How to write a paper

With the help of a colleague, I recently wrote a white paper about forecasting research and how we want to use it to improve decision-making in organizations. Since people liked the paper and I enjoyed writing it, I thought I’d share some details about our writing process.

Why have a process?

Why should you even use a writing process? Shouldn’t writing be pure creativity, pulled by the force of inspiration? That would be ideal. But in real life, it rarely works. Creation is 5 percent creativity and inspiration. The remaining 95 percent is hard work and discipline. Working hard without some kind of process is time-consuming flat-out painful.

Foundation

Luckily, there are methods that work. In his book How To Become a Straight-A Student, Cal Newport teaches how to write essays and papers. His method is targeted at undergraduate students, but it is highly relevant to others as well.

This method solves a couple of problems that has plagued me while writing—mainly how to do it in a predictable and non-stressful way. The main thing is to do all the research and outlining before writing anything. In the book, Newport includes the following cheat sheet (p. 210):

Step #1. Target a Titillating Topic

  • Start looking for an interesting topic early.

Step #2. Conduct a Thesis-Hunting Expedition

  • Start with general sources and then follow references to find the more targeted sources where good thesis ideas often hide.

Step #3. Seek a Second Opinion

  • A thesis is not a thesis until a professor has approved it.

Step #4. Research like a Machine

  • Find sources.
  • Make personal copies of all sources.
  • Annotate the material.
  • Decide if you’re done. (If the answer is “no,” loop back to #1.)

Step #5. Craft a Powerful Story

  • There is no shortcut to developing a well-balanced and easy-to-follow argument.
  • Dedicate a good deal of thought over time to getting it right.
  • Describe your argument in a topic-level outline.
  • Type supporting quotes from sources directly into your outline.

Step #6. Consult Your Expert Panel

  • Before starting to write, get some opinions on the organization of your argument and your support from classmates and friends who are familiar with the general area of study.
  • The more important the paper, the more people who should review it.

Step #7. Write Without the Agony

  • Follow your outline and articulate your points clearly.
  • Write no more than three to five pages per weekday and five to eight pages per weekend day.

Step #8. Fix, Don’t Fixate

  • Solid editing requires only three careful passes:
    • The Argument Adjustment Pass: Read the paper carefully on your computer to make sure your argument is clear, fix obvious errors, and rewrite where the flow needs improvement.
    • The Out Loud Pass: Carefully read out loud a printed copy of your paper, marking any awkward passages or unclear explanations.
    • The Sanity Pass: A final pass over a printed version of the paper to check the overall flow and to root out any remaining errors.

While the cheat sheet is good, I recommend reading the book to understand it fully and get motivated to actually use the system properly.

Adaptation

Because we’re startup founders looking to convince customers, there’s no professor to ask. So, instead, I used my colleague for feedback along the way. Also, I have to admit that I read through it more than three times.

Tools

Cal Newport has little to say about tools, but I think that they are important, so I’ll share mine here.

LaTeX

It takes some effort to learn, but the document preparation system LaTeX and associated tools such as BibLaTeX for handling citations are great for the following reasons.

  1. The output is beautiful and professional-looking.
  2. Separating content (plain text) from presentation (PDF, HTML, etc.) makes it easier to concentrate on your writing.
  3. I find remembering functions such as \footnote{} easier than memorizing keyboard shortcuts. Also, typing them strains the hands less.
  4. You can add comments using the % syntax which don’t appear in the output. This is useful for, among other things, removing parts of the text without losing them altogether.
  5. Being plain text, the content you make is extremely portable and can be used with version control systems like Git.
  6. Writing in a code-like markup language feels good.
  7. With Overleaf (“Google Docs for LaTeX”), you don’t have to worry about installing anything. And their documentation is fantastic.

Polar Bookshelf

Polar is an app for managing, annotating and highlighting documents such as web pages and PDFs. It’s great for stuff you don’t want to print.

Kindle

E-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle let you annotate and search through the text of e-books. They have a web application and apps for iOS, Android, Mac, and PC.

Sources

I find that nothing beats physical books, printouts, etc. But, for putting quotes in your paper, it’s better to have digital copies so that you can copy and paste. So, if you can afford it, get both.

Pens, highlighters, etc.

Wirecutter has great recommendations for tools such as pens, pencils and highlighters.

Procrastination

In order to fight procrastination, using a blocker like Freedom can really help.

In closing

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have any feedback for me, I’d love to hear from you.