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Writing your Thesis: Building a Writing Routine as a PhD Student

The PhD is designed to make you into a professional researcher and writer. It’s an academic apprenticeship so it’s meant to be a learning process. Professional writers and scholars have routines that enable them to maximize their effectiveness and to make the process of writing easier. You will need to find and create your own routine. This is easier said than done and requires trial and error to find a routine that works for you – and discipline to stick to it. But it is critical that you establish a writing schedule early on that matches your working style and energy levels. If you are a morning person, plan your writing period in the morning – if an evening person, have it in the evening.

I know two eminent and prolific scholars whose routines have been an important component in their success. Professor W writes for two hours in the morning from 10 am to noon, has a 1 hour nap after lunch at 1 pm, followed by a long walk if the weather is fine or goes skiing if there is snow, and who writes for another 2 hours from 7 pm to 9 pm in the evening. The second, Professor B, goes to bed early (before 10 pm) and rises at 4 am to write until 8 am before starting his busy day at the university. Your rituals = Your results as they say and this is true in any field. Find out the routines of leading scholars and you have a clue to their success. 

Start small first – the whole purpose of creating a schedule is to inculcate the habit of writing so that it becomes automatic. Getting started is always the hardest and that’s the way you need to make writing a habit. Writing needs to be done daily –  even if you only write 200 words.

Your writing schedule might be for two hours from 8.15 a.m until 10.15 a.m Monday to Friday or from 6.30 pm to 8.30 pm each evening (take the weekends off. Life is too short to work weekends.) Or you might work better in 15 minute bursts. Whatever works best for you. Experiment until you find a schedule that feels right for you. Set yourself daily goals and take regular breaks. I often find that my energy lags after lunch – between 2 and 4 pm – so I use this time when I can to go to the gym or for a walk in the Botanic Garden. I’ll return to the office refreshed, energized, and ready to tackle the remaining tasks for the day. We all have different circadian rhythms and energy fluctuations – get to know yours and work with it.

2 hours is generally a good block of time for a writing schedule as you can only effectively concentrate for 3 to 4 hours per day. This does not include the reading time and the research that you need to do before you have a clearer idea of what you want to write. But you can also use your writing period for revising text and footnoting – I call this “Grunt” work. Don’t edit while you write. Have a writing period to generate text and a writing period for revising and rewriting text and adding footnotes. And never arrive at your workspace without a clearly defined list of tasks. I keep a page a day organizer where I write my writing goals and tasks for the day – usually the evening before or after breakfast in the morning before I go to the office. Review your task list in the morning and create one no later than the evening for the following day. Even just an A4 sheet of paper folded in half 2 or 3 times and which fits in your back pocket or purse is sufficient for listing your daily tasks.

Don’t overstretch yourself with too many tasks – 2 to 5 tasks are enough for the day. Get high priority tasks done early and keep this saying in mind throughout the day or you might even post it on top of your computer screen: “Am I being productive or just active?”At the end of the day, review your day and think how you can improve. You might consider keeping a daily journal where your write about your goals and monitor your progress. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, cut activities that are not productive for you.

When generating text focus on generating words. It can help to work with a timer. I use the Pomodoro method to work in 25 minute intervals (http://tomato-timer.com/ for 25 mins.). I focus on one specific task and concentrate on that for that time slot. During this time I don’t check email, answer the phone, talk to colleagues, or check Facebook. My focus is 100% on the task at hand. When the timer rings I take a short break of 5 to 10 mins. and then start another slot. After 4 of these work bursts I take a longer break of 30 to 40 mins. The Pomodoro Technique which advocates writing with a timer and taking regular breaks is a simple and effective productivity tool (http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/). Writing with a timer is a good way to get momentum, flow, and to focus on the task at hand. Don’t work for work’s sake, but focus on what you want to get done for that day. When you achieve your daily task, get out and enjoy the day.

I also recommend that you write in the same place every day and if you can at the same time. Very specific times like 8.45 am or 8.15 am work better than 8.00 because they are clear and unambiguous. Also choose a place where you know you will not be disturbed. I generally don’t like to write in my office because I know people will interrupt my work. I and other scholars prefer to write at home where it’s quiet and we know we won’t be disturbed.

Also, do you write better standing up? Many writers prefer writing standing up as they notice that their concentration is better and there have been studies that show that it is actually healthier for you. Too much sitting can actually be bad for your health. Consider writing on a desktop or using an external keyboard for your laptop as writing all the time on a laptop keyboard can lead to RSI (Repetitve Strain Injury). Also, it is a good idea to mix physical exercise in during your work day. We have a chin up bar and handles for doing press ups in our office and doing occasional press ups during your breaks can help maintain concentration. Experiment and see how this works for you.

Start writing early on as this is a key skill to master during your PhD and you will find that the process of writing generates ideas. Do research and write as you go and look at writing as a malleable process. Keep organized and make sure you have a system that makes it easy for you to retrieve the information you need. It can be very frustrating spending 40 mins. searching for an offprint or file. A good tip is to organize material by chapter in ring binders rather than by author if you like having hard copy. You can of course also use free software like Mendeley or Zotero for organizing your research papers or keep scanned material in folders on your computer. Every scholar though will have their own preferred method.

Think of writing like Play-Doh and not of the finished product. Don’t strive for perfection but get it all down – you can rework it later. Think in terms of first drafts and then gradually mould it and shape the text until you get something you are happy with. It can be disheartening to read what you first put down in draft and this feeling is common to many writers – including me. But think of this as a process of rewriting. The process of writing becomes much more fun and less stressful once you take this pressure off yourself. As part of your development as a professional scholar, learn the craft of writing by reading books such as William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Also, for academic writing I highly recommend How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silva. This will pay dividends later not only in how you write but in winning readers to read your work. 

Don’t expect to write well if you don’t make it a habit. Writing is a craft that you need to learn and master. Also, experiment with listening to classical or instrumental music when you write – this is very soothing and many writers find this helpful (Mozart, Haydn, and the Baroque composers like Vivaldi and Rameau are my top choices).   

Do not leave writing up until your last year as this will be very stressful! I found that I got most of my PhD written up in my third year but I had been writing as I went along. Your ideas and text will change as you go but if you develop the habit of writing each day you will have a tremendous advantage. You will notice the compounding effect that daily writing will have in developing your skills as an author. Think of writing as a tool for thinking and free yourself to write shitty first drafts. Think also in terms of paragraphs rather than sentences. One paragraph should have one key idea.

Want to be more productive with your academic writing? Check out our PhD App here.