Let’s face it, it’s hard to do both at the same time, and do them well. I don’t think that scientific writing is my strongest skill, but I understand and respect the importance of it in science.
I’m struggling with bench work, although interesting results are coming together. Then here comes that e-mail from the PI, asking me to finish a report, help out with a grant or write a review on a topic that is not my greatest expertise. He gives me a deadline of two weeks to submit everything.
On these occasions, it’s hard for me to detach from the materialized intensity of lab work and find that “zen” sweet spot that allows me to shut down the bench demands, and focus more on the intellectual processes that are required to deliver a scientific text.
Other times, writing comes out naturally (mostly whilst bench work is not seeing its greatest days). After which, I enjoy taking a step back, diving into the literature and learning new things.
The key, as some of the medical writers in the blog have pointed out very nicely, is practice. On that note, I have found that keeping more detailed lab notes actually helps a lot. It’s easy to scribble a few quick notes about an experiment. On the other hand, writing something more polished that will qualify in a manuscript will take more time. However, it will compensate in two ways: writing practice and having the work already pre-formatted for submission.
I have also realized that even if it feels like the timing could not be worse, being involved in writing grants, protocols and those reviews that are not directly related to my topics, actually helps a lot.
By working on those side assignments, my writing mode kicks in faster and better when I need it for my actual original manuscripts, proposals and projects. Even if it is a small project, information learned in the process is retained, and may be useful and/or recycled for other projects.
So, incapable of avoiding a cliché statement, here goes: The more you do it, the better you will get at it. The time you invest in scientific writing will compensate in many ways, and as you progress in your career you will realize that those skills will be increasingly important.