Tips for writing

6 Dec


In recent years I have struggled to carve out time for writing. A mix of family demands, an increased administrative load, and the sheer busy-ness of academic life (particularly the never ending stream of emails) have meant that writing projects have suffered. The following are the tactics that I have used (with varying degrees of success) to try to protect writing time.

Put it in your diary

Teaching and meetings go into our diaries but do we cordon off time for writing? If we don’t specifically block-off writing time in our diaries, the danger is that the time will be seen as blank and therefore will be eaten up by last minute Skype calls and meetings. So put it in your diary (“Writing 8AM – 12 NOON”) and treat it like a meeting that cannot be re-scheduled.

Set a daily word target

On writing days I set myself a 1,000 word target. The target is realisable. If it was too high, I might very well miss it and thus feel that I had ‘failed’. By having a realisable (and respectable) target of 1,000 words, I can feel that I have made real progress and that sets me up for the next day of writing. I can only keep the 1,000 words per day rate up for about four days. After that I would have to spend some time – usually a few weeks – taking notes and reading.

Write messily

I write first and insert full references later. I do not use referencing software as I have found it to be very untrustworthy (for a start, it cannot deal with my name). Instead I just write and insert full references later. If a reference is at hand, I will insert it or I will simply write “REF” as a reminder to myself, but I would rather use my writing time to get my words on screen than track down whether the year of publication was 2007 or 2008. The result might be a messy draft but at least it you have something to improve on.

Work with your biorhythms

Some people are early birds and others are night owls. Whatever you are – work with it rather than against it. I write best in the morning and so would not dream of grading or engaging in admin tasks on the morning of a writing day. The morning is for writing and the afternoon is for editing what I have written, answering those emails, and those dull administrative tasks.

Get feedback as you write

If possible, I try to get feedback on drafts of my work – even if it is messy. Good, critical feedback is invaluable. People are often busy and I understand completely if they don’t come back to me with feedback, but often my informal reviewers are aware of a literature that I have missed or will have a different disciplinary perspective. Psychologically, I think, the informal feedback process helps me believe that my writing is moving forward towards publication. I also grab any opportunity – brown bags, invitations to give seminars, teaching – to float ideas I am writing about. Some of the best feedback I have ever received has been in MA classes when I incorporate some ideas into a class. If it can survive a good MA discussion – it is likely to survive Reviewer 2.

Press send

There is no such thing as the perfect essay, article, book chapter, dissertation or thesis. There will come a point though when you cannot do any better without feedback or a break. It is better that a draft is out there getting feedback (even rejection) than sitting in a file. Even if a manuscript is rejected by a journal you are likely to get feedback that will help you improve it. A manuscript squirrelled away on a file might as well not exist.

None of this should give the impression that I am some sort of writing machine and that I have it all sorted. I have really struggled to privilege quality writing in recent years. Indeed, writing this blogpost is an act of prevarication – I really should be dealing with the second set of revisions for an article. And none of the (let’s face it, really obvious) points I have made above speak to the quality of our writing output. That might be the subject of another blogpost. I would hugely appreciate if readers would share their ‘top tips’ on writing.


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