Staring at a white Word doc or looking up at a mountain of scrap notes — you may find yourself stuck. You are stuck because you need to write the draft of the article, but you find it hard to write. What to do? In this post, we discuss writing habits and writing strategies for social scientists.
Habit: “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
You can have any writing habit you want
The most important thing to remember is that you can have any writing habit you want — the need for a cozy, quiet room, or a noisy room and a disorganized desk, or to run around the block after writing a paragraph, and so on — so long as you are productive.
If you are able to achieve what you want to achieve, you can cultivate any habit you like to get there (so long as it does not harm others, and, ideally, it does not harm you).
Writing habits change over time (it’s natural!)
After that, it is important to remember that your writing habits may change over time. As you progress in your academic career, moving from graduate student to PhD and beyond, your life will change and your priorities will change. Your habits, naturally, will change.
You can have one habit now, realize it is maladaptive, and then change the strategy to get a new habit. You may end up going back to your original habit. It doesn’t matter, so long as you are productive in the way that you want to be productive.
Don’t beat yourself up! Be kind to yourself, and others.
Self-assessment and honesty
My advice is that you self-assess and be honest with yourself with the results of that assessment. You may not discover for a month or more that your writing habits are no longer productive. You may discover that a cozy, quiet room exactly at 10 am each day is no longer possible to have. You may discover that your habit of blaring 1950s cool jazz at midnight just to get started causes problems with your roommates and neighbors.
Monitor your progress: Blowing deadlines? Your writing quality has declined? You have trouble even getting started? Etc. If so, try a new strategy. Be honest in your self-assessment to give yourself the best chance to start a new and more productive habit.
For strategies, try something new. Even if it seems very different from what you had done before, try it. You are social scientists: Theorize! Observe! Repeated observation is the hallmark of science. Theorize why it does not work and observe yourself.
If your new strategy doesn’t work, there are plenty of other free options to try. You can always go back to what you had done.
There are many writing strategies to choose from. Below are two articles to read about them.
- Smith, Chris. 2018. “Six academic writing habits that will boost productivity.” LSE Impact Blog
- Peterson, Todd C., Sofie R. Kleppner, and Crystal M. Botham. 2018. “Ten simple rules for scientists: Improving your writing productivity.” Plos
I highly recommend that you read these articles. They can be summarized into a few strategies.
This means that someone else is counting on you to produce, or will check your work. Having someone else read your stuff is essential to writing well. This form of accountability is also a good strategy to get you to write that article draft.
Ask a colleague to read your article and give yourself a deadline to send it to them. Tell your colleague the deadline. For folks who like deadlines, this is a good strategy.
Ever hear of the quantified self? The quantified self is when you monitor and record your own activity to track progress. Well, this is a minor variant, and perhaps more palatable to most folks.
Create an Excel or Google Sheet. Put in the hours of the day and the days of the week. Look at your calendar and schedule the hours in which you will write. Schedule a writing time. It could be one hour. It could be two or more. Don’t over-promise. Then, when the appointed day and hour comes, write.
When the time is up, stop writing and move on to something else. Give yourself a small reward (which should include leaving your laptop and desk and looking outside). With time blocking, you set aside your writing time, prioritizing it, and doing it.
Look back after a week and see how you did. Be honest! If you didn’t actually write, think of why, and see if that time slot is best. If not, choose a new one.
The Egg Timer Method
Its time blocking without monitoring it. This is best if you can’t get started. Simply set your timer (on your phone, or the egg timer, or what-have-you) for a half-hour or 50 minutes. Close your email. Press start. Now, write! When the timer rings, stop what you are doing, and get away from your laptop and desk. If it worked, try it again!
Using AI to Brainstorm
With ChatGPT and many other AI-assisted writing programs, there is no need to stare at a blank page. With Notion AI and other “second brain” apps, there is no need to despair when looking up at your mountain of notes. Use these apps to get started and get organized! Just type something in, copy and paste the text, and start editing. Soon enough, you’ve got a paragraph going, the juices flowing, and a paper on the way.
Your habit doesn’t matter. Your strategy does not matter. Productivity does.
What is productivity? How productive should I be? Etc. Those are different questions, but how you define productivity should be one that leads you to your goals — of which health and happiness and being good to others should be at the top.
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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