writers block canstockphoto20177873Academic writing is a core competency for any faculty member. As much as we hate to all admit it, professional advancement (and dissemination of your hard work) still heavily relies on academic publications – in a variety of formats original research, review papers, case reports, simulation cases, blog, and website writing. It is important to prioritize writing just as consistently as you do staying up-to-date with all the latest practice-changing evidence as a habit early in your health professions education career.


In March 2016, the inaugural ALiEM Faculty Incubator launched. Over the next year, we will be undertaking an ambitious longitudinal, experiential faculty development program. As part of this program, a few of us gathered virtually to discuss not only academic writing but the PROCESS of academic writing. The following are 5 tips recommended by our incubatees and mentors:

Tip 1: Condition yourself to get into your “space”

Pavlov yourself – but don’t drool all over your manuscript. Condition your brain into recognizing automatic triggers for your writing. Here are some examples of helpful triggers:

  1. Time the trigger: Write at the same time(s) each day.
  2. Environmental trigger: Set up the environment of where/how you always write, such as a coffeeshop, faculty lounge, lights off in office, music (or background coffee shop noise)
  3. Other sensory triggers: The taste of coffee or simply caffeine ingestion might trigger you to enter your “work mindset”. For example, associate a specific specialty drink or the amount of caffeine with converting the bad ideas into good ideas.
  4. People triggers: “Accountability buddies” in writing groups can help you keep on track, in person, by videoconferencing, by phone, email, or messaging platforms like Slack.

Tip 2: Many hands make light work (and work more fun!)

Collaboration can be a big help with moving things forward… Uploading an early draft of an abstract, poster, or manuscript as a Google Doc can lead to a group making real-time changes/ edits/ comments. Often working through a draft together is incredibly energizing and productive. In fact, this blog post was written using this very premise!

Tip 3: Start with the end in mind

When submitting a project decide which type of scholarship to produce.1 You may be able to write a piece as multiple forms of scholarship. For example, an educational innovation may be able to be repurposed into a form of discovery.

Tip 4: Go analog — build and iterate

Consider using sticky notes (e.g. Post-its) with ideas/references to start building a paper to get out of writer’s block. Organize the sticky notes by paragraphs to start building the backbone of the paper. Use a whiteboard and re-arrange as the outline of the paper changes.


Tip 5: The early bird gets… the manuscript done!

Start writing crazy early. Your study design protocol is often based on the same information as your Introduction and Methods section, so these can be largely sketched out before you even collect data. This means that you can kill multiple birds with one proverbial stone.

Study Protocol = Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposal
= Grant Application = Introduction/Methods sections

Being productive during the planning phase significantly reduces the workload later.

In fact, it is possible to begin constructing an Introduction, a Methods, parts of your Discussion, and the majority of your Limitations section before even analyzing the results. The discussion will need to be modified once the data is truly scrutinized, in order to elaborate on the significance of your findings within the context of comparable literature on the topic. The Limitations section can be drafted early as well, because your study design and methodologies are already set. All of these early writing efforts will make your final draft easier to write, because half of the writing work is already completed even before a single piece of data is collected.

ADVANCED TIP: Write text in the present tense for IRB and ‘works in progress’ sessions. Change this same text to past tense for conference abstracts/manuscript submissions!

Tip 6: Reach for the top (impact factor)!

When choosing which publication you want to submit to, follow the mantra: “Go big or go home.” Reach for the big name journals. You may be surprised that they may accept your work. If not, the revision/rejection process can be a learning process for revising your work.

Boyer E L. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Jossey-Bass; 1997.
Cathy Grossman, MD, FCCP, CHSE

Cathy Grossman, MD, FCCP, CHSE

Associate Professor of Medicine
Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems
Cathy Grossman, MD, FCCP, CHSE

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