The writing process can be time consuming and laborious. I have discovered some key strategies to jumpstart the speed and efficiency of your writing. Here are eight ideas to move as fast as the lightrail train pictured:
#1 Use Headings as an Outline
You’ve probably heard that you should outline and you probably don’t. Perhaps you feel like you have to write a bunch of Roman Numerals and make some formal outline. That’s not what I’m advocating. Instead, using the style guide of your field, create all the heading titles for your entire manuscript right up front, first thing. Be generous with the number of headings because I think people more than often do not include enough headings to guide the reader through their main points. This will serve as the bones of your manuscript. If your manuscript is about how Halloween parties are related to overeating and how overeating is related to weight gain then simply write out the headings for your introduction as follows:
Halloween and Weight Gain
Halloween and Overeating
Overeating and Weight Gain
Now you know exactly what to look for in a targeted literature review and you already have your headings in place. Having all the headings for the paper written first gives you direction on exactly what you need to do and jump starts your motivation to get moving.
#2 Write to a Model
You’ve hear the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and this is true in research as well. It may not be appropriate in all fields, but why not create a conceptual model to pictorially illustrate the main points that you make in your manuscript? In my models, I will often label different relationship paths with letters or numbers and then describe each path under a separate heading. This not only provides a great summary of the core ideas behind your work, but it helps you to organize your arguments and accelerates your writing. The image is an example from my research on gratitude.
I have an entire post on this strategy, so I won’t belabor the point much here. To quickly review, the point here is to never sit down and get comfy, curled on a couch in front of the fireplace with a stack of your favorite academic journals. Rather, write out the points you want to make, then make a targeted search of the literature to back up those points. Brian Martin, author of Doing Good Things Better advocates this approach and when he states:
There’s another, more practical reason why writing first—before doing the research—is more efficient than writing only at the end. Let’s say there are ten major books in the area you want to write about. The normal approach is to read them first, and probably you’ll want to read even more books and articles just to be sure you understand the topic. This approach can lead to a reluctance to start writing: the more you know about the topic, the harder it is to measure up to all this work by prior authors…When you write first, before doing all the reading, you find out exactly what you need to know. In writing an article or chapter, you find gaps in your argument, points where you need examples, and places where you need a reference. So when you turn to the ten books, you don’t need to read them in full. You’ll know exactly what you’re looking for, so you can just check the relevant bits (pp. 22-23).
Give this idea a try!
#4 Get Right to the Point in the Introduction
Perhaps one of the most time consuming mistakes committed by many researchers is thinking that you have to extensively review everything that has been written on the topic of your study in your introduction. NO! Remember, the key purpose of a good introduction is to derive your hypotheses. Just make your case for why you think A is related to B. Don’t waste your own time and bore the reader by describing every piece of research written about both A and B. Instead, state the purpose of your study early on, perhaps even by the end of the first paragraph, and stay focused on making a case for your hypothesis. No need to review the previous hypotheses of every Jim and Jen out there.
#5 Graveyard It!
Sometimes we waste a lot of time trying to decide if we dare part with something that we spent a lot of time writing. We’ve invested time into it and so even if it is probably better to get rid of it, we stew and worry that maybe we will want to make that point later on. Rather than losing time in this kind of equivocating, just give yourself some peace of mind by putting it in your graveyard. You might have a section at the bottom of your document or a separate document in which you cut and paste all those things that you think you probably don’t want to include but aren’t quite ready to part with. Then, you have a whole bank of sentences or paragraphs you have crafted that might fit into a future paper and you don’t lose any time stewing about cutting things you may be emotionally attached to.
#6 Simplify your Writing Style
We often feel like we have to spend some time with our writing trying to be more elevated and sophisticated so that we can meet some artificial threshold we have for research. Doing so takes you longer to write and makes it harder for you to be understood. Keep it simple and keep in mind the following quote by C. Wright Mills:
Such act of intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status… [Because the academic writer in America] feels his own lack of public position, he often puts the claim for his own status before his claim for the attention of the reader to what he is saying…To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose. (1959, pp. 218-219)
Remember, the primary purpose for writing should be to communicate ideas not to show off. You will save yourself time and make it easier for the readers and reviewers to understand what you are talking about.
#7 Keep It Short
Remember that journal space is very costly and the longer you ramble about this and that, the more the journal editor begins to get nervous. Also, when you are asked to be a reviewer, it’s never pleasant to open the document and find that it’s very long. So do yourself, the reviewers, and the editor a big favor by being on the short end of disciplinary norms. In fact, there are many journals that have a publication outlet for shorter reports. If your paper isn’t especially complex, consider submitting it as a brief report. It can take half the time to write and oftentimes you get just as much credit for it as you would for that long monster paper.
#8 If You Get Stuck, Free Write
You may have followed the above suggestions and find that you are still getting stuck in certain places. If that’s the case, you might consider free writing, or just writing down your thoughts in complete sentences. Just beginning the writing process can help activate your thinking processes moving along. One scholar pointed out “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” (Forster, 1973, p.101). Sometimes just getting something written down without worry about the quality or direction can get the juices flowing and can help you to make progress on you manuscript.
Following these strategies will save you so much time and will accelerate the laborious writing process for you. If you found this content helpful, you will love my book Publish and Prosper! Also, to receive regular updates from this blog Facebook page. Finally, I’m excited to announce that on Monday we will have the famous Rick Reis, author of Tomorrow’s Professor book and newsletter as a guest blogger. He will describe some of the nuts and bolts that go into publishing an article while in graduate school. It will be a treat.