Four ways for academics to write more productively

Having 6 months of freedom from work emails, meetings, and the usual things that seem to eat up my time is something I look forward to with equal parts excitement and nervous anticipation.  It is has been a long time since I had months ahead of me with mostly just writing goals to achieve, and like most academics, I have a bad habit of over committing myself.  How will I get it all done I keep asking myself?

Scanning twitter one morning, a post caught my eye with the tantalizing words “How to write 10,000 words a day” posted by @thesiswhisperer.  This advice could not come at a better time, and it struck me how much I could learn from others about their writing own process.  Perhaps some initial time spent working how to write productively would be a worthwhile investment?

A short search revealed other similar blogs offering a range of suggestions.  Taking a few of these on board, I have already noticed the immediate benefit of being more focused and making a dent in those study leave goals.   Here are a few of my favorites so far:

Plan, plan, and plan some more before you start writing

Simple but useful advice is “Know what you are going to write before you write it“.  Like most writers, I find it hard to stare at a blank screen. My first step is to add headings and subheadings to my document.  This is usually in APA 6th edition style (e.g., abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, etc.), but can vary depending on what I am writing (e.g., book chapter, blog).

Regardless of the broad structure, more detailed planning is always helpful.  An idea I have come across lately is to map out the article with story-boarding.  Patrick Duvleavy from Writing for Research explains that helps to take planning to a more visual level, enabling the writer to see the emerging story in their research as well as breaking it down into smaller and more manageable chunks.  It can be done by hand, such as on index cards, or using the slide shuffle view on PowerPoint.

Have a writing schedule

An academic article is roughly 40 paragraphs according to publication coach, Thomas Basbøll.  This provides researchers with a prototype to use when planning, as well for setting writing goals. His advice is to work on one paragraph at a time in 30-minute blocks of 27 minutes of writing followed by a three-minute break.  The logic being that

you can write two paragraphs an hour, and it’s very nice to know, not only that something is true, but that you are able to write that kind of truth down at a rate of two every hour. You need 40 of them, give or take, to write a journal article.

I tried this method out when working on a book chapter, and found that I preferred breaking the time down as 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break, which is the Pomodoro technique.  Also, the key to making this work is having a detailed outline and having done my research beforehand for each planned paragraph.  Once the time block begins, I can then focus on writing.

Set up your work environment to promote writing flow

For me, this involves making sure I have everything close at hand that I will need for a period of writing, and then set the Pomodoro timer on my phone and turning off any notifications.

I use the Forest app for androids because it is free and the duration of each time period can easily adjusted for what works for you.  Best of all, the app gives plants trees for every time block you complete so you can visibly see your progress each day!  It helps to avoid the temptation of switching the screen to “quickly” check my emails/social media and killing off a tree as punishment.  Instead, I find I can easily stay focused for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break.

Once the break is up, transitioning back to work can be hard.  It is easy to let the five minutes expand indefinitely by letting distractions creep in (e.g., emails).  When I find myself falling into this trap, I remember the good advice given by Dr Vikki Burns to think like a triathlete by preparing the work I plan to return to before starting the break.

Do not edit as you write

To edit or not edit as you write? It is a question I have mulled over.  I find it really hard not to avoid the temptation of improving what I wrote as it appears on the screen.  It is much easier to re-write than write something new, but I find this can also really disrupt my writing flow.

Publication coach, Daphne Gray-Grant, gives seven different strategies for how to stop editing while you write, including using the free app from Dr Wicked called “Write or Die”.   This app encourages you to keep writing by punishing you from slowing down or stopping your typing by starting to delete what you wrote.  It is probably useful for those who prefer to write when the pressure is on and helps to overcome procrastination, particularly when you have no specific deadline.

Rather than avoid editing altogether, I now try to write the paragraph first and then if the time period has not ended, edit it.  This means I achieve nowhere close to writing 10 000 words each day, but I end up writing quality paragraphs that are closer to the final draft.  This helps reduce my perfectionistic tendencies to get distracted by badly written paragraphs and I am better able to move on to the next paragraph in the next period.

Also, when feeling stuck, I remind myself of other strategies.  Farnoosh Brock who writes the blog “Prolific Living” and encourages you to “not give into the myth of the writer’s block suggests:

  1. Trying another topic
  2. Writing anything even if it is garbage
  3. Reading
  4. Mediating
  5. Exercising

All of the above works for me, particularly going for a short run or doing a yoga class.  I have also found it also helps to read over what I have written, both aloud and in my head. Sometimes this can open the locked gates of what I planned to write and help restart the writing flow.

Now over to you. What are your favourite tips and tricks for writing productively?

About the author: I am a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham (UK).  I co-founded the Research in Imagery and Observation (RIO) and Birmingham Research in Imagery and Observation (BRIO) groups, and have been researching imagery use in sport, exercise, and dance for almost 20 years.  The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


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