Why to read Whitesides’ guide on writing a paper

This year one of my goals is to be a better writer. I still consider myself very inexperienced in writing a paper and I don’t think I do it efficiently, so I am actively trying to be better. 

One source that has been helping me is the Whitesides’ guide on paper writing [1,2]. This method focuses on scientific writing, but I have used it for writing on humanities and less objective topics. It has helped me immensely to write for essay competitions. What I admire about Prof. Whitesides is that he is not only one of the most cited chemists of all time, but his work in incredibly useful and consistent. I like his guide because writing a lot is not a goal, but a consequence of having a method to do your best in writing a paper – with time limitations. 

First, his method consists of writing the paper as you do the research. He says the writing process should guide the research, instead of just reporting it afterwards. In his position, he mostly advises his students instead of writing the papers himself, so the papers are written in a joint effort and might take more than 10 rounds of revision. In each round, he tracks when he received the paper and when he gave back the revised vision. He says there are 4 phases of writing a paper:

  • Doing an outline
  • Getting the science right
  • Transmitting data well
  • Improving presentation

I believe most people who write a lot might apply some of these steps, even without knowing of this method. However, I would like to add the recommendations of philosopher Stephen Mumford. In his writing guide [3], he says that one of the most important part is presenting the work at all opportunities so you know which parts are not clear or which aspects are more interesting to people from other fields. Listening to this feedback will likely increase the reach of your work and make it more appealing. Like Whitesides says “Fundamental research doesn’t mean useless research”. For me, who is doing research in a very specific topic, I follow my advisor recommendation to always have 3 pitches of my presentations, one of 30 s, one of 1 min and one of 10 min and I try to keep these pitches in mind when I am writing. 

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