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How much time does it take to write a paper?

As I’m working through a backlog of questions from readers, I came across the following question that requires a little more explanation:

Hi eva (& all others).

Can u all tell me how much time it took to write the paper that u sent for publishing. To be precise, suppose u have obtained all the results, decided what all u are going to put in the paper & also written a sort of rough draft. Now after that how much time did u take to just write the final version of the paper?

I am asking this because I im in the process of doing this painful part & am taking a lot of time (figures, supplementary material & a lot of LAZYNESS.)

My quick reply back then was the following:

around 40 hours typically – spaced out over 2 or 3 weeks

So let’s look at this question in more detail. We’re looking at a situation in which you have the results, an idea of an outline and “a sort of rough draft”. That’s already a splendid beginning. Before we continue, I’d recommend you look at my post on “How to write a paper in 2 days”. This post was aimed at writing conference papers, for which the requirements are typically less stringent than for journal papers, but it might be the exact time-constraining kinda kick in the arse one might need every now and then.

The situation our reader is more advanced than the typical stage in which you start writing (he/she already has a rough draft, which is excellent), but a little less “ready” for publishing than taking material from a dissertation. Although that really depends – sometimes you need to shift things around to turn a chapter into a paper, or cut a lot of words to fulfill the word limit, and that can take time too.

My guess of 40 hours (based on the papers I submitted before finishing my dissertation) comes from writing papers for which I had research reports ready, and parts already in conference papers. But I needed to make “a story” out of all the material, and provide the drawings.

You could think that those 40 hours are one work week – but when in your life have you been able to work on one single task for 40 hours? Not helping out students, not replying mails, not running a little calc for your supervisor, …? You can’t be on a single task for an entire week, unfortunately – not in graduate school, and definitely not once you become a professor. That’s why I added that this time is spaced out over 2 – 3 weeks. Now that I’m lecturing, that would probably become 4 – 5 weeks, but for a graduate student 2 – 3 weeks seems reasonable to me.

Drawing figures takes a huge amount of time. For the second chapter of my dissertation (the literature review), I spent more time on drawing the figures than on writing the actual chapter. I don’t like drawing, I’m not very skilled at it, and I tend to have a hard time staying focused (and not going off to see random stuff online) when I have to do it. So I totally hear you in terms of that laziness!

As a sideline: implementing the reviewers’ comments takes me about 40 hours as well – and this observation is consistent with my measurements for thesis writing: 1/3 of your time goes into the first full draft, 2/3 goes into polishing and taking into account the comments of the committee.

Let’s get back to the laziness issue. I consider myself an organized person, I never work too close to a deadline, and I’m known to submit material ahead of deadlines always. I’ve had to study deep into the night before exams during my first year of university, and I felt so miserable that I had to revert to planning to make sure that I have the afternoon before an exam to refresh my mind, go to sleep on time and be rested for the test. But that doesn’t mean I don’t fall prey to Random Mindless Internet Surfing. Or Hanging Around the Kitchen to Avoid Work. We all do it in one way or the other, in small or maybe larger amounts.
Here is what helps for me:

1. Plan your time: know what you want to achieve every single day. If it helps, write down your 3 Most Important Tasks for the day, and knock ’em off before you do anything

2. Plan short chunks of time: If I put 4 hours for writing on a paper in my schedule, I won’t stay on task for 4 hours. I’ll start to reply email, look up recipes online, and so on. I’m still trying to find the right amount of time to stay focused, but 90 minutes seems like a reasonable guess. Know what you need to do in these 90 minutes – it will help you stay on track. Allow buffer time in between your 90 minute chunks – distractions always happen: students come in to ask questions, you get a phone call, …

3. Use the Pomodoro Technique: 2 pomodoros for drawing this figure. Ready, set, and go! I’m still using the Pomodoro technique many times to get work done, although it is much harder to do my pomodoros in the office without getting disturbed. I might need to revert to working more hours at home so that I can be free from distractions during my research time.

Well, dear reader, I hope that helped and I wish you all the best. Further questions? Just shoot ’em at me and I’ll do my very best to give you my insights.

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