How to build a productive writing practice

By Bec Evans

About the author

Bec Evans is co-founder of Prolifiko, a digital coach for writing. She has worked with writers for 20 years in publishing, most recently as head of innovation for Emerald academic publishing, and running a writers’ retreat centre. She researches writing productivity most recently looking at scholarly writing practice. Bec is also an Enterprise Ambassador for the Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies and will be leading a workshop with the Northern Advanced Research Training Initiative (NARTI) in the near future.

With increasing pressure on academics to write and publish, everyone is looking for the latest productivity hack. While there is no one-size fits all secret, research shows that the most productive - and happiest - academic writers are those who have found a system that works for them. Here are some tips on how to find yours.

It’s no surprise that 80% of academics feel under pressure to write and publish more than they currently do. Things get more interesting when you dig a little deeper, as most of that pressure is internal from personal and career ambition rather than institutional sources.

Over the past few months we, at Prolifiko, have been investigating the tools and techniques academics use to keep writing and publishing. With over 500 responses, across 40 countries, our research has provided insights into what helps academics write and what blocks they face – and how that changes over the course of a scholarly career.

The good news is that the longer academics write, the more satisfied they become. By the time they’ve gained 25 years of experience they hit a sweet spot. But, there are some real lows on the way – not only do PhDs and early career researchers feel high levels of dissatisfaction, there’s also a real slump in mid-career.

While the advice to keep writing for 25 years might guarantee success, most people don’t want to wait that long. Here’s some research-backed techniques you can apply now to figure out your personal productivity system.

Prioritise writing and schedule it

The first trick to developing a rock-solid writing practice is to know you want one. You need to prioritise writing, which will involve making difficult choices about what to stop doing and when to schedule lower value tasks so you have time and energy to write. Take this academic:

“A high teaching load means minimal time for writing beyond lectures, lesson plans and marking feedback. But I know my research outputs and publications are the thing I need to work on for career advancement, not my teaching.”

Your daily schedule is no doubt overbooked, so once you’ve set your intention get practical to make it happen. Time blocking is a tried and tested technique – grab your schedule and make some writing appointments.

Break your goal into small chunks

We all know about being SMART when setting goals – yes, getting ‘Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound’ gives you something to aim for but the tendency is to be too ambitious and end up with is a scary big goal. To overcome feeling overwhelmed, think small, and break your big goal into manageable chunks, like this researcher suggests:  

“Sometimes when you’re at the start of a new project it feels like an enormous mountain. You really need to cut it into small pieces in order to conquer it – otherwise you never start. First write the literature review or do part of the data.”

Create milestones and celebrate them

If you’re working on a longer piece of work such as a thesis, a series of journal articles or a book, use milestones to monitor progress. Here’s a tip from one writer:

“I’ll use conferences as deadlines in terms of when I need to have the next thing ready. I know the research – I’m a psychologist – I use artificial milestones to keep me motivated.”

One of the best ways to embed a habit is to build in rewards. So, when you hit an important milestone, take time to acknowledge and celebrate it.

Build accountability systems

Using other people to hold you to account can get you started and keep you going. Research shows that sharing your goal and providing progress updates makes you on average 33% more successful in accomplishing it.

Scholarly writers can draw on lots of existing accountability structures, from supervisors to structured writing sessions like ‘Shutup and Write’ and collaborative writing, like this researcher:

“I use co-authoring as a psychological trigger. When you have to deliver to someone else it really makes you get your butt in the chair – disappointing someone else is a lot tougher than disappointing yourself.”

Work out what accountability structures will give you the support, feedback and motivation to make progress on your project.

Figure out what works

Your writing system is as individual as you are, some tactics will work while others won’t. You need to experiment with what works – from where you write, how long for, and how often – and reflect on what’s really making the difference.

Some people write daily, while others binge write on sabbatical, what’s important is they figured out what worked for them. Take Dr Christina Phillips at Leeds University Business School who finished her PhD early. Her system involved strict time management, working to deadlines, having a supportive supervisor, and friends and family to keep her on track. She found her writing mojo and stuck to it – with great success.

Talk to other writers in your Faculty and field to find out what approaches they use. Borrow approaches to experiment with, but don’t compare yourself! Just because someone churns out 2,000 words at sunrise each and every day doesn’t mean it will work for you. If you feel you’re falling short, it can trigger a crisis of confidence that leads to writing blocks.

Finding an effective writing practice is a learning process, so keep experimenting and you’ll soon find your way to a productive and happy publishing pipeline.

Read more about these research findings on the LSE Impact blog and take the survey to help us better understand how academics write.

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