The Pace of Academic Writing

Chances are, if I praise a graduate student’s writing, I will hear something like this:

“Thanks, but it takes me so long.”

“It should be good, I worked on those two pages for three weeks.”

“Sure, but I’ll never be able to write a full thesis at this pace.”

It is rare, as I discussed last week, for anyone to express contentment with their academic writing. And it is common for those who have produced something they are happy with to feel that they spent too much time on it. Since the amount of time spent on writing is such a common concern, I thought I would suggest a few ways to think about the pace of academic writing:

1. Try to speed up by working towards a first draft without allowing yourself any early editing. There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. Even if you aren’t going to use a true freewriting approach, you can still force yourself to keep moving forward without giving your inner critic a chance to mess you up. Since writing more freely can leave us with a more chaotic document, I recommend using the ‘rough edit’ approach to make sure that you’ll be able to work with your text later.

2. Try to appreciate that writing simply is often a slow process. To figure out what we need to say, most of us have to produce a lot of words that may not end up in our final document. If you view that creative process as simply inefficient, you may end up feeling that your writing process is too slow; if, instead, you try to think about that process as both positive and inevitable, you may be able to change your own attitude towards efficiency and efficacy in your writing process. Since it can be hard to pull the plug on ‘perfectly good writing’, I suggest creating a repository for material that doesn’t appear to have a long-term future in your text.

3. Try to see how speed differs depending on what you are writing. Some aspects of your writing will take a long time, while others will yield to your attempts to speed up. Unfortunately, starting—for many people—can be the slowest part. These initial molasses moments can be frustrating in and of themselves and can also lead writers to extrapolate a dismal future: if it took me this long to write this much, my entire thesis will take a million years. Understanding and accepting the slow start without projecting the same pace throughout can help you persevere.

4. Try to identify the appropriate amount of time in the context of a given project. In other words, maybe there isn’t such a thing as too fast or too slow. Instead, it may be helpful to do a serious accounting of how much time you can give to a particular project. Some parts of our writing will simply take longer to write. But the pace of writing can also be affected by the amount of time we have; we may write the first three-quarters of something at a leisurely—or even torturous pace—only to find ourselves with no option except to pick up the pace to meet a deadline. This pattern can be instructive since it lets us know just how fast we can write. It also highlights the value of apportioning our time more rationally. The end stages of writing are the most significant, and we don’t want to shortchange them just because we are out of time.

If you do want to write more quickly—and again I’m not sure that is always the best aim—I suggest starting with your own writing temperament rather than with someone else’s notion of productivity. Last year, as Academic Writing Month wound down, I wrote a post in which I tried to provide an example of how to reflect on one’s own writing challenges. Once you have a better understanding of your own writing predilections and pitfalls, you can then take advantage of other people’s insights into productivity. Much of that advice will fall flat if it is taken as abstract truth; instead, we all need to figure out what productivity means to us and what strategies will get us where we need to go. The best pace for you may be faster or slower or some combination of the two depending on your writing temperament and the demands of the particular project.

6 responses to “The Pace of Academic Writing

  1. Pingback: What to do with that mountain of notes all over your bedroom floor | academicsuccessblog

  2. Ganesh Gupta Sinisetty

    Dear Dr. Rachel, your posts are very stimulating and inspiring. I am a doctoral student in Linguistics. Since long time, I have been struggling to understand the notion of ‘a perfect draft’. My understanding of the perfect draft has been changing time to time and I keep on modifying my draft in each and every attempt. Could you please suggest me how to understand the parameters of a perfect draft in terms of writing a doctoral dissertation?

    • Thanks for your comment, Ganesh. My first thought is to avoid using the word ‘perfect’. Even if you don’t mean actually perfect, it still seems like a lot of pressure! As for how to know when a draft is finished, that is still hard question. Usually, we have to balance how much time we have and how much we are actually improving our text through the revision process. Maybe you’ll find this recent post on topic sentence paragraphs helpful; in the post, I discuss the possibility of diminishing returns when the revision process goes on for too long. It is also helpful to have a trusted reader, someone we can count on to tell us whether a draft is still in need of further revision. All the best with your work!

  3. Ganesh Gupta Sinisetty

    Thanks a lot for the post on ‘Topic sentence paragraphs’! With your kind permission, I would like to ask another question which may not be related to this topic. The actual problem with my thesis is redundency. I have conducted an experiment with 4 languages and I have drafted 4 four core chapters for four languages. The objective is to describe the results (speech rates and error rates) of the speech production experiment for each language in each chapter. The side heads of the four chapters are repeated. At your convenience, could you recommend any solution to solve this problem ?

    • Redundancy is always a hard issue to address, especially in the abstract, since it is largely in the eye of the beholder. We all have the find the correct balance between useful repetition in a thesis and actual redundancy (which the reader may find distracting). Given our familiarity with the content of our own work, we often struggle to recognize the different between redundancy and valuable repetition. Again, I would suggest seeking advice from a trusted reader, someone who can tell you whether too much is being repeated in each of the four results chapters. If you decide that the degree of repetition isn’t optimal, then you have to look for a solution. The simplest solution may be to group all of the points that apply equally to all four chapters together; that shared material could perhaps appear in your discussion of your method or could appear at the beginning of the first results chapter. In the latter case, you’d want to make sure that the reader understood that this information would apply to all four results chapters and you would still want to give a brief summary of that material at the outset of the three remaining results chapters. Again, this advice may miss the mark–in particular, I may have misunderstood the structure of your thesis. In general, however, it is useful to reflect on repetition and redundancy from the perspective of the reader and it is helpful to understand how you can structure a thesis in order to minimize the need for unnecessary repetition.

  4. Ganesh Gupta Sinisetty

    Dr. Rachel, I have no words to convey my regards. Thanks a lot for the invaluable inputs and enlightening posts. Especially, the post ‘Silent sociability’ has guided me in a right direction to realize the importance of maintaining internal quiteness which is very essential for the act of academic writing.

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