In this blog post, Vera Chan shares her academic writing tips to write longer and be productive.
I met Vera on Instagram, after a live video on @researchretold to get to know our community.
In this period of self-isolation, social media has become a place to connect and meet new people.
Vera is a life scientist currently seeking a professional career transition from academia into the science industry. Vera also has a thriving YouTube channel, PhDCoffeeTime, where she uploads videos with tips to motivate and support PhD students. Her most popular video, also included in this post, is on how to set SMART goals for your writing.
I hope you enjoy learning from Vera and her writing tips to write longer and be productive which she has used with great success in her PhD journey.
Academic writing tips to write longer and be productive
How to manage your writing energy
During my PhD, I jokingly referred to the long unproductive time of writer’s block as ‘the fermentation process’.
Indeed, the process of writing could be compared to bacterial cultivation in many ways. So, let me remind you of the bacterial growth curve and share my perspectives on how it is similar to academic writing.
Writing is not a linear process, your motivation and writing progress will change over time.
To many of us, it comes with the initial resistance (1), then the state of flow (2), and finally, reaches the plateau (3).
When I first started practising daily writing, I’d typically need 8 min to overcome resistance, reach tremendous progress around 20 min, and plateau at 30 min. Therefore, I would schedule my day with this ‘theory’ in mind. Every day, I allocate 30 min for academic writing, and this represents ‘the smartest goal’ I have set for myself.
When I get impatient in the resistance phase (1), I remind myself to look at the timer – usually, I have not let myself work for more than 8 min!
From this awareness, I have learned to be patient, and 30 min has worked wonders for me to make tiny progress each day that eventually will pay in dividends.
Why 30 min?
The truth is I can now write continuously for 1-1.5 h before I need a break. However, this is after 3 years of consistent work and making tiny progress, a lot like working out in the gym. For students who have never developed a daily writing habit, it is best to start with 30 min.
The 30 min rule is effective in overcoming procrastination. If I want a coffee, get hungry, or need to use the bathroom, it is always possible to hold that thought for just 30 min.
Even for the busiest time of a research day, it would still be possible to have a 30 min writing session. That might mean waking up a little earlier before the long day begins, or taking a short break as you meet a 1-hour incubation time in the lab protocol.
To make this goal more ‘Achievable’, a chair and your laptop are all you will need to write for 30 min. Once I was waiting to pick up a visitor at the airport. I sat in the parking lot and revised my figure legends for 30 min in the car.
There is nothing more rewarding than being able to keep up with your own small goals, keep them achievable and measure progress day by day.
Redefine what writing is and develop a ‘laundry list’ for meaningful progress!
Writing is intimidating when a ‘thesis’ or ‘manuscript’ are the only pictures in your head. Let’s redefine what writing is and you will soon realise that writing is an easy task if you know how to break it up in an achievable manner.
I would say that ANYTHING that is going to make you closer to the goal of submitting the manuscript is considered writing. The moment you have a ‘laundry list of writing’, a 30-45 min writing session could become more purposeful. By the end of the writing session, celebrate by crossing out an item on the list. Here are some suggestions:
- Pour out your thoughts as a ‘zero draft’
Most people are stressed about the idea of the first draft. The empty page is the scariest part of writing. So take an even smaller step and create a ‘zero draft’. This is only for your eyes. Be as messy as you want because you can edit in your next writing session.
- Articulate thoughts in your mother tongue
Before writing your research, take a moment to outline your logic. If it’s easier in your native language, feel free to write them down, you can always work on the translation later.
- Researching one topic on Web of Science / PubMed
Sometimes you need more information before you can write. Write down these topics of research, and start searching for the information you need. By the end of the 30 min, draw a mind map.
- Materials and methods
You can write this section even before you have results. Transfer all your notes to the logbook/research protocol as soon as possible so it’s fresh in your mind.
- Statistical figure building
Spend time to communicate your figures. Choose an intuitive colour scheme (red for high temperature, acidic pH etc).
- Meeting formatting requirement
Formatting scientific writing is not a trivial task. Set time aside for this and chip away at it every day.
- Illustration art for your figure or graphical abstract
Most Chapters 1 of PhD theses will include a high-level schematic. A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s a good idea to come up with your own figure. If you need some inspiration, I made a video on how to create a graphical abstract with Inkscape.
- Editing with version control
Don’t be a perfectionist when you write a draft. Come back later to edit the text. Remember to keep the old version with a date (FileName_Day_Month_Year.docx), so that if you change your mind, it’s easy to go back to the last version.
- Standardise your reference list
Endnote and Zotero are not going to do a perfect job in formatting your citations. So make sure to ‘remove field code’, and then check each reference. You may need to add Italicised species name, subscript (CO2), add all the authors’ names manually if it fails to show up in the full reference (sometimes it will be simplified as “et al.”).
Track your writing time honestly and use your sharpest brain for the challenging tasks
You can never improve yourself without an honest measurement. So, it is crucial that you track every minute when you are writing with a focused mind. I use a Toggl which is a free time-tracking software to track my time for each project.
Not all hours of your day are created equal. Many people find it easier to write in the early morning or late evening when there is no background noise.
Whether you are ‘an early bird’ or ‘a night owl’, know yourself enough to limit distraction (meetings, phone calls, social time…etc.) during these ‘prime time’ hours of your day.
Writing is often a team sport that requires honesty, kindness and trust
The perfectionist inside you might say, ‘This draft is not ready, no one else should see it.’
In reality, your coworkers will be pleased about your transparency and the fact that you are not just procrastinating. Being upfront about the fact that you are sharing an ‘ongoing draft’ for feedback will help you to communicate your progress, and get timely feedback before you dive too deep into the wrong topic.
With tracked change options on Microsoft Word, it is tempting to simply click ‘Accept all’ (we’ve all done it!) and not to put in more thoughts to someone’s feedback. However, you will grow as a writer if you could learn from each edit. Next time, before clicking ‘Accept all’, ask yourself.
- “What are the grammatical mistakes that I am prone to repeating?”
- “How can I write more concisely?”
- “Is there new vocabulary I should have learned to express myself better?”
A final note about reaching your writing ‘plateau’
To use your writing time efficiently, harness the state of flow (2) and be ready to stop when energy plateaus.
Many people may sit at a desk for a whole day and achieve little progress simply because they are unaware of their plateau, and they dwell on it for too long due to anxiety and guilt. Think of taking a short break as renewing the ‘culture media’.
Think of the tracked time as a measurement that you could improve the next time you return to your seat. When it comes to growing your ideas: by having many writing sessions you can reach a state of flow as many times as possible.
I hope you enjoyed reading these academic writing tips to write longer and be productive and that they motivate you to rediscover your own ability and potential as a writer.
Find someone to keep you accountable, share your progress with #smartwritinggoal
Like any healthy habit you want to build in life, you will only be truly committed when you have an accountability partner (think of the friend who drags you to the gym on a lazy day).
If you are just starting a habit to write, consider sharing your writing progress openly. That person can just be your roommate/ your family who can understand the concept of ‘word count’.
Another way is to share your writing progress with me! Let us start a supportive writing community of #smartwritinggoal. You could tag me on Instagram (@phdcoffeetime), post on the Facebook page (@phdcoffeetime), or send me a Tweet (@verabschan). I hope this hashtag will help you find accountability partners on your PhD journey and meet more like-minded people.
Thank you to Vera for sharing her academic writing tips to write longer and be productive. Follow and connect with Vera on the accounts above and enjoy your PhD journey!
If you want to guest blog for Research Retold get in touch!