I finished my Ph.D. in July 2015, much to my partner‘s relief. I have since earned a Fulbright Award and started a two-year post-doctorate position at IDC Herzliya. As such, I am now able to view my graduate experience through the rose-tinted lens of “whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” rather than the much gloomier, “my God, what have I done?” In the spirit of the former, the purpose of this blog post is to impart the following piece of advice to those who currently toil in graduate school: find your writing process.
To help you find yours, I will describe the five-step process I use whenever I confront a writing task. I cultivated this process over a great deal of time, mainly through trial-and-error. Although it may seem tedious and mechanistic, it is the process that I have found works best for me. These steps help turn my weaknesses as a writer into strengths; namely, they keep that critical voice inside my head at bay when I don’t need it (i.e., when I start to write) and unleash it when it can the most productive (i.e., when I need to edit). This process also provides me a structure to fall back upon whenever I hit an obstacle, and, more importantly, gives me the confidence I need to tackle any writing project.
Step 1: Brainstorming
I start my writing process by reviewing any articles or research notes that I think are going to be relevant to the writing project. I then take a blank sheet of paper and a pen and start jotting down ideas, including any concepts, quotes, or citations from the sources I previously reviewed. I purposely avoid writing whole sentences because the creation of fully-formed, fully-articulated ideas is not the point of this step. Words, fragments, arrows, and boxes characterize this stage of the process; the messier your page is, the better.
Step 2: Outlining
I now try and pull something coherent out of the mess I just made in Step 1. I start by thinking strategically about my project as a whole and the sections comprising it. I try to ensure that every section, paragraph, and sentence in my work fulfills a precise and non-redundant function in the final product. I do so not only to make writing easier in the next step but, more importantly, to make the final product easier to follow for the reader.
I focus on particular sections of the project and create outlines for each one. My outlines consist of fully-formed topic sentences, which I assign Roman numerals (e.g., “II. What is meant by morality”), followed by sentence fragments or citations, which I assign capital letters starting with “A” (e.g., “A. Moral Foundations Theory (Haidt, 2012): 6 dimensions”). I use sentence fragments/citations at this stage because I’m primarily interested in whether I have enough content to round-out the idea established by the topic sentence. My rule of thumb is that if I can’t get to letter “C,” it means that my paragraph—and the idea it reflects—is not strong enough to stand on its own. In contrast, if I go past the letter “E,” it signals that the idea I’m trying to express in the paragraph is too broad and needs to be either refined or split into multiple paragraphs.
Step 3: Writing
I handwrite every first draft. I do so not because of some hipster-ish longing for some halcyon, pre-technological period, or because I wish to emulate the methods of 15th-century monks. I do so only because the words seem to flow better when I’m writing by hand than when I use a computer.
Most of the first draft of my dissertation exists in either blue or black ink in a notebook with a Nelson Mandela quote emblazed in gold on its cover. I have since moved on to using an iPad, a Jot Pro, and an app called Note Taker HD when writing my first drafts, which I eventually upload to Evernote (my undying devotion to that beautiful elephant will undoubtedly be a topic of a future blog post).
Writing by hand forces me to slow down and concentrate on the here-and-now of the sentence on which I am working. Previously, the dreaded blank MS Word document would open the door to self-doubt or worries about the writing project in general. Writing by hand helps to keep this door closed.
What happens when those negative thoughts, which so often derail a productive writing period, force their way through and start causing trouble? A side benefit of writing by hand is that it pits my laziness against my desire for “perfection.” Do you realize how much effort it takes to edit hand-written work? It involves messy cross-outs, substantial rewrites, and ink smudges all over the page. Making similar edits in an iPad app isn’t much easier. These costs are rarely worth the attempt at getting a sentence to be “perfect.” Above all, writing by hand compels you to keep going forward rather than backward, which is crucial at this stage.
I try to complete, at most, five to six paragraphs in a single Step 3 session. This amount is equivalent to a single section of a literature review or discussion section in a manuscript. Any more than that and I get burned out. For especially challenging writing projects, namely those in subject areas with which I am the least familiar, I may only complete one or two paragraphs in a single session.
Step 4: Typing
I now transcribe my handwritten work—whatever I managed to produce in Step 3—into a word-processing program (e.g., Google Docs). I revise my writing as I transcribe it. Step 4 is when I first unleash that critical, perfectionist voice in my head that was locked away in Step 3. I find that this impulse is far more productive when it has actual content to work with rather than when it is used on a blank screen. I also try to allow a day to elapse between Steps 3 and 4 so that I can look at my work with fresh eyes. It always surprises me how much I will like a sentence today that I hated yesterday.
Step 5: Finalizing
I also try to let a day pass before proceeding to Step 5, which is when I give my writing a second look and make further revisions. I’ve already fixed the glaring mistakes in Step 4; my goal in Step 5 is to improve the clarity and conciseness of the text. When reading my work at this stage, I ask myself questions like:
- “Can I shorten this paragraph or sentence without harming the point I am trying to get across?”
- “Can I describe this concept without relying on jargon?”
- “Am I using a crutch word here (for me these include, “thus,” “therefore,” “nevertheless”) to fill space?”
During this stage, I make sure all my citations and formatting (i.e., APA style) are correct. For smaller writing projects (e.g., peer-reviews, blog posts, portions of co-authored manuscripts), the completion of this step means I am ready for submission. For larger writing projects (e.g., first/solo-authored manuscripts, book chapters, grant proposals), the completion of this step means that I am ready to add another piece (e.g., the Method section) to whatever the final product is going to be. I will, of course, review the final product—paying particular attention to the transitions between sections—before I eventually submit it to my coauthor or a journal.
When I began graduate school, I dreaded having to write and viewed it as an unpleasurable activity that I had to get through as fast as possible. Developing a writing process has helped to change this attitude. I still view writing as a challenge, but an enjoyable one. I feel relief when I finish something, but also pride, as well as excitement at the prospect of revisiting my work tomorrow to improve its quality. I recognize, though, that this is my process and what works for me may not necessarily work for you. I share it in the hope that it encourages you to think about your writing process and those things that impede its development. Remember, although some may be born with a talent for writing, no one is born with a fear of writing. It is learned, which means it can be unlearned. Sometimes all you need is a plan of attack.
Helpful References (please feel free to add others in the comments)
- Billig, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. I believe this book should be required reading for all graduate students and most of their advisors.
- Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
- Struck, W. & White. E.B. (2000). The elements of style. Boston, MA: Pearson.
- Silvia, P.J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
- Alan Kima’s Academic Muse website