Some of my biggest takeaways from my time as a PRF Virtual Correspondent and advice I have for people wanting to become stronger science writers and communicators
Recently, I was chosen to take part as one of the thirteen early-career pain researchers and clinicians in the third cycle of the PRF Virtual Correspondents Program.
When I entered the program, I was the first ever undergraduate that PRF took on, as traditionally the participants were all either PhD students, Post-Docs, or the like. I am so grateful that PRF took a chance on me and let me show that I could hold my own. Hopefully, I have now paved the way for other undergraduates who have an inclination for writing to step out of their comfort zone and apply for future cycles. The entire experience was truly invaluable for me not just as a science communicator and writer, but indirectly as a scientist as well.
PRF is going to be running the PRF Virtual Correspondent program for the foreseeable future. If you are interested in learning more or applying for future cycles, I highly encourage you to do so. The PRF executive editor, Neil Andrews is an incredibly kind person and for any questions you may have about the PRF Correspondents program, please contact him at email@example.com ✉
The PRF Virtual Correspondents Program itself runs for six weeks. Each week, every participant publishes a blog post, and creative freedom is given for the topics. Below, I’ll share some of the things I learned throughout the program.
Stop staring at that endless void of a blank page
Sometimes, having too much creative freedom can actually be more difficult than being given strict guidelines. With the world being your oyster, one can easily become overwhelmed with the abundance of choices, especially if the overarching topic is one you are passionate about. It’s better to just pick something and start writing then it is to waste hours staring at a blank screen hoping that the words will magically come to you. This is where I learned to become comfortable with getting words on paper, even if it’s just a few sentences then going in and polishing it later.
Content first, Perfection later
During my time as a PRF virtual Correspondent I had to quickly learn how to just pick a topic and stick to it instead of trying to find the perfect thing, because the “perfect thing” does not truly exist. Having to write a blog post every week for six weeks straight while simultaneously finishing up my undergraduate degree at Rutgers University, Camden and engaging in independent research along with weekly lab meetings for the Dr. Nathan Fried’s Neuroscience of Chronic Pain Lab was one of the best things to have happened to me in terms of growing as a scientist and communicator. It forced me to stop second guessing myself and to be confident in what I was writing.
So you want to become better and more confident at writing, whether it be for science journalism or personal blogging. If you are anything like me, you are probably thinking something along the lines of “Okay great, I need to practice writing…. but what and how exactly am I supposed to even practice, when I do not even know where to start?” If you are trying to become a stronger, faster writer, then I highly encourage you to try the following exercise.
Adjusting the writing/creative content exercise to your skill and comfort level: It is important to challenge yourself without overwhelming yourself, which can be a very fine line.
For complete beginners at content production and writing:
If you have never written or created content before, I suggest doing this exercise for four weeks, commit to writing one article/ blog post or creating one piece of content a week. This way, you lesson the chance of feeling overwhelmed
For intermediate writers and content creators:
I suggest writing one article/ blog post or creating one piece of content a week. doing this exercise for six weeks
For expert writers and content creators:
Try sticking to this exercise for six weeks as well, but with the goal of bumping it up to writing two blogs / articles or making two creative content pieces each week.
Something I used to struggle with was feeling a self-imposed pressure for everything I wrote to be clean and polished on the first try. This perfectionism is nothing but harmful for creativity and it completely blocks the natural flow during the idea generation process. Different techniques work for different people, so it is not a one size fits all kind of deal. Try experimenting with different content creation techniques until you find one that fits the way your unique mind works.
Learn to become comfortable with getting words on paper, even if it’s just a few scribbled thoughts or sentences.
When you have all your thoughts pulled from your mind and written on to the page, THEN you can start polishing it.
Here are some methods that have worked for me during the drafting process:
Writing better, faster.
Prior to starting, pick a topic that you are interested in or passionate about. It can be anything, just make sure it is something you will enjoy deep diving in to.
- For Writer’s block- Word and Phrase Association: Mind Mapping
- Grab a pen and piece of scratch paper, or open up a new document
- First write down the overarching topic you are trying to write or create content about.
- Underneath that, quickly jot down any word or phrase that pops up in your mind that relates to that topic- while doing this, it is important to not try to make this refined, this is simply a way to get yourself to start writing
- Every time you run out of ideas, take the last word or phrase that you wrote down, and start the process over using it as your “new” topic until you get to the bottom of the page or are ready to move on to choosing more specifically what to write about
Let’s say I am trying to write about Neuroscience, a very simple word association list could look something like this:
- Subfields of Neuroscience
- Nervous System
Here are some examples of mindmaps I have created in the past for helping myself come up with writing ideas:
Now that you have some ideas of things you can write about, write an outline of everything you want your article to include.
Content Organization Tip: When I am juggling a lot of concepts for one piece, I have found writing out all of the core concepts I plan on including on separate flash cards. Then, lay out the flash cards in the order you want the information to go in. This helps check if you are writing in a logical flow, and the visual aspect to it makes complex concepts not seem to abstract. I have used this for a variety of applications such as writing scripts for presentations and outlines for research papers.
Finally, you can start to fill in the outline you created for yourself. I tend to jump around the page when writing as opposed to trying to force myself to write from start to finish. If you start hitting a wall, walk away from it and come back later when you have given yourself time to unwind a bit. Don’t feel like you have to come out with award-winning, awe-inspiring work right off the bat or every single time- because that is setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Instead, focus on just finishing something and celebrate the fact that every time you write and create, you are becoming a stronger writer and creator.
I will be sharing more tips for writing, content creation and science communication in the near future, so stay tuned for more!