Academic writing resources

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!

Getting started!

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.

Project management
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!

Pomodoro technique
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.

Manchester phrasebank
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.

Reading references
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!

“Day off”

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!



Apps to boost your productivity

There are many productivity apps and websites available to help you better organise your time, your projects and your PhD. Whilst I prefer putting pen to paper, saving information digitally and syncing it across all devices, and with colleagues, can make things easier.

During my PhD, I am yet to find my perfect method to maximise productivity but here are a few options I have tried and tested, which are worth considering.

  1.  Evernote
    At the start of my second year of my PhD I started using Evernote, adapting the  Getting Things Done (GTD) technique. Evernote is flexible, and relatively easy to use productivity app based on notes. Each note can sync over many devices where you can add to-do lists, attachments (PDFs, powerpoint, images, etc), and each note can be tagged and saved to specific notebooks. The search functionality within Evernote also enables you to find words from hand-written (or typed) documents, which can be a bonus providing your hand-writing is legible!

    I used several notebooks within Evernote, one for each project, and assigned tags related to the urgency and time scale of the work, for example today, tomorrow, this week, soon, some day, waiting. I also added weekly and monthly to-do lists and goals to keep track of work and to review my progress and was also able to share notes with colleagues.

    Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 19.27.28
    Screen shot of the Evernote app in the web browser with a list of My Notebooks and a note I am viewing in the background. 


    Whilst using Evernote I had a free 1 year trial of Premium, which also meant that I could upload photos from my phone/tablet as searchable documents which was pretty handy if I made notes during a meeting I could upload to Evernote and link to my weekly review.

    I used Evernote for almost a year, however I do also like to keep a notebook and lab book and found that I was spending a lot of time just trying to write notes to keep Evernote up to date with what I was working on, also the app for Mac was quite slow to load which was frustrating when trying to find something in a hurry.

    Evernote also offers many other features I haven’t mentioned here including browser add-ons, and compatibility with other accounts such as gmail. Check out their website for a full list of features.

  2.  Bullet Journal
    The bullet journal is a simple and flexible way to stay organised with pen and paper. As a stationery lover, looking at bullet journals on pinterest/tumblr/instagram fills my life with joy. Sadly, I lack the artistic skill to make my bullet journal as decorative as ones you may find online and prefer to take a basic approach.

    When writing my thesis I had a small (A6) squared notebook that I carried with me everywhere which I’d just usually list 3 realistic tasks to complete that day and any events I was attending. This kept me focused and meant that I didn’t have one looming task that I kept putting off as it would be very specific and achievable. The notebook was dedicated only to PhD/thesis work so at the end of the day I could tick off the list and feel satisfied I had made progress.

    There are many different ways to ‘Bullet Journal’ and this technique can also work alongside other productivity tools.

  3. Wunderlist
    Wunderlist is a to-do list app which syncs over all devices. I first used the app in 2012 and it was an easy to use checklist app which has since incorporated many useful features including sharing and assigning tasks, categorising lists in folders, tagging, and more.
  4. Google Calendar
    I have used Google Calendar to sync events across all my devices throughout my PhD. It can also be useful to share your calendar and events with colleagues and to schedule time for particular tasks on your to-do list. Whilst I usually only schedule important meetings and tasks, you can also use the calendar for reminders and goals, and with the description and options to add attachments to events, it could also be used alongside google docs for collaborative work.

All of the above apps are free to use and are designed to increase your productivity, mainly in terms of note taking, to-do lists and task management. Searching in the app store, there are thousands of apps under the productivity category and I have barely touched the surface in my list here.

Other apps similar to Evernote:

Online notebooks, great for collaborative writing:

Task management apps:

I am really keen to try a task management app as I’ve read some really positive reviews. To be able to sync tasks with my calendar really appeals to me but I think that you need to use it as a group to gain all of the benefits of these apps.

On top of apps, I have also tried 100% paper-based organisation. Using a diary, lab book and many, many post-its. I prefer making notes on paper when at meetings and sometimes pen to paper helps ideas flow. I change my organisation system frequently, testing new methods but have not yet found a perfect method that works for me all the time.

Finally, worth a mention is IFTTT which is a digital recipe builder to automate tasks. It can be used with many of the above apps to make your life easier. For instance, to send reminders to colleagues, sync files automatically or create your own custom recipe to suit your needs.

What are your most used productivity tips? What apps do you use to keep on top of work? I’d love to hear what works for you, or what you think of some of the apps here!