Tool #1: Dear Mom – Scientific Writing – Part 5
I’m writing a paper about how to write a paper. It’s a really cool topic because when you learn how to write effectively, people engage your ideas and data more; ideas and data can change the world.
As I said in previous blogs in this series—blogs that cover what scientific writing is, two characteristics of good writers, the structure of a scientific paper, and the oh-so-important literature review—writing well involves understanding some big picture issues (e.g., why write and how to approach the task of writing) but big pictures don’t always translate into words-on-paper. So, in this blog, I want to share some tangible “this is what I do” nuts and bolts of the writing process.
My point in sharing is not to say “this is the correct way to write,” but to show you some tools that you might find useful (in whole or in part, or even just to inspire you to come up with an even better method). As I share bits of my process, I am mindful that there are likely inefficiencies and weird things I do that might not actually improve my thinking. As I continue to grow in my writing skill, my process will probably change. The whole point of this blog is to provide potential scaffolds that invite you into that same process of growth. I’m going to do that by showing you my actual notes and some drafts with commentary for a recent literature review I wrote, a paper that published in September 2021. This paper is titled A tale of two perspectives: How psychology and neuroscience contribute to understanding personhood.
To start, I want to address the opening of this blog: Dear Mom. Why, you might be wondering, do I have this random letter to my mother at the beginning of this blog? To answer that question, I will turn to the first tool in my writing process.
Tool #1: Start writing. Break through any writers blocks by telling your mother about your paper…in your paper.
My mom is a wonderful human being. She is a longtime educator and creator of things. In my educational adventure through high school, I’m certain that my mom read each and every paper I wrote. And each and every paper was returned decorated with red ink (the marks and critiques of a loving mother helping her daughter think better and reminding her that sometimes spell check doesn’t catch homophones-doh!). With this as a background, I picked up a habit in graduate school (origin unknown) to break writer’s block with what I call a dear mom draft.
I find that sometimes the most challenging part of writing is just starting. You stare at a blank word document on your computer, suddenly remembering that you haven’t organized your cheese drawer in the fridge or that you don’t remember when you dusted your ceiling fan last or that you’ve always been meaning to sort the paper clips in your desk drawer (you know, to make your work—like writing this paper—easier in the future). And gosh, you’re hungry now. Let’s take a break. All of these (suddenly important) tasks pop into your mind because they seem somehow easier than the unknown answer to “what am I going to write in this paper?!” So, the trick that I learned to get going was to start a paper with a salutation (I chose my mom, you can choose anyone you like) and a few sentences about what you think this paper might be about.
In May 2021, I was in that exact position I described above (the answer is that I have never dusted my ceiling fans. For shame.) I had agreed to write a paper with the general parameters of “a paper about how psychology can advance philosophy/theology around topics of personhood.” I was a bit paralyzed. How could I take such a broad topic and turn it into a paper that someone might want to read (and, importantly, a paper that someone may find useful)? I don’t suffer the illusion that my paper will change the world, but it’s possible that someone who reads it might have ideas that can change the world. Words and ideas matter—but we have to start by, well, starting. But how?
Let me show you an example of how I got started: the dear mom draft.
None of this actually made it into my paper. That wasn’t really the point. But my first drafts started with this narrative. The point wasn’t that these words were going to be final words; the point was to think about what I might want to say in this paper in a way that I could communicate it to an educated other (my intended audience). These few sentences served two primary purposes:
- They got words on paper. It’s easier to edit when there is something there. And sometimes, once you start, you get momentum (and thus more words to edit and help you think).
- They helped me start the process of clarifying what the purpose of my paper was. What did I want my reader to know? You can already start to see some outlines here: I want to tell them about research in developmental psychology and I want to tell them about research in neuroscience. I didn’t have all that research found and organized yet, but by having this protracted (unedited, stream of conscious) idea on paper, I could start my search for the research that I would use in my paper. (Remember, in science writing, citations are evidence.)
Importantly, at the point of my dear mom draft, I was already vaguely familiar with the research I intended to search for; I knew a bit about what the research in developmental psychology and neuroscience would say. (Though, rest assured, I absolutely learned some new things that shaped the direction of my paper, too!) If you know nothing about anything that might be relevant to your topic, you need to do some reading before you can even start to tell your mom what you want to talk about. For a class, this pre-work might be re-reading the textbook and the assigned reading. Re-reading the assigned material on the broad topic you will be exploring will serve as the foundation of your thinking about what you might want to say. It will be enough to get your dear mom draft going, which is the beginning of your real research (i.e., finding, reading, and synthesizing original research into your paper).
Stay tuned for our next blog, where I show you how I move from dear mom to first draft. In the meantime, have you ever written something like a dear mom draft? What do you think of the idea? I’d love to know!
If you found this blog helpful, check out the overview of the whole series here, so that you can find more useful information to develop your writing.
When something that makes me angry or annoyed I usually record a video to send to my friends (because I hate texting or talking over the phone because I can’t see body language) when doing this I often am able to reflect on what annoyed me and delete the video because I am no longer angry at the situation/person.
That’s a great idea (in general, and for writing). The point is just to start and then reflect back on what you’ve started, which sometimes provides a clarity you didn’t have just prior to starting. For me, writing (typing) is synonymous with thinking. (This is actually Tool #4-stay tuned!) Thanks for sharing!
I love the idea that in oder to break through writers blocks you should “tell your mom about your paper.” Or rather start a narrative where you are hypothetically having an in person conversation. Only difference is it is on paper. I find it easier to lay out my ideas in a conversational aspect rather than a structured essay. I will defiantly have to use this tool when I begin to have writers block.
Yes! Get started, and free yourself of the pressure that the start has to be “right” or “good.” Once you are starting, sometimes this provides just the clarity you need.
As described, I, too, have contemplated the number of times I’ve dusted my ceiling fan in attempts to avoid the task at hand completely. So I must say I find it comforting that scholars of every level have done the same. I’ve never thought about just putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard in this way. The concept creates an informal plan of action for the creator and the creator’s chosen topic. As the end of the semester wraps up, I will be writing letters to mom. Thank you for this topic and the ideas to combat writing stagefright or block.
Yes! Ignore those ceiling fans, write mom the letters (and finish those papers!!). Glad you found this helpful.
Hi again Dr. Smith,
I have never thought about writing a dear mom draft, but that is a great idea because I can be a major writing procrastinator. I get so intimidated to start an essay because I am a total perfectionist and just want it to come out immediately flawless. However, this makes it so difficult for me to start an essay because I put a huge pressure on myself! So I really like this idea because it is also so casual and removes that pressure for perfect writing. I think if I did it I would actually want to send it to my mom just for fun (lol!). Thank you for your great ideas I really enjoy reading your articles.
Great, thank you for commenting! (And I’m sure your mom would love the letter!)
Thank you, Dr. Smith, for your words of explanation throughout your blogs, and your humbleness about what you do. I appreciate that you acknowledge that your way is not the only way to write. I enjoyed learning about your process of overcoming writers block (or more accurate for myself, topic paralysis). I found your method interesting and inviting. Next time I experience my topic paralysis I am determined to use your method and write my mom a letter.
So glad you think it might be helpful! I tend to overcomplicate things when left inside my own head. I find that writing it out as a letter is helpful in distilling my ideas to the things that matter (or the topics that are interesting…interesting enough that my mom might want to read it in a letter or interesting enough that I want to write it in a letter!)
Starting a paper is definitely very difficult. I sit staring at a blank word document for hours and, like you said, remember all the unnecessary things I ‘forgot’ to do like organize my sock drawer or break in my new boots for that night’s outing.
The idea of jotting down a few sentences about what I think my paper will be about in the form of a letter to someone is brilliant. Getting words written down is the start that begins the writing process. Growing up I was told to create outlines and jot down ideas, but those would get messy because I never knew where to start with those either. This is just what I needed to read before I begin writing my paper … for your class!
A paper I can’t wait to read!! 🙂
I absolutely love what you had to say about writers block. Like you, I often struggle in starting on my paper. I often face a fear that I don’t know if this paper will turn out good, or that I am capable of writing a strong paper. I will definitely utilize your tip on writing to someone. That is a great way to get the juices flowing for the paper. Thank you for sharing your own personal experience, and the ways in which you have improved your writing skills. I greatly enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write this, and to help other college students grow in their writing!
Thanks for this, Haylee! It’s so trite to say that “perfection is the enemy of progress”….and yet it’s true. If you think the paper will be (or must be!) perfect the first time, you’ll never write anything. There is no such thing as a perfect paper. Luckily, as Christians, we have lots of reasons to believe that perfection is not required to change the world–just look at the people Jesus left in charge of the church! Jesus is perfection–we are not called to perfection, but to faithfulness. In writing, this means giving good, consistent effort–to write a paper as if you were writing it for the Lord (Col 3:23).
I appreciate the idea of “telling your mother about your paper” as a way to get through writer’s block. Alternatively, begin a story in which you are having a hypothetical in-person interaction. I’ll be writing letters to Mom as the semester comes to a close. I’ve never considered writing a dear mom draft, but it’s a great idea because I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to writing. As previously stated, I, too, have considered how many times I’ve organized my cheese drawer in my fridge in an attempt to entirely ignore the duty at hand. So it’s reassuring to know that scholars at all levels have done the same. Thank you for bringing up this topic and the suggestions for overcoming writer’s block.
I hope you find it helpful, Andrew! Besides, cheese is for eating, words for organizing! 🙂
To start off, I really enjoyed the idea of telling your mom about the paper you are writing. As someone who also struggles with starting papers, this was a great piece of advice. I now know that jotting down ideas that might be beneficial to a paper and having a “dear mom draft” will be very helpful to writing research papers or any papers in the future. Also, thank you for sharing your own experiences. It is nice to know that even scholars struggle with the same writer’s block that I experience as well.
Yes! The primary difference, in my view, between scholar’s writing and scholars-in-training (you!) writing is practice. Some of the fundamental difficulties (like where to start, how to organize, what to say, how to say it clearly…), these stay the same. We just have more practice with dealing with them. I’m glad you found the peek inside my own ways of dealing with one of these issues helpful!
I appreciate your comment about not sharing this because it is the “correct” way to write. I think students feel anxious when being told that there is no correct way to do something because we are so used to following strict guidelines in school. We all have our own styles of writing which makes it so unique because no two papers are the same. I have never tried the “Dear Mom” approach before and because of this post, I am very intrigued by it! I think that is a great option for students to use to check if their writing makes sense.
Yes! There are some basic expectations about the end product, to be sure, but the path to get there can vary. I think it is really helpful to see what others do so that you can pick and choose what works, learn, and then develop what works for you. There are so many factors that go into “what works”. So long as you are working to figure that out, I think you’re doing great!
I just recently started journaling when I was struggling gathering my thoughts or if I was feeling angry or sad so later I could take the time to reflect on those feelings before acting on my emotions as they are high in that moment. It helps me calm down as well because my mind is focused on the writing. I have seen this work for those around me so I am trying to incorporate it into my life.
Thank you for this post!
Yes! There is a great researcher–Pennebaker–who studies expressive writing. Basically, the process of translating our “inner groans” into language has all sorts of positive benefits. When we have these groans about a research paper, sometimes trying a classic expressive writing narrative style is enough to get the log jam moving again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I can’t tell you how much I relate to suddenly remembering silly to-do lists when I want to start a paper. Usually though, my to-do list looks like shutting down my laptop and just laying on my bed stressing out. This then leads to habitual procrastination, and eventually starting the assignment dangerously close to the deadline. Reading your blog, I was genuinely surprised as I can see myself actually applying this method. I love that it’s practical and can help me put words to my stream of thoughts (that is always all over the place). I definitely think it would help me calm down and process things easier. Thank you Dr. Smith!
So glad, Shalomita! Next time you want to shut down the laptop, commit to 5 sentences to your mom (or BFF) about what you need to do. If after 5 sentences you are still ready to shut it down, do that (with a commitment to come back). But, you might find that was enough to get you going!
Hi Dr. Smith!
I enjoyed reading this post because I have ALWAYS struggled with just sitting down and starting my papers! It really is the most minor thing that tends to pop into your head when you’re trying to write a critical essay. The concept of writing a letter to your mom is probably one of the most innovative ideas I’ve heard because talking to your mom seems to be the easiest thing to do sometimes! Not only that, but it really does allow you to just get your words and mind flowing! This strategy is definitely something that I will be taking with me the next time I have to write a paper!
I am completely in love with this tip of how to break writers block. It’s a great way to establish what the purpose of the paper is, as well how to identify its intended audience. I often stare at a blank word document until a lightbulb goes off in my mind of what to write, which can take a few hours. I plan to implement this great tool into my writing process from now on. Thank you for sharing your experiences!
You are very welcome! Hope to cut that “few hours of staring” down quite a bit. I know that feeling well… 🙂
I have always enjoyed writing ever since my first difficult English class in high school. I love the rush that comes with having something to say and articulating idea exactly the way they needed to be explained. I have never heard of the “Dear Mom” illustration of writing. It makes so much sense. I similarly to you, have a mom with a background in education who spent many years teaching elementary school. She read my papers and corrected grammar errors, but that wasn’t the most helpful aspect of her input. I would stomp into my parent’s bedroom and grumble about my newest assignment that I was dreading to start. My mom would patiently ask me every time, “what is the prompt”. I would tell her and then proceed to tell her why the prompt was too redundant or confusing. She would ask why I thought that. In me explaining why the prompt frustrated me, I would explain my deeper issues and thoughts on the topic at hand. She would then look at me with a devious smile and say, “I think you know what you need to say”. EVERY TIME. It was almost frustrating how often this happened.
I really think more people need to hear about this method of writing!
Hello Dr. Smith, first off I think that addressing someone you know in the form of a paper is a wonderful idea, as someone who frequently experiences writing blocks and takes breaks within my papers maybe this method can actually allow me to finish my papers in a more timely manner. Writing fatigue is also something I struggle with so maybe this approach can make it seem less like typing a paper and more like a conversation so I can experience that less.
Yes, so long as you delete all the narrative part in your revisions 🙂 This is just to get the juices flowing!
Hi Dr. Smith, I appreciated reading your encouragement on especially how to break through writer’s block. Writer’s block is something that I find myself struggling with often. It never occurred to me that I could write a paper as if I were writing it for the purpose of sharing it with my mom. I agree that a large challenge in writing can simply be sometimes starting. When beginning a paper, that is when I realize I tend to struggle with writer’s block the most. Looking at a blank paper is the same exact feeling as looking at a blank canvas before painting. It can be really intimidating. I will have to give my own “dear mom draft” a try on my next paper!
Ruby, I hope when you use the “dear mom draft,” you will find success in your writing!
Good evening Dr. Smith,
I enjoyed reading your blog post, especially when you stated that the most challenging part of writing is simply just beginning. I struggle with this on too many occasions. However, what is helpful is when I break up my topic into subheadings before writing; that helps abundantly. In doing so, this answers the question of what I would want my readers to know.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us.
Yes, Alyssa! That’s like a modified outlining. Sometimes I can jump straight there, but sometimes I have a more general, dumbfounded “ugh, what am I doing?” experience. That’s when mom helps 🙂
I too get distracted or do everything possible to postpone starting a paper so it’s comforting to know that even a successful professor like yourself struggles at times. I absolutely love your approach of doing a “dear mom” letter to start getting the ideas flowing. What I found useful is that I start off by typing all the points/ideas I have on the document. I later convert those points/ideas into sentences and it just helps me not forget what I plan on talking about. I think next time I write a paper I will try your approach because I find it very intriguing and I feel like it might be helpful for me since I struggle a lot with writer’s block!
Vasti, your writing process is inspiring!
Hi Dr. Smith,
I do think it is extremely important to recognize that we are constantly going through a process of growth that impacts all aspects of our life, including our writing and thinking. This growth can cause changes in our writing style and can bring us new skills. I know that I have found it difficult to adapt to new changes in my writing because I either get writer’s block or a bunch of random ideas just come into my head. However, I really liked the idea of acting like I am writing a letter to my mom so that I can narrow down ideas that are important and overall get words onto my paper like you mentioned. It is a start to my process and will help me develop my final draft. Thank you for this advice! I will definitely use this tip for my next paper.
Great!! Come back after that paper and let me know how it worked out!!
I really enjoyed this idea of writing to your mom about your paper. Writting a paper can be extremely overwhelming especially when it comes to writing about an important topic. I do feel like writing to someone that is close to you can take away the stress which can be beneficial because when one feels stressed things can feel overwhelming and start finding excuses not to write the essay.
Absolutely! And it requires you to keep your language simple and straightforward, to really distill your thoughts to the specific things you want to say (without all the fluff). Moms are smart, to be sure, but we want to communicate to them clearly. This helps with that.
Hello Dr. Smith,
I would like to start off by saying thank you for sharing such helpful tips with us that I’m sure many will find useful and insightful. I think that your method of starting your papers as if you’re writing to your mom is very creative and something I can start doing too. I think that often times we put so much pressure on ourselves to reach “perfection” at first try, that we lose sight of the value found in working in small steady steps. As you mentioned, staring at a blank Word document can seem like a very daunting task, but simply starting will open our creative mind to express what we want to communicate to our audience. I look forward to trying out your “Dear Mom” method when writing further in your class, as well as all others.
Wonderful!! I’m so glad to hear that. I would love to hear how this works out as you are writing….writing….and writing some more 🙂
Hi, Dr. Smith,
I thought this post was very insightful and encouraging. Thank you for sharing such great tips! I appreciated your first tip, though it is so mundane – start writing. This is always the biggest hurdle for me. Beginning to write reminds me of that same internal struggle I face when I know I should go to the gym but continue to put it off. Starting/showing up is the hardest part. Just like I can easily get into the groove once I step inside the gym, writing becomes easy once I start.
Yes, thanks for sharing! (Now go get writing 😉 …assuming you have a paper to do, that is!
To start off, I enjoyed reading your blog, and how you share that there is no “correct” way of writing, as students I think we feel anxious in being told this is the “way” to do something, in terms of writing a paper. I really liked the idea of writing a mom draft about my paper you are writing. As someone who finds it a bit intimating to have someone else read my paper, I feel that having a mom draft of my paper, will get me out of my comfort zone.
I find this relatable as I always use my mom for so many things when it comes to my academics, whether it’s reading her my papers or going through my study guides with her. She usually has no idea what I’m talking about as she did not study the behavioral sciences, but it helps clear my ideas and remember things just to tell someone. I could see myself doing a “dear mom” draft for things that seem intimidating at first to help break it down.
I really love this post, I think this one is my favorite one you’ve written Dr. Smith. Maybe because my mom is my best friend, and she has played such a huge role in my academic career from when I was young, and until now. I can recall so many times I’ve written papers in so many classes where I was just stumped on where to begin, or how can I continue these thoughts leaving me to go find time to clean my bathroom from floor to ceiling and then finding a snack like you said! Using your “dear Mom” trick is like outlining how you’d start the paper, and find ways to “unstuck” yourself from writer’s block. Such a wonderful post!
I’m so glad to hear this, Lana! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m a firm believer in bringing to mind the people who make us feel competent so that we can start to act competently. That’s partly why I picked my mom, too 🙂
I really enjoyed reading this blog. At first, I thought it would be weird to start my essay off with, ¨ Dear Mom¨ but recently, while I was trying to figure out how to start my essay for Education, I decided to give it a try. I doubted it at first because it was odd to write a letter to my mom. However, once I started writing, it made my assignment much more manageable, and it really helped me out a lot. I will most definitely be using this method in future essays. Thank You, Dr. Smith, for sharing this with us all.
Yazmin, it is so good to hear that this method works for you and that you will be implementing it in the future!
Hello Dr Smith, thank you for writing this paper. I also feel like I struggle with writers block. Once I get going the words start to come out fast but once I stop or take a break, it takes me a while to get the juices up and running again. Hopefully I could try implementing this method in the future.
And I hope it works for you!
this was such a cool paper thank you professor I like how you say there isn’t no real way to write a paper it is very inspiring considering that ill see someone else’s and envy them for how well theirs sentences flow