Monthly Archives: October 2014

[Video] How to Write a Great Research Paper

Writing is something that’s extremely difficult to do well.

It is, after all, a form of telepathy. Transferring hazy ideas from your mind, onto an external medium, in a way that some other mind (that you have not, and may never meet), can digest, so that they end up with that same idea in their minds.

I stumbled across this video, and thought I’d share it with you, as well as highlight a few of the points and how they apply in Gingko.

Don’t Wait: Write

“Writing is how we work through ideas, not just share them…”

I thoroughly agree with this statement. If you’re doing research work, or any long and winding creative process, you should be writing daily. Even if it’s just for yourself.

During my PhD work, I often found that writing was a great way to keep the thread going day in and day out. I would keep a detailed log of what I was doing, and why, and towards the end of the day, tell myself what the next step would be.

This is similar to Ernest Hemingway’s advice, by the way:

You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

– Ernest Hemingway, 1958 interview with George Plimpton

Besides keeping a log & picking up the thread, writing in Gingko as you go is a way of maintaining perspective. You are not simply keeping the thread day in and day out, but if your journal is tree-structured, you can do the same for every week, month, and quarter. This keeps you from going down the blind alleys that litter any creative work.

In a nutshell, this constant perspective could very well save you years off a PhD (or novel, or any other ambitious writing project).

Identify your Key Idea

This, I believe, is the single biggest challenge in the way PhD’s are pursued (at least, from my experience and interviews). And a simple diagnostic is in the title.

Here is the title of my PhD in physics: “Flexible polyelectrolytes: like-charged attraction,
linear stability, and long-term structure”.

Quick: Can you tell me what question I’m answering? Well, neither can I. In the end, I wrote a “topic” thesis, where I “did studies” about some system, but came up with no concrete answers to any specific question. My paper is about flexible polyelectrolytes, but doesn’t firmly answer any one question posed about flexible polyelectrolytes.

Can you answer these about your own work?

  1. What question does your research answer?
  2. Or at least: What more refined questions does your research allow you/others to ask?

The talk presented above does make a good point: you won’t know at first what your single key idea is. But you must keep searching for it.

There’s an oft-repeated statement from journalism that applies: given a day to write a story, a good journalist would spend half a day crafting the right Title and Lede.

For you research, what’s your title? For your screenplay, what’s the logline? In Gingko, what is your root node?

That one sentence deserves more thought than any of the nitty gritty problems that your work presents you, but it often gets no thought until the end, when it’s likely too late (as it was for me).

Put your Readers First

In writing out the core findings of your research, it’s very tempting to go all out on the details. But don’t forget that for your readers, this is all new, and that you are likely suffering from the “Curse of Knowledge” (you can’t imagine what it’s like not to know what you already know).

I find that in this case, using Gingko’s card tree approach can really help. First, describe any given portion in concrete and intuitive terms, as if you were giving a presentation on it. And then, you can expand on that idea by adding 2 or 3 child cards with more detail. And so on until you’re satisfied.

You no longer have  a conflict between “dumbing down” your idea, and presenting all the details. you can do both.


There’s a great deal of good advice in this talk, especially when he touches on general principles of writing as opposed to going over specific structures and outlines. If you’re doing any serious writing, I recommend this video.


Quick Icons, Quick Images, and Search Cycling

Just a few quick tips to share today.

And while they can save you a few minutes here and there, the real benefit of tips like this is that they’re little things that help you keep moving and stay in flow while you’re working. And anything that helps you stay in a state of flow for longer is worth learning.

1. To Search is to Jump

Screenshot - 14-10-16 - 10:41:18 PMI use the search feature of Gingko constantly. Not only does it hide everything that doesn’t match your query, it also moves your focus to the first match. Which means that you can use search to quickly jump to a different part of the tree.

In shortcuts, here’s how it works:

  1. Press /
  2. Start typing a word that’s in the card you want to jump to.
  3. Cycle through the terms (Ctrl+G / Ctrl+Shift+G) if necessary, or type more to restrict your result further.
  4. Once the card you want to jump to is selected, hit Esc to clear the search query and stay on that card.

In words, it may seem long, but once you practice this a few times, it lets you jump from where you are to anywhere on the tree, very quickly. And that’s invaluable for staying in flow while writing.

2. Quickly insert image from DropBox

Screenshot - 14-10-16 - 10:40:26 PMIf you use DropBox to store your images or photos, and want a way to quickly add them to your tree, just copy the following script onto any card, and you’ll get a handy “Image from Dropbox” button in that card:

<script type="text/javascript" src="" id="dropboxjs" data-app-key="g8vslfgsfr3v7ty"></script>
<button onclick="getChooser()">Image from Dropbox</button>

getChooser = function(){
    success: function(files) {

Then click the button, select your image, “Ctrl+C” the alert that shows up, and paste it wherever you need it.

3. Add icons from Unicode characters

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that these icons don’t work consistently across browsers & operating systems. I know because I started using them for Gingko’s UI, and some people saw empty rectangles where there were supposed to be up/down arrows, etc.

What you can do instead is use Bootstrap’s Glyphicons, by including a <span class=”glyphicon glyphicon-inbox”></span>. It’s longer, but more reliable.

Screenshot - 14-10-16 - 10:41:56 PMIf you have a project management tree, it’s often very helpful to be able to add icons to visually distinguish the different categories. The simplest way I’ve found of doing this, is to use

Just visit the site, click the character you want, and paste it into your card.

I know there are better and prettier icon collections, but if the idea is to quickly put something in there, and move on, this has been my choice so far.

So that’s it for now.

Do you have any tips or tricks you use with Gingko to help you stay in flow?
Let us know in the comments!

Gingko server downtime

Today, Tuesday Oct 7th, Gingko was been down for a 2 hours.

I’ll post back when I do a complete post-mortem, to find out what caused this, and how to prevent it.

Rest assured all your data is safe.

In fact, early indications are that the cause of this is that I may have been too eager with our backups: both a full database backup and a complete disk image backup were scheduled to run at the same time!