How to Write Productively
Here are 8 tips on how to write effectively and efficiently.
Posted Nov 15, 2013
A student recently asked me for advice on how to write his undergraduate thesis. Here are some suggestions based on decades of experience.
1. Conform to your body rhythms. Everybody has a chronotype, which is a pattern of sleep and activity. Writing requires intense effort, so you need to devote your best part of the day to it. For an early riser like me, the best time to write is morning, but you need to figure out what are your best 3-4 hours of the day and devote them to writing. When I was a graduate student, I heard about a French novelist who said that he only wrote when he got inspired, but he made sure that he got inspired at 9 a.m. every morning. Block off your best time for writing and avoid intrusions and distractions. If you only write when you have time left over from other activities, you will make very slow progress.
2. Have a daily quota. Figure out how much you can usually produce in your 3-4 hour writing slot, and make that your daily goal. Whether it is 1 or 10 pages per day, do your best to achieve that goal, which will give you satisfaction and motivate you to keep rolling on. Every hour or so, get up and stretch. For the sake of your sanity and social life, take 1 or 2 days off per week, and regular vacations.
3. Produce outlines. Whether you are writing a 10-page essay or a 200-page thesis or book, it helps to break it down into parts that you can work on successively. No one has the mental capacity to keep a whole project in mind at once. Naturally, the outline will evolve as your work progresses. Writing an introduction is always useful even though you will have to revise it as your project develops.
4. Expect multiple drafts. Students are surprised when I tell them that anything good takes several revisions. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith said that he needed 5 drafts to make the writing look easy. Many students have trouble starting because they think the first draft has to be perfect. I tell them my principle: first drafts are crap. Their purpose is just to get the basic ideas down, with unavoidable flaws. The second and third drafts give you plenty of time to fix those flaws. Allow a day or two between drafts so you can look at what you’ve written with fresh eyes. Once you have a presentable draft, show it to friends to get help with the ideas and writing.
5. Read “just in time”. In manufacturing, just in time production means that a company does not have a big warehouse of parts, but instead has them delivered to the factory when needed. Analogously, do not feel that you have to read everything before you start. With an outline, you can figure out what to work on at a particular time, and do the reading relevant to that topic. Do not attempt a comprehensive literature review, which will take a huge amount of time, and you’ll have forgotten much of it when it comes time to write. My currently preferred way to read articles is to use Dropbox to transfer PDF files to my iPad, and then open them in iAnnotatePDF.
6. Know your audience. Always keep in mind the group of people for whom you are writing. Depending on their backgrounds, you will need to fill in different kinds of detail. For speaking as well as writing, have a mental model of what your audience knows and does not know so you can connect with them. What matters is not how much you say, but how much people understand and appreciate.
7. Revise thoroughly. In the first draft, do not worry about polished writing, but in subsequent drafts do all you can to make your work comprehensible. My favorite resource is Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style, which has encouraged people for generations to write concisely and vigorously. Do not confuse obscurity with profundity: write with sufficient clarity that people can evaluate what you are saying. Model your writing after a skilled author, such as Galbraith or Bertrand Russell.
It has become common in speech to use “their” as a singular shorthand for “he or she”, but this usage is not appropriate in serious writing. In English, gender neutrality can almost always be achieved by using plurals. For example, say "When people care about their friends" instead of "If someone cares about his friends" or "If someone cares about their friends".
William Safire’s rules for writing are amusing and useful, although I ignore the ones marked with a *. No sentence fragments. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read. A writer must not shift your point of view. Reserve the apostrophe for it's proper use and omit it when its not needed. Write all adverbial forms correct. In their writing, everyone should make sure that their pronouns agree with its antecedent. Use the semicolon properly, use it between complete but related thoughts; and not between an independent clause and a mere phrase. Don't use no double negatives. Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration. If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times: Resist hyperbole. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is. Avoid commas, that are not necessary. Verbs has to agree with their subjects. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.* The passive voice should never be used.* Writing carefully, dangling participles should be avoided. Unless you are quoting other people's exclamations, kill all exclamation points!!! Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. Use parallel structure when you write and in speaking. You should just avoid confusing readers with misplaced modifiers. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences-such as those of ten or more words-to their antecedents. Eschew dialect, irregardless. Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and don't mix metaphors. Don't verb nouns. Always pick on the correct idiom. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies. "Avoid overuse of 'quotation "marks."'" Never use prepositions to end a sentence with. Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
8. Backup your work. I’ve had students and co-authors lose much material because of computer disasters, but it is easy to do a daily backup to a cheap flash drive or Dropbox. At least once a month, backup to a remote location with a burned CD or Dropbox.