Focus on Research | How to Write A Lot.... (or Enough to Meet Deadlines)

All good writing begins as a draft. Start creating more of them with some useful tips.
Writing, like almost any other activity that is worth doing well, takes practice over time. That is as cold a reality for the first year university student as it is for the seasoned graduate or professor.  Here are ten tips and bits of advice that can help ward off procrastination and get you on the path to writing lots and writing well.

P.S. Not surprisingly, most of these tips can be applied to making lots of any other kind of creative output (art, music, dance, film) etc... 

1. Write a little bit every day: This is my most often repeated advice regarding writing. Think of it this way. If you are working out, does it make sense to go to the gym 2-3 times a week for an hour or once a week for 6-9 hours? Which approach is manageable and realistic, and which approach guarantees burnout and failure?  Too many people look at their calendars and try to set aside multiple hours and even entire days to produce writing, especially on a deadline. This is a recipe for procrastination and failure since it sets up tremendous pressure and an unrealistic expectation that you will be able to write vast amounts of words consistently over that shortened time frame.  Instead, set aside a reasonable and achievable amount of time several times per week to get your written assignments started and/or completed. Remember, good writing takes practice and works on day-to-day momentum.  It is simply not a weekend warrior kind of sport.

2. Set a timer: Following up on the previous tip, get yourself a simple egg timer and/or download an app for your smart phone or computer to set a limit on your writing for the day (I use this old school app for the computer). Returning to my workout analogy, setting a limited time to write produces the expectation that you will in fact begin writing (the biggest hurdle to writing itself) and that the activity will have a firm endpoint. When I write blog posts, for example, I schedule a certain set amount of time to produce my text. If I don’t, I probably won’t actually get to writing, or I could be sitting and writing for far too long and unnecessarily over-editing and overthinking the process. Case in point, the failure to establish a time to write my blog posts resulted in far fewer posts this past month. Once I set the time in my schedule--voila!--posts begin to appear as if by magic. For more focused days that I schedule writing, I write in 40 minute sessions and for no more than 2-3 sessions a day max. This was true even when I was working on my dissertation. You see, the secret to understanding this tip is to know that a bolt of inspiration will seldom spur you into writing on a regular basis and for a protracted period of time. Bolts of inspiration do come (see Tip #9 to be prepared for this), but if you actually want to complete a writing goal or assignment, you have to plan time for and not overdo it.

3. Don’t edit…yet: This bit of advice is important if you are writing for a larger assignment or project and want to be able to have something good to work with. Students especially seem to believe that they have to create perfectly edited sentences or well thought out ideas when they sit down to write. The reality is that a good piece of writing comes out of rough drafts of writing, which requires the ability to get ideas down on paper quickly and without too much overthinking. Bottom line, start writing and start writing without the expectation that it will pour out of you in perfectly constructed sentences and paragraphs. You can then dedicate every second or third writing session to editing what you have produced (or split your writing session into two parts: part one, write without editing; and part two, edit what you have written).  

4. Disable the Internet…no, seriously: In our present culture of perpetual distraction, this is a critical tip that many people instinctively know but seldom put into good practice. You must disable your Internet to get any decent (and non-plagiarized) writing done. If you need to have some wonderful article to refer to, download it and have it on your desktop. Need some reference to a great website or image? Take a screen shot and do your best to paraphrase what it is you are referring to. There are countless ways that disabling the Internet leads you to better writing, but the simplest one is that you will remain writing and not be tempted to engage in web-surfing, email or social media with the access cut off. There are many great applications out there to shut down your Internet access when you get down to some serious writing, but I think the easiest one is to simply TURN IT OFF.

5. Create carrots and a few sticks: Like all of you, I enjoy the pleasures of life and cannot imagine balancing my writing without a reward system. For example, I try to schedule my writing session ahead of some pleasurable downtime activity, like going out for a walk, watching a great TV show, catching up with friends on social media, or any other task I am looking forward to. When writing in more intense sessions (more than once a day), I make sure to create breaks between writing to relax my mind and recharge my mental battery through some form of play.  On the other hand, you may also have to build in a few “sticks” to stay on task. If I am facing an especially strong bout of procrastination, I will simply not allow myself to check email/social media/my phone until I complete the session. I have even gone as far as telling myself that I cannot go out or take a shower/put on makeup until I am done my writing session. That is very strong motivation, no?

6. Park your ideas on a downhill slope: This is a bit of advice I picked up from a professor mentor some years ago. The idea here is that you have a much better shot at getting into the momentum of your next writing session if you leave off your last session with either a partially completed sentence/idea that you can pick back up when you open up your document, or if you give yourself some bullet points or notes on where to get going next in your assignment. Once again, this is simple physics in action—an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while the energy required to get a stalled object moving is much more daunting. Help your future self out and park your writing on a downhill slope at the end of each session.

7. Establish soft deadlines to make firm ones possible: This is another of those tips calculated to avoid the dreaded specter of procrastination that will inevitably hit if you see days of non-stop writing in your future to make a looming deadline. Simply break down your writing task to manageable chunks. For research papers and bigger projects, you can use a calculator like this one, or you can make your own system of getting parts of the whole completed over a reasonable amount of time. Students often balk at the idea of completing a paper over 4-6 weeks, but this is really the secret to becoming an effective student (especially if that student plans to succeed at the upper undergraduate level and beyond). I also schedule in the writing of outlines and other bits of descriptive writing (like describing images, preparing bibliographies and footnotes) into this system so that my writing moves between different types and different levels of difficulty over the life of the project.

8. Create an elevator pitch for your project: This was an idea I developed over the course of my graduate student days when people would inevitably ask me what my dissertation was about. The “elevator pitch” is an idea that actually comes out of the world of screenwriters who often get less than 1-3 minutes to sell an idea to a producer in passing (usually on an elevator during a brief encounter—it seems to happen a lot in the movies). The basis of the elevator pitch is that it reduces to understandable and plain language what it is that you are actually writing about and arguing in your written projects. The best way to know what you are writing about is to speak it aloud, and preferably to someone who knows nothing about your topic. This guarantees the level of clarity and plain language you will be seeking in defining and writing the thesis/main idea/main argument of your project. Another tip is to record yourself when you are describing what you are writing about to someone else. Silly as it seems, I started doing this when I stopped myself during many conversations with the thought, “So THAT is what I am arguing—wait, I have to WRITE THIS DOWN.”

9. Carry a journal and prepare for ideas to “hit” you: This is a tip that I often share with students who are attending especially engaging lectures and classes with many “big ideas” and theories as part of the curriculum. But also, you have to have to think of how many times you have been riding a bus, driving home, watching a TV show, or simply talking to a friend or catching something on-line when you make some major connection to your work. Bottom line, we are self-absorbed beings and when you are actively working on a written project, it seems everything is related to your topic. This is truly when inspiration can hit and you must be prepared by carrying a little notebook and pen with you wherever you go. Bring it to class, tuck it in your purse or backpack, have it beside you when you casually Internet browse and even when you sleep. You just never know when a good idea is going to hit you!

10. Establish a writing group: This is a final tip that can go a long way to helping reinforce and establish the first nine tips outlined above. Make it a point to work with like-minded students, friends, or colleagues to achieve your mutual writing goals. Sometimes the simple idea that someone else is working on a writing goal and will hold you accountable the next time you meet is enough to motivate you into action. I have worked with both real life and online writing groups to get my writing done, and I have also acted as the “coach” to friends who have enlisted me to hold them accountable and check in with them. The benefits of working in groups are many, but the best part is that you get to share and receive feedback on your writing while learning from others about their techniques and approach. You also get to feel a lot less isolated in the task of writing, which can be one of the loneliest activities that we do. 

Newton's first law of motion is critical to writing success.

Further Reading:

Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. Sage Publications, 2009.

Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day. Owl Books, 1998

Silvia, Paul J. How To Write A Lot. American Psychological Association, 2007.