The posting below addresses how to write manuscripts briskly and well for faculty, graduate students, and full-time researchers alike. It was adapted from Gray, T. (2020). Writing your dissertation quickly and well. In K. Townsend, M. N. K. Saunders, R. Loudoun, & E. A. Morrison (Eds.) How to keep your doctorate on track: Insights from students’ and supervisors’ experiences.Cheltenham, U. K.: Edward Elgar. Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Note: The chapter above is itself a summary of the book, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (2020), 15th anniversary edition, which is available in paperback for $25 from https://teaching.nmsu.edu/publish-flourish/ or in Kindle for $9.99 at https://Amazon.com.
UP NEXT: Revising Scholarly Manuscripts—Briskly and Well
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Writing Scholarly Manuscripts—Briskly and Well
Do you wonder why some faculty, graduate students, and full-time researchers get many papers accepted and grants funded while others don’t? Why some flourish while others flounder? Even when you can’t work harder, there are important ways to work smarter. This posting offers steps that can help you learn to draft manuscripts briskly and well by writing daily, drafting quickly without revising as you draft, and outlining your manuscript based on an exemplar or excellent manuscript. These elegantly simple steps break down the enormous task of drafting manuscripts into little tasks that any scholar can do. The steps are based on a book, Publish & Flourish; two research projects; and 20 years of helping scholars apply the steps to their writing (Gray, 2015; Gray & Birch, 2000; Gray et al., 2018).
Scholars have found these steps triple productivity. In one study, more than 90 faculty members and graduate students followed the steps by getting weekly feedback and by writing for 30 minutes daily. Ninety-five percent of the participants agreed that the quality of their writing improved (Gray et al., 2018). The participants also revised far more journal articles, thesis chapters, and grant proposals than before. In fact, they increased their annual rate of finishing manuscripts from two to nearly six (Gray et al., 2018). Participants accomplished all this by getting feedback weekly and by writing for only 30 minutes per day, four days per week.
The steps are specific on purpose; they may seem prescriptive, but they work. Try the steps as written so you can broaden your range of skills as a writer. After you try the steps once as written, adjust them to your liking to see if they work even better for you. Scholars report that some of these steps seem artificial at first, but over time they see the benefit because they observe that, as writers, they are churning out many grant proposals, journal articles, and books.
Write Daily for At Least 15–30 Minutes
Writing in small daily increments of at least 15–30 minutes may be the best way to triple your productivity. By writing or revising in small increments, you diminish the daunting task of writing an entire manuscript. You can also protect many hours per day for other duties, including research other than writing (bench work, literature review, data collection, number crunching, etc.). And, you can prioritize writing over all other work activities by doing it first before reading your texts or email or doing anything else. Be sure to write without interruptions such as reading texts or email. To reduce interruptions, turn off notifications of message arrival.
You may think you cannot get anything done in only 15–30 minutes, but this feeling can come from not writing yesterday and from not planning at the end of each writing session for your next session. By writing every day, you gather momentum for your writing and can start each session much faster. Also, leave yourself a note at the end of each writing session that tells you what to do next. Perhaps write a question to answer or a heading to address the next day. If you are on deadline, read that note right before you go to bed so you will think about it overnight. In any case, write first thing in the morning, which will mean you think about it throughout the day. By taking these measures you will find yourself able to start writing as soon as you open your manuscript and to accomplish something substantial in as few as 15–30 minutes.
Record Your Minutes Spent Writing—Share Records Daily
Most people need support beyond your own willpower to begin and sustain a new habit for the rest of their careers. Research suggests that you are more likely to write daily, starting tomorrow, with simple, steady support: (1) keep records of your time spent writing daily and (2) hold yourself accountable to a coach. And, keep those records on a spreadsheet across the years. These records will allow you to see trends, which will keep you motivated for the long haul. Also, choose an ‘accountability coach’ from among those people whose opinion you care deeply about—and who care deeply about you. These people can include a close friend or a trusted colleague. When choosing a coach, avoid choosing another writer who is struggling to write daily. If that writer were to quit the effort, you might be tempted to quit too. A helpful coach is someone who will use these reports as a reason to challenge you when you fail and applaud you when you succeed.
To hold yourself accountable to your coach, take these actions. Explain to your coach the importance of writing daily by presenting the evidence in this post before beginning to send your daily writing minutes. Then, send your coach a record of your writing minutes every day and a summary each week. In your daily email, send the number of minutes in the subject line so your coach doesn’t even have to open the email, unless the number is zero. If you did not write on a given day, write “0—see below” in the subject line and send a short explanation. By doing this, you will begin to see the reasons that keep you from writing and start avoiding them. In your weekly summary, send a note such as, “I wrote seven days this week for a total of 3.5 hours.”
Be prepared to encounter challenges as you strive to write daily, but, know that your work will pay off. It took me four years of trying to be able to write daily. I now write regularly across time, on holidays, when I am (a little) sick, when I am between writing projects and even (sometimes) during my travels. Last year, by trying to write seven days per week, I managed to average six days per week. So, consider this a major life change akin to starting and maintaining an exercise program. Be patient with yourself, but be persistent.
Keeping records may sound like a lot of work, but it actually requires about 15 minutes per week and the results are impressive. In exchange for these 15 minutes, you can keep yourself writing daily and submit manuscripts three times faster. Please weigh the costs and benefits. I am confident you will make the “write” decision. Hold yourself accountable to a writing log and a coach for the rest of your writing life!
Write Informally from the First Day of Your Research Project
Writing informally is helpful for your very first draft—or anytime you are drafting a new paragraph or section. Writing informally can mean freewriting—or freely dictating—continuously without stopping and without revising your work. As you freewrite, conduct a conversation with yourself about whatever you are reading, whoever you are surveying or whatever is happening in your experiment. Converse with yourself to keep a written record of your thoughts as you research, however crude, so that you can read them later, revise them and rachet up your thinking to the next level. Imagine that you are writing in a journal or dairy or in an email to a colleague: “I wonder why this author is arguing such-and-such. It seems counterintuitive because. . .” or “I don’t know why I got the results I got in the lab today. . . Perhaps it was because. . .” No, I don’t think so. I think the reason was. . .” Tomorrow I will try something different.”
Freewriting is like taking a deep dive into a swimming pool—it plunges you into your topic so you will be surprised by the nuggets of truth that arise. Once you finish your freewriting for the day, underline these nuggets and place these important points in a typed list. You will use this list of important points when you outline your manuscript in the next step.
To freewrite, write for a very short time, say encouraging things to yourself as you write, and don’t revise. Write for a few minutes, starting with three to five, and working up to 10 minutes, the usual length for a free write (Elbow, 2012). As you write, tell yourself, “I have something to say and I’m going to write it down.” To freewrite, avoid revising as you type or dictate. Ensure you cannot see the words on screen by darkening it or minimizing your file. Or, write by hand and don’t allow yourself to backtrack.
Don’t wait to write because you think that the literature review—or the whole research project—must be finished first. Neither the literature review nor the research will ever be finished in the fullest sense of the word. You can always read one more study or do one more t-test. So, start writing immediately upon beginning your project and leave underline marks with notes inserted in your writing like this: _____. “Find this citation or get this statistic_____.” Then, a simple search for multiple underline markings will let you find the notes and fill them in—during your research time rather than your writing time. So, write informally from the first day of your research project. Read as you write and write as you read; research as you write and write as you research.
Outline Your Manuscript Based on an Exemplar
As you continue writing, you will need to organize your thoughts. To do so, find a well-organized manuscript on a subject close to yours, an exemplar. Then make an outline of the exemplar; make a parallel outline of your manuscript-to-be; and write to each topic in your outline. Begin by making an outline of the exemplar by locating the topic in each paragraph—that is, the subject or the point of the paragraph. Once you have made an outline of your exemplar, write parallel topics for your own manuscript, referring back to your list of important points from the previous step to ensure that you include them all. Then, put each topic at the top of a page and write about that sentence for one short writing session.
You are still writing somewhat informally and briskly—you can revise more later—but you are not quite freewriting as before because each paragraph has a topic and you are organizing your writing around it. So, allow yourself to see the words on your screen and to revise briskly after writing. This writing will then be superior to the freewriting you did in the previous step. This process of drafting paragraph by paragraph will keep you productive and on track. Continue until you have drafted a good number of paragraphs before moving onto the next step, which will be covered, along with other steps about revising, in the next posting on Thursday.
For further reading, see the citations at the top of this posting.
Elbow, P. (2012). Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. London, UK: Oxford University Press.
Gray, T. (2020). Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (15th anniversary ed.) Las Cruces, NM: Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University. Available at: teaching.nmsu.edu/publish-flourish/ (accessed April 9, 2020).
Gray, T., & Birch, A.J. (2000). Publish, don’t perish: A program to help scholars flourish. In D. Lieberman & C. Wehlburg (Eds.), To Improve the Academy, 19, 268–84. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.2001.tb00536.x
Gray, T., Madson, L., & Jackson, M. (2018). Publish & Flourish: Helping scholars become better, more prolific writers. To Improve the Academy, 37, 243–56. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/tia2.20081