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Writers’ Lab: 10 Tips for more productive academic writing

Over the past year, I’ve been mostly focused on writing. As I finished my dissertation, I started to work on the journal articles that I want to publish from my dissertation, which completely covered the time I was spending working for TU Delft as a researcher. All the rest of my days got taken up by teaching activities – organizing 3 new courses in a semester is quite something!

For the little bit of time that I could devote to writing, I tried to be as focused as I could to get maximum results. From this practice, I’ve come to the conclusion that the following ten elements are crucial to productive academic writing:

1. Consistent practice

I could have waited with working on my papers until I had all my course material prepared, but I tried to fit about 10 hours of research into my weekly schedule. I deeply admire academics who manage to spend the first hours of their day on writing, and nothing else, but so far, I have not had success with getting into a routine of writing first thing in the morning, every day. However, I’ve been writing almost every workday, usually at least 3 days a week. I’m used to write continuously, as I did during the months that I wrote my dissertation, so it feels a little odd to break off my work after just 2 or 3 hours of writing, but it is great practice to keep things moving forward.

2. Deliberate practice

If you only have 2 hours on a day to get some writing done, it better be 2 really focused hours. I tend to lose my concentration quickly, and drift off on tangents, but over the past months I’ve been trying to build up a better concentration during my writing hours, and then enjoy some more relaxing (or at least, less brain-intensive time) during the hour that I have reserved for clearing out my mailbox. Getting into the flow and going full speed face-forward is key here, to squeeze as much results out of a tiny bit of time.

3. Have a plan(ning) for every piece

Before I start writing a paper, I make an outline and estimate how much time each part of the paper will take me. I break it down into pomodoro sessions, and then royally schedule that time into my planner. Since I use my Google Calendar to plan hour by hour, I usually plan to do 2 pomodoros (1 hour of intensive work) in a time block of 1,5 hours – that gives me some buffer during the day.

4. Have a general plan(ning)

When preparing to write a number of journal papers, it’s not a bad idea to have a planning of when you will write which paper (it might take more time than you initially thought, as I learned…). Once the papers start rolling out and being submitted, you’ll need to keep track of when you can expect the answers from the editors, when you need to resubmit, and all that. I’m keeping a Google Doc spreadsheet with an overview of these papers, so that my co-authors can also see where we are with the papers.

5. Hone your skills

You don’t only want to become a more productive writer, as in, someone who cranks out a lot of words in a row, but also as in a sense that you get more of your work published in great journals. And that only happens when you improve your writing. Practice makes perfect, and putting some deliberate practice into improving your writing style will pay off in the long term. Try out a more drastic revision strategy to get better paragraphs. Pay attention to active and passive voice. Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. Make sure you use the same tense throughout your writing. Become aware of the mistakes you most commonly make.

6. Document your steps

Prepare for writing journal papers from the very first steps of doing any type of research. Keep track of your references, in any reference management software you like. Compile reports in which you describe the process that you followed. Add a tab of version management to your spreadsheets. Make sure everything is up for grabs once you get started with writing your papers.

7. Measure your progress

Measure your output to know how you are doing. You can use Word’s word count function to get an idea of your progress on a day. You can keep a score sheet for yourself and write down the number of words per day you write (I did this throughout all the months that I wrote my dissertation, trying to beat my own record every now and then). If you like, use the PhDometer from PhD2Published, which I used to track my word output when writing my dissertation.

8. Use shortcuts

Don’t waste time moving around your mouse to select everything – memorize the most important keyboard shortcuts. If you type a lot of formulas, either move to LaTex or Open Office, or use MathType as a plugin for MS Word. If you use MathType, again, learn the keyboard shortcuts for brackets, roots, fractions, greek letters and more, so that you can simply type out your formulas.

9. Find your best writing tools

Should you use MS Word? Unless your papers need to be submitted as .doc files, you are not limited to MS Word. Many people prefer Scrivener, or other writing environments. Have access to a good reference management software, so that you can keep your literature just a mouse-click away. Know what works for you to nip writer’s block in the bud.

10. Reward yourself

Don’t force yourself deep into the night, going without decent food or exercise – you’ll just end up sick and/or feeling miserable. Put realistic goals, and then go home and enjoy your evening. You want to think consistent output, not spurts and then needing to recover for days on end.

What has helped you in terms of becoming a more productive academic writer? Please share your thoughts and experiences!

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