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5 Tips to Developing the Daily Habit of Writing in Academia

2018-09-10T10:32:44+00:00

As newly-minted education fellows, we are expected to be productive writers, and we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far about developing the daily habit – yes, habit! – of writing. For some people, writing seems easy. But not everyone can write non-stop, like they’re running out of time. Writing productively is an important skill to learn, especially if you have your sights set on an academic career. Here are 5 tips to get you started!

1. Break Your Project into Pieces

No one can write a grant proposal in a day. Break large writing projects into sections with milestones that can be achieved month by month. Then, chisel it down further into pieces that can be completed week by week, and so forth. This will force you to make realistic goals and help keep you motivated. Plan to write the most difficult part of your paper or proposal first while you are freshly engaged.

2. Schedule Your Writing

Don’t wait for a large block of time to magically appear on your schedule so that you can finally get that writing project done. We are all busy and competing demands for our time get in the way – soon enough a deadline will be knocking on the door. Save that adrenaline for running codes and not for panicking about the grant approval process.

We’ve found the best way to be productive is to commit to daily writing. Write daily in the same way that you brush your teeth and sleep. Block off REAL time on your calendar every day (or at least every week) to build the habit. Start today. Thank yourself later.

3. Forget Writer’s Block

As Paul Silvia, PhD, described in his book How to Write a Lot [Amazon],1 writer’s block does exist – but not for you. Academic writing is generally straightforward, and it has to be clear. You are not aiming to create America’s next great coming-of-age novel. Don’t wait for “inspiration” to strike – just sit down and write.

Make sure you have a thoughtful outline and just fill in the blanks. If you are struggling to write words, consider Anne Lamott’s goal of a “sh*tty first draft” in Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers [Amazon].2 Put simply, we are better editors than writers. Another trick is to use Dragon Dictation (or a similar product) to get words on paper without continually and self-consciously editing.

4. Join a Writing Group

Keep yourself motivated by forming a writing group with your peers. This group will hold you and your colleagues accountable. That extra peer pressure may just do the trick! Many institutions have adopted this model and have seen a boost in scholarly productivity. Two models to consider: The WIP and the WAG.

The WIP:

Here at Stanford EM, we hold a weekly Medical Education Works in Progress (WIP) meeting aimed at supporting each other through our research project milestones. Some of us use this group to write as a team, splitting research papers into discrete sections. From the ALiEM archives, here are some tips on how to run a successful WIP team.

The WAG:

Other institutions organize writing groups in slightly different ways, but share similar goals of productivity and accountability. One example is the Johns Hopkins EM Writing Accountability Group (WAG), which is a weekly, 1-hour session where participants review their progress on a project and then spend 30 minutes writing silently [more information].

If your department doesn’t participate in WIP or WAG, consider joining a local chapter of Shut Up & Write! — an international organization that hosts free, weekly writing sessions.

5. Prioritize Your Projects

You have may have writing projects that range in scope from new research proposals to the revisions of submitted manuscripts. Know your deadlines and prioritize the assignments that are coming up first.

Completing a writing project well before a deadline creates that early win that you might need for habit formation. The satisfaction of successfully completing assignments can form a snowball effect that keeps you rolling!

There are many more tips out there from seasoned academicians who have mastered the habit of being productive writers. Take us up on these tips and you can build the habit too. Chances are that while you’re reading this, you are procrastinating on another project. So close this distracting window and focus. Your days as a productive writer begin now.

Expert Peer Review:
Michelle Lin, MD
UCSF Professor of Emergency Medicine, ALiEM Founder

These are useful tips that are salient for fiction, non-fiction, and academic writers alike. I have always been in the procrastination group throughout my career, but have occasionally benefited from joining small teams with like-minded goals of being academically productive. We pushed each other on our writing projects/goals. We essentially nagged each other to success. I wish I had been a part of WIP and WAG accountability gatherings. With so many distracting responsibilities and deadlines, the often cognitively-heavy tasks such as academic writing get pushed off to a later date.

Some other tips I’d like to add are:

  1. Read the literature related to your manuscript, project, or initiative. Be sure you are not creating new terms and phrases that already exist. No need to re-invent the wheel. Also get a sense of the tone, perspective, and controversies that exist in your area so that your writing does not inadvertently stand out (in a bad way).
  2.  Jerry Seinfeld has been credited with the “don’t break the chain” mindset. Place a big X on the calendar whenever you have done your allotted writing. Then don’t break the chain of consecutive writing days.
  3. Use a timer in a Pomodoro approach. Write with reckless abandon for 25 minutes. At the end of 25 minutes, stop, assess, and move on to a new task.
  4. Unlike the thumbnail image above, try writing in analog. Buy a notebook. Grab a pen. Personally, I have found this helps to kickstart and coalesce ideas.

 

1.
J. Silvia P. How to Write a Lot. Amer Psychological Assn; 2007.
2.
Lamott A. Shitty First Drafts. In: A. Eschholz P, F. Rosa A, P. Clark V, eds. Language Awareness. 12th ed. Bedford/st Martins; 2016:93-96.
Cynthia Peng, MD

Cynthia Peng, MD

Simulation Fellow
Clinical Instructor
Department of Emergency Medicine
Stanford University
Cynthia Peng, MD

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William Dixon, MD

William Dixon, MD

Medical Education Scholarship Fellow
Clinical Instructor
Department of Emergency Medicine
Stanford University
William Dixon, MD

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