Writing is a central part of what we do, yet it can take so much time to generate quality work! Developing quality practices and strategies is crucial to success as a writer. So, we have gathered five of our favorite tips for high-efficiency writing.
Write Today, Write Tomorrow
Researchers and famous authors alike tell us that scheduling your writing into your day is a crucial step for making progress on writing projects. You can pick any time where you feel most ready to write, but you should write something almost every day.
Writing every day is a habit that can be reinforced by developing a routine around your writing. Write at the same time every day and set aside that time exclusively for that purpose (e.g. mornings 8-11 a.m.). Once established, protect that time from other projects and chores. Ease yourself into writing by developing a routine around it. For example, I listen to the same music and drink a cup of coffee before I start. Once I begin, I do not check my email or social media in order to minimize distractions. The idea is that you will develop enough associations between these actions and your writing such that when you start your routine, it automatically puts you in the headspace to begin writing.
If you want to schedule in a researched, productive cycle, check out the Pomodoro Technique (which involves a series of timed, focused productivity periods).
Just Keep Writing
If you ever wish to have a written product, it is crucial that you take some time to simply put words into your document or onto the page in front you. You must type/write something, anything to get started.
Ideally, you will want to write in the language that your final product will need to be read. (E.g., write in English if it is for publication in an American journal.) However, do not let your language slow you down. Rather, when the word that you want is not in your thoughts, just write down your native language equivalent and keep on writing, using the target language as much as possible. (Use these tools later to find the perfect word!)
I like to do 30 minutes of writing followed by 30 minutes of editing, adding, and organizing. When I am writing, I do not return to my project notes, I simply indicate in the text that I should expand on an idea or find a better word when I return. (I use color-coded highlighting, but any system will do for drawing attention back later!)
Try out my system, and then try to find your own for writing!
There Are NO Bad Ideas!
Ideas do not have to be perfect when they go on paper. In fact, free-writing is one of the best ways to get your thoughts flowing when you feel stuck. Just open a new document and write down whatever comes to your mind in relation to your topic for 10-30 minutes. This writing does not have to be done in grammatically correct or even whole sentences. The only rule is that you can’t stop writing within this time period. This is so that you don’t begin to second guess yourself all over again. The point of free-writing is not to generate a well-written, coherent argument, but to just put down your ideas on paper without worrying about how “good” they are. Free-writing helps take the pressure off when you feel like you have no ideas or that you aren’t being able to express yourself well. In addition, it can spark new ideas when you re-read them a few days/weeks later (Always save your free-writes!).
A Dump Doc
Have a separate document that you use to record ideas/concepts etc. that have occurred to you or that you’ve come across while writing but will not include in your current piece. This is especially useful while writing a dissertation. Create a doc like this for every chapter so that you can drop a link, a quote, or a random thought into it. You will soon have a storehouse of useful material that you can re-read and draw on for later work.
Create a Structure That Helps You Think
Different people think and learn in different ways. Some of us are visual, others are more aural. Find out what works for you and develop strategies that help and maximize your thinking process. For example, if you like to see all your thoughts laid out in front of you, you could create a physical word cloud by writing down your ideas/concepts on post-it notes and sticking them to your wall. Not only do you now have all your ideas laid out simultaneously in front of you, you can also move them around in order to help your thinking process. If you do better with aural methods, try recording yourself as you ask and answer questions about your work, or even just informally talk about your project. Both the process of talking it out and going back to listen to the recording will help make your ideas more concrete and develop them further.
Organize Your Thoughts
Before you really get into your writing, you may want to create an outline or a series of questions to be answered. In this way, you are able to guide your writing so that it is as productive as possible. Keep the ultimate goal of your writing in mind as you set up your organization: what are the key elements that are necessary for this paper?
Here is an example of a series of questions to help in writing an introduction to an academic article:
- What is the overall application of what you are studying? What will your findings provide information about?
- What are the major facts that we already know about this topic (that relate to your findings)?
- What don’t we know? How is this ‘gap’ connected to your study?
- What did you do to learn more/investigate and fill this gap?
With the answers to these questions, writing an introduction becomes much simpler.
(Questions inspired by Swales and Feak (2012). Academic Writing for Graduate Students)
Set Short-Term Goals
Rather than thinking about the large project you are writing (e.g., a final paper, scholarly article, dissertation chapter), you should break the task into smaller tasks that must happen for the larger project to come together.
To begin approaching writing in this way, think about what needs to be included in the article and what you need to complete those component parts. It may be that you need to read more materials, create more graphics, etc. for certain sections. Other components will be first drafts of writing. You should incorporate many rounds of revision and feedback into your components list for big projects such as articles and dissertation chapters.
After you have divided the work, organize a timeline that is achievable. You should make short-term writing goals that specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and timely (SMART). Setting goals like this and achieving them will be more difficult at first! After you have adjusted your expectations and found where you spend your time, making achievable goals will become easier.
Save Prior Successes (& Examples)
Over the course of a career, we write about the same topics or ideas many times. When you have found a phrase, structure, or exercise that works well, save it. In this way, you will have an example to return to the next time that you are writing about the topic.
When writing about a topic, it is also valuable to see how others have written about it. You should visit topic experts’ work not only for their information but also for their explanations.
Do not steal the work of yourself or others, but review the formats, structures, and patterns in order to develop your writing style for the project that you are working on.
Use Digital Resources: The Writer's Diet
The Writer’s Diet is an automatic feedback app for Microsoft Word developed by Helen Sword based on her writing manual of the same name. This app gives diagnostic feedback on your writing in five categories: the use of be-verbs, zombie nouns (a.k.a. nominalizations, which are abstract nouns created from other parts of speech), prepositions, ad-words (selected “academic adjectives” and adverbs), and demonstratives such as it, this, that and there. For a more detailed explanation of each category, please see the app’s website.
The app can be downloaded for free from the website below. The website also allows you to directly input text to run the diagnostic online. Once the app has been downloaded, it will appear in the toolbar of Microsoft Word. By clicking on the icon, the app will perform a diagnostic scan of a section of your work and color code the section in terms of the previously mention five categories and give a rating for each category. This scan will appear in a box on the right side of your screen and you can use the arrow buttons to move between sections of your paper. This scan will allow you to identify possible areas for improvement in your writing. The goal of using the app is not for you to delete all your uses of these kinds of words and phrases but instead to bring your attention to the ways you use the highlighted words.
Content on this page was written in collaboration among the program manager and graduate fellows. Thanks to the Graduate Fellows of 2020-21 (Anwesha Kundu & Adam Manfredi) for their invaluable contributions!