From the Science Student Council

Making writing a priority

A guide to establishing writing goals and effective habits.

By Todd Chan

As psychological scientists, we strive to see our work published in peer-reviewed journals. That requires a sincere dedication to writing and revising manuscripts which can be an overwhelming task for many graduate students. However, writing effectively and efficiently is a large part of being a productive academic. In this article, I review barriers to writing and then outline ways to establish effective writing goals and habits.  

Barriers to writing

Why is it so difficult for many of us to spend time writing? Graduate students juggle many different roles and responsibilities, such as conducting research, analyzing data, teaching classes, mentoring undergraduates and assisting our advisors. These are tasks for which other people depend on us, and we can feel guilty for not completing these first for fear of letting someone else down. Also, unlike many tasks with clear deadlines, writing or revising manuscripts does not often come with a hard deadline imposed. As a result, writing often takes a back seat, languishing until we find enough free time or decide that we’re sufficiently “in the mood,” which unsurprisingly, rarely occurs.

But, are other tasks truly more pressing or important? They may be simpler to complete, but most times, the answer is no. Prioritizing these other tasks can be immediately rewarding and give us a sense of accomplishment, but can actually hinder our ability to get work done for ourselves. To have time to write, we need to explicitly make time to write, and other things need to take a back seat. 

Scheduling protected time

Writing takes brainpower, but it does not have to be a major task that gets done in one sitting. Setting aside as little as thirty minutes per day to write — with specific goals in mind — can add up to fast progress and can build momentum to continue with even more writing. The challenge is that no one will schedule writing time for you. To take writing seriously, schedule dedicated time to do so and put it on your daily calendar.

To help make it a habit, schedule the same recurring time on weekdays, at a time and place that you know you will be able to focus. Whether you write at dawn or midnight, at home or a coffee shop, figure out what works best for you. The key is to protect this dedicated time as an appointment with yourself. In practice, this means declining meeting requests for that time and avoiding emails and other distractions during that time.

It may be wise to start by scheduling thirty minutes to one hour regularly — enough to get something accomplished, but not too intimidating for one sitting. The Pomodoro technique, for example, proposes that people work in 25-minute, uninterrupted periods, followed by a five minute break before repeating. Of course, if you get into the swing of it, writing for the second hour may come naturally. Alternatively, you may want to set word count goals, for example, aiming to write 500 words each session.

Creating goals and milestones

Now that you have blocked off this time, the next step is to decide what to specifically accomplish during each of your writing appointments. 

First, determine your end goal. Which project are you aiming to write up? When do you want to submit the manuscript? For example, you may decide that your goal is to submit your two-study paper by the last day of next month. From there, you would funnel down to more proximal, weekly goals; for example, finish writing all the elements of the first study by week two, and finish writing the methods section by week one.

After deciding on weekly goals, plan what you must accomplish during each daily writing session. On the Monday of week one, for example, you may decide that your protected writing time will be used to gather all the information needed from your data for your participants and procedure sections; on Tuesday, you will write up this information. By developing specific goals for each session, you will know exactly what milestone you need to achieve, and you can easily track your progress.

Label these goals on a writing calendar. Be sure to keep it realistic: don’t forget to budget some buffer time for unexpected obstacles, breaks, and feedback and revisions from your advisor. You may have to regularly monitor and revise your calendar. 

To stay motivated and accountable to these goals, it may be useful to use your colleagues. Forming writing groups or having fellow lab members share their writing goals and their progress on meeting them can help everyone stay on track.

Get the words out

Finally, to start off each writing session, it may be most helpful to just start putting words on paper, without worrying too much about quality and structure. The goal is to get into the flow of writing and be able to turn your thoughts and findings into words. Of course, after the initial draft, take several iterations to revise and refine your writing. Although not the focus of this article, there are many resources available on how to write concisely and compellingly

Writing can be intimidating when viewed from the perspective of the published paper, but when viewed from the perspective of just small chunks of time, writing is very achievable. By dedicating writing time, setting goals and staying accountable to them, and of course, reminding yourself of why this research is interesting and important to begin with, you will be well on your way to sharing your work with the world. 

Todd ChanTodd Chan is the social/personality representative to the APA Science Student Council. He is a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Michigan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or policies of APA.