Thursday, August 3, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: On sustaining writing habits

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


At the beginning of this year, we look at how you can build and sustain good reading habits, which are necessary to keep up with the output in your field of research, regardless of where you are in your academic career.

Today, we are going to look at another important habit in academia: your writing habits. As Cal Newport pointed out, your publications and their citations are the single most important factor for success in academia. There's no denying: you need to develop and sustain good writing habits as an academic.

Even though writing is so important, for many of us, writing can be the first thing that slips through the cracks when we are juggling different tasks. Journal papers typically don't have deadlines for submission, unless you want to submit something for a special issue. Things that are more urgent, but perhaps not more important, can be taking over your schedule, and your writing ends up on the back burner.

Today, we are going to look at what you can do to give writing the attention it needs, and to treat it as a habit. Here are a few ideas you can implement in your workflow processes to sustain writing habits.

1. Schedule time

If you want to write on a daily basis, you need to reserve time on a daily basis for writing. It may sound very logical, but not many of us really go to the point of booking a meeting with ourselves to write. If something else comes up, it is your time for writing that will be threatened. Figure out which time of the day is the best time of the day for you for writing, and dedicate that time to writing. Don't allow meetings to be booked during that time, close your door, and write.

For many people, writing first thing in the morning, before you do anything else, works well. Others (like myself) prefer a long morning routine, which includes a workout, and then reserve the first hour or first two hours of the work day for writing. If you are a night owl, or your work day is consumed by lab activities, you may find that a few hours after dinner is your best writing time - just make sure you don't book social appointments in the evening or other things that cut into your writing time.

I recommend that you use a weekly template for getting a grip on how you divide your time. You can read more about the weekly template, and how I schedule time for writing, in a previous post.

2. Have a planning of your writing projects

Once you start to get in the flow of writing proposals, doing the research, writing the papers, and revising the papers, you will find that at any point in time, you have a number of papers in progress, in review, or back to you with comments. This combination of different writing projects can be overwhelming. Perhaps you prefer to work on one paper at a time, but if another paper needs to be revised with the comments from the reviewers before a certain deadline, you will have to be more flexible in your schedule.

To keep an overview of the stage of each of your writing projects, I recommend that you have a planning for your writing projects, with self-imposed deadlines, as well as with the deadlines when you need to submit revised versions of papers. You can read about how I keep track of my papers in progress in a previous post from this series.

3. Track and log your writing output

You can schedule two hours a day of time for writing, but if you spend that time staring at a blinking cursor on a white screen, you are not moving your writing forward. A great way to see your progress on a daily basis, is by tracking how many words you are writing. For this purpose, you can use the PhDometer from PhD2Published. You can write down your daily output in a spreadsheet to see how one day compares to another, or to find out how much you write on a monthly or annual basis.

4. Let your work morph from research report to journal paper

If you are faced with the fear of a blank page, make sure you never have to face a blank page. When you are carrying out research, write a research report explaining your methods and results, and detailing all your calculations. Once you have this report finished and are in the stage of developing the corresponding paper, you can throw large parts of the research report into the paper, and take it from there. It is unlikely that any sentence you wrote in the research report will end up in the final paper, but you can start summarizing from the material you have available. You will perhaps summarize the material even further by developing overview tables and figures which are more condensed than anything you had in the research report.

Once you have the section of methods, results, and discussion of the results written in a paper, you feel that you are picking up speed in your writing, and writing the introduction and literature review sections will come more easily. Finally, you can proofread, and then write your section of summary and conclusions.

5. Write first, edit later

Don't think about every sentence twenty times if you want to move your writing forward. Write first, and edit later. Don't edit sentence by sentence as you are writing. Write a first draft, considering it just a very rough draft. Leave the editing stage for later. Make miles in writing first before you will start to evaluate every single word you wrote. It even makes more sense to edit later on, since during the editing stage, you also need to evaluate the structure of your paragraphs and sections.

6. Make writing a daily habit with daily goals

Tracking your word count can become a fun little competition with yourself when you set goals for your word count on a daily basis. If you are getting started with building a sustainable writing habit, I recommend that you set a goal of 1000 words a day. You will see that when you are drafting, you may be producing more words, and that when you are editing, your word count slows down - but in general, 1000 words a day on average hits the sweet spot for many of us.

7. Use deadlines to push yourself a bit further

Use conference papers to show preliminary research results. Write the conference paper by its deadline, and then use the material you have developed to develop this work further into a journal paper. Similarly, use the deadlines for your research reports to develop a report of high quality, that you will be able to use as a basis for writing a journal paper. When you plan a research project, don't consider the end of the project the moment when you deliver the technical report. Shoot for delivering a technical report as well as a draft journal paper (provided that the research project is large and innovative enough to merit publication in a journal).

8. Write different styles

I call this a "writing diet." Take on different writing projects. In your academic work, write entries in your research journal, research reports, research proposals, conference papers, and journal papers. But take the idea one step further, and step outside of the confinement of academia. Consider other ways in which you can flex your writing muscle: blog, write poems, journal, write CD reviews, write op/eds, write non-fiction pieces, write short stories... Develop different writing styles, play around with your voice in different styles, and become more used to write quickly. By being on a writing diet, you will learn to turn your thoughts into written words in a more efficient way.

9. Take notes when you read

If you need a starting point for the literature review section of a paper, take notes while you are reading papers. One way of taking notes that later on you can quickly turn into the literature review section of the paper you are working on, is by taking snapshots of the important parts of each journal paper that you read, and paste these into a designated document together with your thoughts on what you are observing in the paper.

10. Join an accountability group

If you find it still hard to respect the meetings you schedule with yourself for writing, you can join an accountability group. Many universities and cities have #shutupandwrite groups which you can join. The participants of these groups get together in a cafe, get their coffee, write for 1 or 2 hours without talking, and then have some social time together.

If you can't find a #shutupandwrite group, you can use online accountability groups. There is the annual writing event for all writers, which uses the hashtag #NaNoWriMo on Twitter (national novel writing month, in November). The academic sister is #AcWriMo (academic writing month, also in November), where the participants set a goal for the entire month, and update their output in a shared file on a daily basis.

11. Take good care of yourself

You can't do productive academic work if you don't take good care of yourself. You will notice that you are more focused for your writing when you are not too tired. Use common sense, and never let work distract you from your non-negotiable self-care habits. Eat foods that fuel you, sleep the amount of hours you need, and move your body on a daily basis.

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