Academic Writing: Getting it Done

One of the most common challenges that Research Staff seem to face is getting papers written and published. There is a great deal of pressure within academia to ‘publish or perish’ and therefore, it seems, little sympathy for those who don’t, or can’t, keep churning out the papers. However, what many early career researchers don’t realise is that the challenges of academic writing are probably more common than they realise – research has shown that a lot of more established academics struggle with the same challenges when it comes to getting their ideas down in writing. In this post, I’ll briefly explore some of the most common challenges when it comes to writing for publication and offer a few tips about how to overcome them. 

  1. Perfectionism – This is perhaps the most common challenge faced by academics when it comes to writing for publication, and it makes it very difficult for the writer to ever let the work ‘go’. However, it is worth remembering that journals have processes for reviewing and giving feedback to authors – they clearly don’t expect work to be perfect or there would be no point in the peer review system! Try to bear this in mind when submitting work; clearly sloppy work won’t be accepted, but the assumption is that the version of the paper that you submit will not be the final one that appears in print.
  2. Getting started – Lots of people seem to have several good ideas for papers that they plan to write, but never seem to get round to. One reason for this can be ‘blank screen syndrome’ – where sitting in front of a blank Word document seems to render them completely incapable of articulating their ideas in writing. One possible solution to this might be to start with the easy stuff that you don’t have to actually write yourself. Maybe you have some quotations that you want to use, some headings for different sections or chunks of text from a conference paper that you want to build on. Having this skeleton on which to hang your new text can help you to avoid hours staring at a blank screen. Another technique is ‘splurge writing’, or what might also be called a ‘brain dump’ where you write for 3-5 minutes without stopping (and without worrying about spelling, grammar, structure, etc) in order to get your thoughts down on paper. You can then use this as a basis for refining and organising your ideas, giving you another kind of skeleton to build your article around.
  3. Finding the time I – Despite the fact that Research Staff are supposed to spend most of their time researching, many seem to struggle to find the time to write articles. This may be because they have been legitimately caught up in other research tasks (like gathering or analysing data, or writing reports for policy makers), or, it may be that, in reality, they are struggling with writing and using the lack of time as an excuse. Either way, it is important for researchers who aspire to becoming academics to ensure that they are getting their names on published research and therefore it’s essential that they do find the time for writing. Research suggests that many of the more productive academic writers find relatively short but (essentially) regular slots to do some writing. People who consistently put off their writing until they have a large chunk of time (say an afternoon or a full day) often find that those chunks of time never materialise, whereas those who are content to spend 15 minutes a day everyday find that their work progresses. Writing regularly also means that you return to your article with a clear recollection of where you left off, and the fact that it remains at the forefront of your mind means that you will often find yourself using ‘dead’ time on the bus or in the shower to think about your writing and what you plan to say next. Those who don’t work on their article from one week to the next lose this opportunity.
  4. Finding the time II – This is not so much about finding time to write, but about finding out what is the most productive time for you to write. Many people find that they are ‘not in the mood’ to write at certain times of the day, and that producing any text at these times can be a long and onerous process which ultimately makes sitting down to write even more of a challenge. However, the same people have no problem producing several hundred words at other times. The key is to try writing at different times to discover what works best for you, and then to try to tailor your writing schedule around that.

 Clearly, these are just some basic tips on how you might begin to experiment with being  a more productive writer, but there are also a whole host of resources to support you. There are workshops and writing groups that can help you with the substance of your writing, and speaking to a mentor or coach might help you to explore the particular barriers that you experience.

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