Tag Archives: Productivity

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.

Writing without Inspiration

In a recent post at Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette discusses the way writing sometimes comes easy and sometimes comes hard. She is noting how a general love of writing doesn’t necessarily mean that academic writing will get done. To combat this unfortunate fact, Bessette has adopted a more consistent approach to writing productivity. To learn more about this process, I also recommend her series, An Academic, Writing, on her work with a writing coach from Academic Coaching & Writing.

I am particularly interested in the idea that we might be setting ourselves up for an unrealistic goal if we strive to love writing. Graduate students will sometimes say to me that they used to love writing before they came to graduate school. Before, in other words, all the unspecified expectations and ambiguous requirements and confusing genre conventions. During graduate school, writing often becomes deeply unlovable. Unfortunately, some of us stall as writers while we wait for the loving feeling to come back: if we can’t love it, we may conclude that we hate it. Or, to put it another way, we may give up on writing when it isn’t going well, rather than just persevering in the knowledge that writing is often nothing more—for long stretches of time—than hard work.

Following the #acwri Twitter feed, you sometimes see people saying that writing just isn’t working out for them that day. Now, of course, there are times that abandoning writing for the day is absolutely the right thing to do—and only you will know when the best response is a run or a drink or a bit of quality time with Netflix. But I know from my own experience with thesis writing that waiting for inspiration in order to write would lower my productivity to undetectable levels. For most people—including me once I eventually figured this out—theses get written through many bouts of uninspired productivity and rare moments of inspiration. Those moments of inspiration are amazing, but if we wait for them, we usually hamper our ability to reach our own writing goals.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @nomynjb, a helpful #Storify about learning to use Twitter for academic purposes.

From @evalantsoght, a great approach to writing captions for your figures.

From @GradHacker, an honest account of surviving a serious change to the topic of a dissertation.

From @ProfHacker, concrete advice on how to regain control of your inbox.

From Geoffrey Pullum in the Lingua Franca blog, on the apostrophe: Do we need it and is it even ‘punctuation’?

From FT Magazine, a claim that social media is actually improving the quality of writing.

Have you tried an #acwri chat? Here’s a #Storify of the latest one on literature reviews.

From @cplong, an op-ed on the value–both holistic and professional–of a liberal arts education.

From @Nadine_Muller, exploring the line between blogging the personal and professional.

From @ScholarlyKitchn, a good overview of a recent survey on attitudes towards Open Access publishing.

From @ThomsonPat, great strategies to keep your thesis reader on track from start to finish.

From @WritingCommons, info on the Duke composition MOOC.

From @RohanMaitzen, an insightful discussion of the issues facing a graduate student deciding whether to blog.

From @NSRiazat in @PhD2Published, a discussion of the evolution of #phdchat as an academic research community.

From @thesiswhisperer, a reminder how the supervisory relationship can be derailed by mismatched expectations.

From @MacDictionary, differences in education terms between UK and US.

From @UA_magazine, an interesting exploration of the gender divide in university-community engagement.

From @DocwritingSIG, is it possible to create a ‘thesis assessment matrix‘?

From @GradHacker, advice on managing your digital identity.

From @Ben_Sawyer in @GradHacker, some tips for turning your dissertation into a book.

From @NewYorker, an interesting comparison of Google Reader and Twitter.

From @guardian, the past and future of #hashtags.

From @financialpost, outgoing #UofT president David Naylor discusses the future of the Canadian university.

From Lingua Franca, a great discussion of the Oxford comma and the broader issue of consistency in punctuation.

From @yorkuniversity, interesting research on how people multitasking on laptops in class may distract others.

From @ProfessorIsIn, an excellent guest post on managing mental illness during graduate study.

From the NYT, what reverse outlining looks like for a fiction writer.

From @thesiswhisperer, what we can all learn from the impressive time management skills of part-time doctoral students.

From @readywriting in @academiccoaches, an important reminder that we must recognize academic writing accomplishments.

From @MacDictionary, helpful corpus-based account of when we actually use ‘who’ and ‘whom’.

From @m_m_campbell, an inspiring account of how to raise a future researcher.

From @rglweiner in IHE, an essay on the role of virtual community for graduate students.

From @ThomsonPat, wise words on needing to be alert to the language we use for talking about our research.

From @DocwritingSIG, some great questions about MOOCs and doctoral education.

From IHE, a discussion of the proposal at Duke to require a short and accessible video to accompany a thesis.

From @NewYorkerplagiarized theses in Russia.

From @raulpacheco, an explanation of how he uses #ScholarSunday to recommend academics to follow on Twitter.

From the Crooked Timber blog, a great #IWD post on equality for women in academia.

From @ProfessorIsIn, the value of presenting what you can do, not just what you are interested in, in an application.

From @fishhookopeneye, an excellent analysis of the distorting effects of familiarity on thesis writers.

From @qui_oui, thoughts on the benefits and real costs of public engagement for academics.

From the NYT After Deadline blog, a great reminder of what dangling modifiers are and why they are worth avoiding.

From @ThomsonPat, a post about verb tense in theses, demonstrating how it’s a matter of authorial stance not grammar.