In winter 2016, the need for writing my PhD dissertation was chasing after me. The task was so overwhelming that I did my best to escape by using excuses like I needed to do more experiments and more data analysis, but it finally caught me. Defeated, I sat down to write.
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
But instead of writing right away, I started by reading about how to write, more specifically how to write a lot. The first book I read on writing was “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” by Paul Silvia, who is a professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The book is short and entertaining. The main message, which is repeatedly stated, is: Make a schedule and stick to it! Allot time during your work week for writing, and when the time comes: write and do nothing else. No checking emails, no talking, and do not let others interrupt you. Let them know, if necessary, that you are not available during these times. You might feel that it is hard to find time for writing. But Silvia does not fall for this excuse:
Do you need to “find time to teach”? Of course not—you have a teaching schedule, and you never miss it. If you think that writing time is lurking somewhere, hidden deep within your weekly schedule, you will never write a lot.
I decided to try this scheduling myself. While I was still doing experiments, I planned to start every day by writing for two hours. Some days I would write in the office with a heavy look of “do not disturb me” on my face. But most days, I would write for two hours at home before going to the office.
The method worked. I managed to write two manuscripts in a relatively short time. Simply by sticking to my schedule. And it made the writing process manageable—I knew when I would start and when I could stop with a clear conscience. You can, of course, write for longer than the scheduled time, but if the schedule is kept, it is just fine.
Your writing schedule should be permanent. Sticking to the schedule, even when you are not entirely sure what to write, is what will make you truly productive. If you search a little, there will nearly always be something you can write; you can start the next grant application in good time and avoid the last-minute binge writing. Or draft abstracts and posters for upcoming conferences. Your group may have data from previous experiments that are still relevant and important but have drowned in new data from other projects. There might be enough to form a story for a manuscript. If you cannot find anything to write, then you can spend the time improving your writing. For example, read about writing or take previous texts that you wrote and make them better. You can always do something related to writing during your allotted time. Just stick to the schedule, and enjoy your productivity.
If you allot 4 hours a week for writing, you will be surprised at how much you will write. By surprised, I mean astonished; and by astonished, I mean dumbfounded and incoherent. You’ll find yourself committing unthinkable perversions, like finishing grant proposals early. You’ll get an invitation to revise and resubmit a paper, and you’ll do it within a week. You’ll be afraid to talk with friends in your department about writing out of the fear that they’ll think, “You’re not one of us anymore”—and they’ll be right.
Since starting my postdoc, I have not kept a writing schedule. Moving to another country and getting used to new projects and colleagues got me off schedule. But I am getting back on track. I now write every weekday morning, preferably from home. I eat breakfast, make coffee, and then sit down to write for one hour.
If you already have a writing schedule or decide to make one, I would love to know about the results.
Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Lifetools: Books for the General Public. 2007, electronic edition. American Psychological Association.