Advice for Planning PhD Students: The Secret to Writing A Lot

Trying to write that first sentence…

Trying to write that first sentence…

Academic productivity is mostly measured by our writing, whether peer-reviewed publications, the pursuit of external grants, or any of the other dozens of writing-intensive tasks we are expected to do on a near-daily basis. Much of the anxiety among early career researchers is also writing-based, or the fear of not writing. Over the years I’ve read endless columns, guides, and books on how to be a more productive writer. I have attended workshops, seminars, and writing groups. I have purchased fancy apps and programs. I bought the perfect notebook and a nice pen and noise-canceling headphones, the ultimate combination that would surly lead to more articles per year under-review. I experimented with just the right numbers of beers or cocktails to summon the muses. I have a nicely arranged desk and writing space, and have staked out my favorite coffeeshops. I have tried every ritual or piece of sage advice on writing from experienced and productive writers: I’ve written only in the morning, and only in the evening. I’ve written everyday of the week and only once per week on a designated writing day. I’ve written in short bursts with timed breaks, and I’ve done marathon sessions with no breaks. I’ve stayed at home and I’ve traveled to writing retreats. I’ve written messy first drafts with no editing allowed, and written perfect first drafts with no messiness allowed. I’ve avoided outlines. I’ve outlined.

After all these years of reading and hearing advice, I have come to know one truth - the secret to writing a lot is to write a lot. Or, as Mary Heaton Vorse advised Sinclair Lewis a century ago, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

That is it. That is the bottom-line of every bit of advice on writing you will ever find. Make the time to write, and then do it. Easier said than done, but there is great wisdom on the topic. Put your writing time on your calendar and treat it like any other obligation. Free yourself of distractions. Make goals. When you hit a rut, mix things up.

At the end of the day, no one else’s advice means anything, because your writing habits are different. Just make sure you are writing on a consistent basis.