though I’ve quite gotten used to looking at fresh documents – apart from writing this blog, I frequently write about science for magazines and websites – starting a new writing project is definitely the most difficult part of the whole process for me.

That’s why I’ve found some ways to work around this fear that I also teach my clients. Today I’m sharing six strategies with you that will help you get started with your scientific writing project quickly:  


1. The Mind-Dump Technique

Sometimes we fear to start writing because we are afraid that it won’t turn out perfectly. We think that we just have to think the project through a little more before we can put our ideas down on paper. You know what? It’s hard to think the whole structure of a manuscript or application through in your head. It’s a lot easier to structure, rearrange and identify gaps once your ideas are written down. Remember, you can always delete and edit everything you put on that page. This is just your first mind dump – nobody is going to see or judge you for it. This technique also helps when your thoughts are spinning and you feel stuck in your thinking process.


2. The Outline-Approach

A great way of making the blank page disappear quickly is to fill it with an outline. I recommend to start with the easy things, for example spelling out the different section headings, even if it is the common “Introduction”, “Results” and “Discussion”. From there, you can just fill in the info that you think the sections and perhaps subsections should contain using keywords and bullet points. Then you can move on to deciding what the different paragraphs should look like. Writing the paper or proposal is now only filling the gaps with coherent sentences – easy-peasy!


3.  The Story-Telling Framework

This is my favourite strategy, which I also teach my clients. The beauty of using the story-telling framework is that your proposal or paper will be concise from the start. Instead of thinking about the structure of your paper in terms of sections as in the outline approach, I think it’s more effective to look at the story elements first: What is the main message, what is the problem you are solving, what is the resolution aka your conclusions? I wrote a whole mini-blog-series about story-telling in scientific papers, check out the first part here.


4. The Mix-It-Up Hack  

Sometimes the task of opening a blank document has so many negative feelings attached to it that every other strategy is destined to fail from the start. If that’s the case for you, you have to switch things up. For example, you could use a different program – LaTeX for example already has so many commands on a blank page that it might help. Or maybe pen and paper are your best friends. If you are into stationary, getting a nice notebook might give you the positive association with starting up your writing that you needed.

It could also be that not opening the word processor is the devil but your physical location. Perhaps you just need to get out of the office. Is there a café you like the atmosphere at? Take your laptop and sit down for a focused hour or two and I promise the blank page will transform quickly.  


5.  The Cherry-Picking-System

You don’t need to start writing your paper or proposal at the beginning. A great way to fill the blank page quickly is by starting with the bit that feels easiest. For some of my clients, that’s the Methods section, for others the Results. Some actually think the Introduction is the best way to start. It really doesn’t matter much although I think it’s most productive to wait with tackling the abstract and title until you have written the introduction and results section.


6.  The Pressure-Method

Sometimes we don’t start doing things because we have too much time. Or rather because we don’t have a clear deadline, and it just feels like that there’s so much time that we don’t really need to get the project done quickly. I know it may sound harsh but when you know you HAVE to write, you’ll most likely get it done. Therefore, I recommend to create a writing plan with deadlines for the different parts of the project. This productivity hack will not only get you started quickly but also finish the paper and grant proposal in record time. For more productivity tips, please check out these two blog posts I’ve written recently.

By the way, you don’t need to decide for just one of these strategies. It works really well when you combine a few of them. So, go now and tackle that new paper or proposal that you should have started weeks ago already!

Can I help you get your paper or proposal in shape? Check out my coaching and editing packages or contact me here.

About the Author:

I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite)