Academic writing is a difficult and creative undertaking and advice to authors can often be to follow a single method or to copy the approaches of other academics. In this post Chris Smith draws on his years of experience working as an academic writing coach, to provide 10 counter-intuitive insights to help you understand and improve your own writing practice.
As a writing coach I sometimes find myself giving the same pointers and tips again and again. Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to the raised eyebrows these tips can generate. They seem unconventional and counter intuitive. They’re often not received academic wisdom.
But I keep saying them anyway because experience has shown me that they work. And whether you’re starting out on your PhD journey or you’re an experienced author – they can work for you too.
Productivity is personal (and your colleagues and supervisors might be wrong)
When it comes to finding a writing process that works for you – how frequently you write, how long you write for and what keeps you going – there’s no one way to do it. Beware anyone (including experienced colleagues and supervisors) who says there is. What works for one person might not work for others. The most important thing is to find an approach that helps you right now and not to take an approach that someone else has told you to take. Always listen carefully to those with years of writing and publishing experience, but don’t copy their process, find out how they found theirs.
Lots of writing time doesn’t lead to lots of writing
You might think the best way to signal you’re serious about your work is to spend hours at your desk, grinding out the words. Later stage academics often ‘clear the decks’ to write full-time on sabbatical. But, having too much time to write can be as damaging to your productivity as having too little. When you give yourself lots of time, you put yourself under pressure to produce lots of work. This can be overwhelming and lead to procrastination, which in turn triggers guilt, self-doubt and negativity. Writing is a higher brain function. It can be uplifting but it can also be depleting which is why we often say…
Writing less is one of the best things you can do for your productivity
Many academics feel they should be able to write in long, intense periods of time (they think it goes with the job). Whilst it’s a method that can work for ‘deep work’ personalities it doesn’t for everyone. It’s often better for your mental wellbeing to get a few quick wins under your belt, rather than try to write in overly-long, tortuous periods of time. Instead of trying and failing to write thousands of words every day, try using constraints. Write two paragraphs per day – then stop. Write in bursts of 25 minutes using a Pomodoro timer. Spend less time writing and more time on walks clearing your head. Small amounts of daily writing add up over time and build the writing muscles needed for a sustained writing practice.
Doing ‘more research’ isn’t always conducive to your success
Procrastination is obvious when it involves spending the afternoon on YouTube, but when your procrastination is connected to your work (or indeed is your work) it’s harder to spot and more insidious. The desire to do more reading, planning or data analysis before starting to write is always strong. Sometimes this is valid, sometimes it isn’t. The trick is to test the assumptions you reach. Yes, you might feel you can’t continue without more research but ask yourself: can I make a small start now? What’s really stopping me? Then run an experiment – try to write and see what happens.
Accept that your writing practice will change over time
Academics – especially later in their career – often hold on to approaches they’ve used in the past but don’t work now. Your writing practice will change depending on what you write, where you are in the process and due to external factors like your family situation and work priorities. How you wrote when you were a PhD might change when you take on responsibilities at work. Accept this and be adaptable. Find a writing process that works for you now and don’t have a rose-tinted view of past perfection.
Done is always better than perfect
Often, scholarly writers get stuck picking over what they wrote (or failed to write) in their last session before starting up again. This can result in a negative spiral of review, disappointment and inaction. One way to move past these negative sticking points is to splurge words on the page without editing – highlighting places where you feel more research must be done but moving past them. Always adopt a non-judgmental mindset when you do this. Also, try leaving a space of at least a week between writing and editing – come back to your words with fresh eyes.
Writing is a journey. Along the way you’ll face potholes: barriers, blocks, difficulties and distractions. The best way to cope with these is know where they are and if you can’t swerve round them, know what you’ll do if you fall in one. In short – have a plan. Only you know where your distractions might come from, what saps your motivation and what kills your confidence. When you know when, where and how you get knocked off course, you’ll be in a better position to avoid them and to deal with them when they arise.
When you really want to keep writing – stop
Stopping when you’re on a roll can be one of the very best things you can do for your writing. If you quit when you really want to keep at it, you often come back to your writing the next day bursting with motivation and full of ideas. When you stop because you’re finding the writing hard or you’re down in the dumps about your work, you come back to it with a sense of dread and anxiety and that impacts your productivity long term.
Dedicate less time to writing (and more to reflection)
Academics are often so focused on their subject that they forget to learn about themselves. If we could only give out one tip to writers it would be this: reflect on your writing practice. Reflection is powerful because it helps you spot patterns in your behaviour and understand what works and what doesn’t for you. Doing it is simple. After each writing session put aside two minutes. Then, ask yourself three simple questions: What went well about my writing session? What didn’t go so well? What would I improve on for next time?
Writing can make you happy
As an academic, you might not think you need to enjoy writing, you just need get it done. But enjoying the writing process is how you become productive. You’ll always find it hard to prioritise writing when it makes you feel guilty and overwhelmed. However, when it’s something you want to get back to, you’re more likely to put in the hours. Key to this is finding a personal system that suits your life and career and not becoming wedded to approaches that no longer work.
About the author
Chris Smith is a former academic, writing productivity coach and co-founder of Prolifiko, a coaching, research and consultancy business helping writers and authors to beat their writing blocks and barriers.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.