Academic writing can be a daunting task whether it’s papers, applications, conference notes or a chapter of your thesis. Whilst writing my thesis I attended as many seminars, talks and workshops as I could catered towards PhD students and researchers. Here’s a few tips and resources from these sessions which may be of use!
Plan your writing
Make a skeleton
Looking at a blank screen? Don’t know where to start? Make a list of your chapters or sections in your document. Adding headers with bullet points of what you plan to include can quickly amount to several pages, then, turning bullets into sentences and paragraphs is far easier.
Start with what you know
A lot of chapters may need checking values, acquiring or making images, reading papers, etc. I regret starting with the more challenging chapters as writing about what you know, your method, results gives you an extra burst of motivation and confidence. Maybe writing one paragraph of your research before reading complicated theory is the way to go.
Eat that frog!
When planning your day, the ‘Eat that frog’ concept by Brian Tracy aims to get the task you are most likely to procrastinate on, or the ‘worst’ task of the day out the way first thing in the morning, before you even have time to think about it. Then you can move through your day with ease! Read more about it here.
In my post Apps to boost your productivity, I list task management apps. If you have many sections or chapters to write, these apps may help you to plan your time effectively.
A potential use for these is to break down major tasks such as “Write Chapter 1” into many chunks which you can mark off to monitor your progress, such as list the papers to read, images to gather, sections to start, etc. Each time a task is complete, mark it off and move to the next one!
Schedule time to write
Write little and often
Aiming to write for a full day, or a full draft can be intimidating. Fitting small bursts of writing in, whether a few sentences, a paragraph or more can help you make progress.
Academic writing retreats
I discovered writing retreats half way through writing my thesis during Academic writing month (AcWriMo) and found them invaluable! Spending a morning, afternoon or full day writing in a quiet room with other people who are also writing helped me to really focus and get several thousand words down!
University of Sheffield organise monthly writing retreats (this webpage also contains lots of good resources!) but if you want to write more often then why not set up your own group with colleagues who also need time away to write!
The retreat is dedicated to writing: writing your intentions for the session, short discussion, write 1 hour, break 15 mins, writing 1 hour, write how you did, short discussion, or something similar! You can then see how many words it’s possible to write within this time and hopefully this will motivate you to write in short bursts often!
The Pomodoro technique can be used to stay focused on your task of writing, breaking into 25 minute bursts and recording your progress. There are many apps and websites to help you with this, get searching!
Shut up and write Tuesdays, @SUWTues
Similar to writing retreats, Shut up and write Tuesdays is a virtual community of academic writers who write on Tuesdays! I only discovered this recently so haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. But whether you want to join them, or read some tips and advice, take a look at their twitter.
The Writing Process
Read relevant papers
The best way to improve your writing style is to write more! But reading papers can be beneficial to improve your scientific language, familiarise yourself with the structure of papers and scientific writing style.
If you are stuck for words, Manchester phrasebank offers many phrases to help you get started, whether it’s an introduction, discussion of results or describing key concepts, there are plenty of resources on this website to help you make progress.
Choose a suitable word processor
There are many different options when it comes to word processors for academic writing.
Personally, I have used LaTeX for many years now, as is typical in my field. For papers, a skeleton document is often provided with style files for the specific journal.
Writing a major document I would recommend using some kind of version management software so that you can, at any time, revert back to a previous version or see what changes you have made, particularly useful for monitoring your progress!
I used svn to commit my TeX files and keep track of different versions, whilst github is another option with the same features.
Managing versions is also possible with Word, and GoogleDocs. Alternatively, Dropbox offers extended version history at an additional cost. Just gain a little experience on how it works before relying on it!
Reference Manager Software
As mentioned in Increase your Research Impact, on top of being a social network, Mendeley is a reference management tool which allows you upload and categorise papers which you may need to reference at a later date. I am yet to try using Mendeley for this purpose but there are many articles online with tips on how to use Mendeley as a citation tool, or other options for reference manager software!
Writing my thesis, I exported references as BibTeX items from online databases (eg. arxiv, Inspire, CDS) . Google scholar also offers this feature. I added all references to a single bib file with a useful, searchable name. I have used BibDesk in the past as a reference manager for Mac OSX, which allows you to upload papers to each entry and add additional details.
When writing, your list of references soon accumulates… One very useful tip about reading references is to add a post-it (or note in your reference manager software) to each paper you read with a one-sentence summary about the main points and key words which might help you identify the paper at a later time. I used different colour post-it notes corresponding to each chapter with just a few words identifying key points, results or sections of use to help me, particularly when double-checking a value!
Using your list of tasks, tired days can still be productive by choosing less intense tasks to do however, don’t forget the importance of down time, doing things you enjoy, catching up with friends and SLEEP!