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Strategies to kickstart your academic writing

I’ve just finished two more pieces (this week), a conference paper and a journal article, that I needed to have done by the end of the week. I still have four additional pieces to write, and I’m working towards completing those (particularly because they are co-authored). But all this “writing-in-excess” made me ponder about my own strategies to kickstart my academic writing. I call this period “writing-in-excess” because normally I would write for 2 hours and stop worrying about what else I need to finish, because I had already done my writing for the day. Since I committed to complete more manuscripts, I have been writing well in excess of 2 hours a day. This has generated a different set of strategies than the ones I used to have. Here are some reflections on the topic.

First, I use conferences and workshops to force me to write a paper. I write the paper and use the conference or workshop’s feedback to improve my submission to the journal. I don’t do “academic tourism”. I travel to workshops, research meetings and conferences in order to present my work and test my ideas. So, my goal is: 1 conference paper = 1 journal article or book chapter submission.

Second, I move all my manuscripts forward on an everyday basis. This is perhaps a weird strategy for some people. Most academics I know like to focus solely on one manuscript and then move on to the next one. I can’t. Because I sometimes schedule fieldwork around when my interviewees can talk to me (or around when I have funding!) I can’t just be writing one piece. I need to move forward all my pieces, every day (or at least, the vast majority of them). Even if it’s just a few sentences here, a little bit of formatting there, I try to make sure all of them move forward.

Third, I stop writing when I feel exhausted, not when the paper is done. I have a peculiar metabolism, where I need rest on an everyday basis. My energy levels drop dramatically throughout the day. My best writing hours are from 4 am to 1pm. Then, my energy takes a nosedive. So, for example, last night I was THIS CLOSE to being done a colloquium paper. I stopped, because I knew an additional hour of writing while exhausted would be the same as 15 minutes of writing well refreshed. I was able to come back to my paper this morning with a fresh mind and more focus.

Four, I read while travelling. The basic excuse for academic writers NOT to read is that “they don’t have time to read”. Well, you NEED to make time. If you aren’t up on the literature, how are you supposed to write cutting-edge research? This week I’ve had to travel back-and-forth as I’ve been doing some fieldwork in the city where my parents live, and last weekend was a long weekend, so I spent it with them. Instead of driving there, I took the bus and spent the two hours to and back from my parents’ city reading the latest literature on rescaling and water privatization.

Five, I write while travelling. I don’t solely read while I’m on a plane or a bus. I also make notes and write bits and pieces of text that I can then use and reuse. Because this writing is “generative”, I count this time as effectively writing (although not the consecutive 2 hours that I normally do on an every day basis).

Six, I read on an everyday basis and make handwritten notes and highlight relevant text on papers. This is particularly helpful if I feel stuck. I read other people’s thoughts and scholarship on the field I’m interested in, and then I move forward with my notes, building an argument around what they were writing. For example, reviewing recent work on rescaling made me think that the way I approach scale is different from the way a critical human geographer would. This facilitated my writing an argument around the different ways of looking at scale from various disciplines (political science, economics, geography).

These are some of the strategies I use to kickstart my academic writing, hopefully they’ll be of use to you too!

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  1. Dr Ian McCormick says

    Agree that reading should be active, i.e. lots of ideas and comments.
    Also very important to write in short bursts then take a rest.
    Quick drafting also very important, in my view.
    Don’t be too hard on yourself either – take time off to walk/run/enjoy music/gardens etc
    Thanks for your post!

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