Tips on Putting Thoughts into Writing

Writing is an excellent stress reliever – and, according to New York Times, modulates one’s self-narrative.  This is true even if you are bad at it!  (Who has two thumbs and can barely keep “your” and “you’re” straight?)

Recording thoughts is also an excellent exercise in staying focused.  I am a very distractible person, frequently leaving sentences un

© Mats Tooming | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Mats Tooming | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I have found that keeping a blog also helps my academic writing, even as I blog using a litany of contractions, ambiguous pronouns, and committing parallelism errors on a list.  Or use fragments, and none of this is acceptable for a manuscript.

Over time I discovered a few ways to stay on-task when writing, be it hobbyist or seriously academic.

Use a Distraction-Free Writing Tool

People write in different environments – some write in a library, others require some level of noise and prefer a café, and yet others prefer the comfort of the home.  However, in addition to physical environments, the digital environment of writing has become increasingly important.  I find writing on a computer a necessary evil, the omnipresent connectivity to the internet being the ultimate distraction.  Others must have faced similar problems, as an entire category of “distraction free writing tools” have surfaced and are fascinating tools.

You can write using a Chrome app called Calmly Writer.  A web app ZenPen is free, requires no installation, and works well.  For bloggers, WordPress recently began to support a distraction-free mode that might work for you.  Ghost is a relatively new platform that provides a superior writing environment.

Personally, I use GVim with the plugins fullscreenGoyo and Limelight.  The interface looks like this:


GVIM, in fullscreen with Goyo and Limelight


Separate Writing and Editing

The best benefit of a distraction-free writing tool is separation of writing from the editing.

One of the best advice I got from a research mentor about writing a paper is to separate the writing from the editing process. Writing is a creative process, even when it’s a scientific paper.  Some people create extensive outlines, others go for a full inspiration-driven approach, and still others prefer somewhere in-between.

One thing is consistent regardless of your style: editing while writing can be highly distractive.

The powerful word processing tools we use, unfortunately, stack the odds against us with red and blue squiggles like to scream for attention: “Fix me! Fix me!”  Before submitting a manuscript for consideration or publishing a blog post, you should always ensure that there are no typos.  However, this doesn’t have to be done in real-time, and it can be turned off till the end of the writing session.

This also means not using Word to draft the text of the manuscript to start.  Word is a powerful tool and is necessary for all stages of editing, but it’s not a good draft tool.

Organize The Content

After it became free, I began using OneNote to organize most of my notes.  It is available for Mac OS X and Windows and has a functional app for browsers, Android, and iOS app.  The environment itself is also good for the following reasons:

  1. Low-distraction environment in full screen mode. This is the whole point, after all.
  2. Uploads to the cloud. I can continue working between computers or even on my tablet.
  3. Separates the research from the web-browsing. Inevitably when writing you will end up doing some web research.  I always end up getting side-tracked during this phase.  Now I simply clip websites to OneNote and simply not use the web browser unless I absolutely must.

It’s hard to mention ON without also commenting on the “OneNote vs EverNote” debate.  I switched away from Evernote last year after I lost several notes due to a bug.  However, EverNote is an excellent tool that is frequently updated.  It recently had a total makeover, now with an incredibly impressive, minimalistic environment.

Stuck?  Come Back Later

I can write grammatically correct sentences, but I’m not a very creative person. No matter how much you find putting things into writing relaxing there will come a point when you cross the fine line between catharsis and frustration.  Getting stuck happens a lot, and it’s easy to become frustrated.

Just stop and come back later.

Leave the blog post, the manuscript, the book alone and make a point to come back.  Ernest Hemmingway supposedly leaves his writing in mid-sentence so when he returned later he could always pickup where he left off.  He also drank a lot, so not everything he does is worth emulating.  Nevertheless, for the same reason that the solution to a very hard test problem might spontaneously pop into your head during shower the next morning, the best way to assemble sections of a writing may come when you return at a different time.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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