Nue Lee's blog

How to Develop a Strategic Writing Plan


Nue Lee is a PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @thesisthreads or on her personal blog.



"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." — Ernest Hemingway


I recently read an article where writers’ daily routines were romanticized albeit with useful information. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami spoke to the importance of a routine: “I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” I tie this idea of repetition in a routine with a recent graduate student workshop I attended on how to develop a strategic writing plan. Here is a list of the current and developing practices that make up my writing routine.


Write every day. The author Anaïs Nin simply stated, “I write every day.” There has been much research conducted on the positive effects of writing every day in academia, including that of psychologist Robert Boice. As a pre-candidate, I aim to develop a strategic writing plan that includes solidly writing every day by the time I start my dissertation. That is why in my first year, I am dedicated to writing every day. I learned to start with 15 minutes and have worked up to 30 minutes every day with an ultimate goal of reaching an hour by the end of the academic year. I like to think broadly of writing to include brainstorming, reading, outlining, and synthesizing, but I have restructured my plan to write every day to focus on word count, so that means I am truly writing. There are many apps (Focus Keeper, Block & Flow, 30/30) that can help with this timed writing session. I also have been exploring more sophisticated options for time and project management such as Rescue Time and Liquid Planner (which is free to .edu emails). Some days I am writing for papers and projects, other days it’s a manuscript I am working on, and often I write for me in what I call my “Spark Files,” where I track ideas and inspiration in my academic career. I am currently writing 300-500 words a day in 30 minutes. By the end of the year, I aim to be writing for a solid hour for twice that amount.


Warm up with writing prompts. I start each writing session with a writing prompt for three minutes where I write continuously for the whole duration. I alternate between writing by hand and typing in a saved file of writing prompts. As the writer Natalie Goldberg instructed, keep your hand moving. If there is a moment where I have a blank thought and a pause, I came up with the phrase “Keep writing!” where I write that over and over again until my inspiration comes back. I encourage you to come up with your own filler phrase. I write for the full three minutes. I find my prompts online, through this great book of things to write about, and from an app on my phone, Brainsparker, that includes thought provoking prompts like “What is your soul calling you to do?” and even pictures that are incredibly moving to write about.


Broaden your perspective on ways to write. When I get what I call “typing fatigue” and I am not very productive in my writing process, I switch things up. I handwrite sections. I use colorful Post-It notes to organize frameworks and outlines. One new alternative that I have explored and loved this year is dictation. I currently use the Google Docs voice typing tool to transcribe my thoughts. If this method works out, I want to look into investing in options such as Dragon Dictation. Similarly, I pull out my phone and create a voice memo transitioning between meetings and classes when I have a thought that can shape my writing. I also invested in a powerful writing software that allows for more fluidity when I am working on big projects such as a final paper, manuscript, or thesis. There is more than one way to write, so make sure you explore all options and alternate between those that work best for you.


Write fast now, edit slow later. In meeting my word count goals, I am also focused on writing fast now, and editing slow later, a concept developed by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters. Writing is capturing ideas on paper. Editing is sculpting to express ideas effectively by scrutinizing, moving, removing, and transforming materials. You maximize your writing time when you separate the writing and editing as two processes. If you don’t believe me, try this quick exercise. Pull out your phone to time yourself as you say the alphabet out loud. Now, time yourself again as you alternate between a letter and a consecutive number (A 1 B 2 C 3). It will take you twice if not three times as long to get to “Z 26.” Separating writing and editing was a tough concept for someone like me to learn who loves to edit as I write (it satisfies the perfectionist in me!). Now, I turn off my spell and grammar checker and am focused only on getting the next word out. When I first started this concept, I taped a blank piece of paper over my screen to focus on writing. This was an excruciating experience, but I learned to write fast. I schedule in time to edit separately. My writing time is much more effective.


Protect your writing time. A previous GradHacker post outlined strategies to keep focused while writing your dissertation including identifying your most productive time during the day for writing using heat mapping. A good practice to get into is to schedule your writing time when you are the most productive and protect that time. Do not schedule anything during your writing time. Treat it as an important appointment you cannot miss or reschedule. I am the most productive in the morning. Since I am still taking courses, I enroll for classes in the afternoon or evenings and I schedule meetings during that time as well to protect my mornings. In this practice, an important concept to keep in mind is flexibility. There may be a class that is only offered in the morning, so I have to be prepared that semester to make adjustments. I protect my writing time on the weekends as well. For example, I will wake up earlier to write if I have a Sunday brunch scheduled. Protecting my writing time is a daily practice.


And so, I leave you with this quote from Oscar Wilde: “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.” I have certainly been there. I know how arduous the writing process can be. However, with a steady and consistent routine, I can indeed work myself into a mesmerized state of productivity because I have reached a deeper state of mind through a strategic writing plan.


What is your current writing routine? What would you like to incorporate into a strategic writing plan?


[Image by Pexels user Natalie B and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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Everyday Self-Care


Nue Lee is a PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @thesisthreads or on her personal blog.

Many students do not practice self-care because it may seem like a daunting commitment they do not have time for. However, there is a way to incorporate self-care into your daily schedule so seamlessly that before you know it, you will be practicing self-care everyday. It could be as simple as three deep diaphragmatic breaths before diving into a paper or a manuscript. It could also be enjoying your favorite playlist while you mindfully do the dishes, focusing on how the warm water feels as you rinse each dish clean. This works great for laundry as well, zoning in on the soft towel as you fold it, taking in the fresh, clean scent. These little daily practices keep me centered and help me re-energize throughout the day. I don’t have to speak to the importance of self-care. We all know self-care is crucial. Here is how I practice self-care three times per day: every morning, afternoon, and evening.

Rise and Shine

5:30 AM. I am up and at ‘em, bright and early. My self-care starts before I even get out of bed. I take this moment to appreciate just being, and to warm up my body (especially during these chilly Midwestern mornings). I lay in bed and start by rubbing my palms together, just as I will do later on as I am warming them up outside. I rub for about 30 seconds, then cup my warm palms over my eyes. I relax and let the gentle heat from my hands soften my face. I feel the space between my eyebrows releasing, my jaws relaxing, and my whole face softening. I notice that my breath is flowing easily. I slide my warm hands down my face to my neck, rubbing the tight spots. I move to my arms and rub up and down sending warmth throughout. Then I let my hands drop down naturally to a comfortable spot. I close my eyes and just lay quietly, breathing my natural breath. I am enjoying the space between each breath, when nothing is happening. I stay for as long as it feels good. Then, I slowly open my eyes. I keep this sense of relaxation with me as I get up to move into my day.


Rewarding Alternative: Before I start my morning writing session, I enjoy an easy brew as I listen to NPR and play my turn in Words with Friends.


Power Hour

12:15 PM. I like to take a brisk walk across campus, particularly because I enjoy listening to the bells being played in the tower over the lunch hour. One time, I caught the theme song to Star Trek and as a new Trekkie (sucked in by J.J. Abram’s trilogy) it was epic to walk across a beautiful campus with such an iconic tune. I am motivated to continue this habit if only to one day hear the Game of Thrones soundtrack, particularly the Rains of Castamere (the Red Wedding edition).


Winter Alternative: I have to admit I find myself hard-pressed to leave the School of Education building (where thankfully all meetings and classes occur) in the dreary, cold winter months. Thankfully, I don’t have to go very far to accomplish a stimulating, intellectual break. I take full advantage of the series of talks, colloquium, coffee hours in the lounge, student presentations, and other school-wide events happening over the lunch hour right in the building. I encourage you to drop in on one of your school events and get to know other graduate students, faculty, and staff from different programs. A collaboration could potentially come out of mutual interests, but most importantly, you will be expanding your network.


Wind Down the Day

7:00 PM. I turn on my diffuser lamp before I start my studying for the evening. The changing, happy glow of colors and refreshing essential oils heighten two senses, allowing for better focus.


Happy light: One of the many bright colors of my aromatherapy light diffuser.


Active Alternative: I am currently working with a personal trainer (if you’re interested, look into your rec center to see if there is a program for students at a fair price). When I shared that I keep free weights and a yoga mat in my home office, my personal trainer brilliantly designed a 30-minute home office workout for me in addition to our sessions at the gym. I can jump right into the workout from start to finish. What I usually do is complete a series of 25-minute Pomodoro work sessions broken up in between with a 5-minute “break” from the workout.  


So that’s it. Simple right? These self-care practices happen regularly and routinely so that I am not worried about being unaware of burnout slowly creeping up on me. Of course, there will be times when I will reevaluate and adjust. I hope I have not only shown you how self-care can be practiced daily, but just as the word practice suggests, how it has to be intentional. Start today.


How do you intentionally incorporate self-care into your everyday schedule?


[“Happy Light” by Nue Lee at can be reused under the Creative Commons license.]

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The Necessity of a Dedicated Backup System


Nue Lee is a PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @thesisthreads or on her personal blog.


No one likes to talk about it, because it may be admitting that you don’t do it, but as graduate students, we must have a dedicated backup system. As our time in graduate school progresses, the number of articles, research papers, and manuscripts will only accumulate, and in this fast-paced world, nothing is ever guaranteed. In fact, this summer while I was on a deadline, I accidentally poured a cup of iced tea all over my laptop keyboard. I immediately turned it off and set the keyboard upside down over a towel while frantically talking on the phone with Apple as I was instructed to let it dry for 96 hours. Thankfully, there was no water damage, but considering my deadline was looming, I should have panicked about lost material, but I did not. Because I developed a comprehensive backup system, I was simply able to check out a laptop from my department and continued to remotely work off my desktop with access to all necessary files. I was calm, cool, and in control. This backup system consists of a three-layered approach that mainly runs seamlessly in the background without your notice. Not every approach in this post will work for you, but you can take away some advice and develop your own dedicated backup system to protect your hard work.


Layer 1: Cloud backup

Most institutions subscribe to file replication services like Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive. These are great tools to use to to synchronize important folders to the cloud. Exactly which data you choose to synchronize depends on your specific workflow, and you should carefully evaluate what you allow to upload. Remember, the goal is to replicate "working" files, those that are likely to change between backups, not system files or archives.


For example, I have a folder labeled “Classes” that keeps all papers, assignments, and projects up-to-date. There is also a separate folder labeled “Research” where I sync my 40-page longitudinal summary analyses. Additionally, my entire PDF library is also kept up to date and is accessible across my computer and tablet with the use of Dropbox.

Cloud BackUp.png


Screenshot of the two replication services integrated in my workflow


Layer 2: Local backup

Sync an external harddrive to your computer and use backup software to make regular bootable archives. I have a 1TB external drive I connect via USB to my laptop on a regular basis to backup everything. I have reminders set up to count how many days it has been since I have backed up and I practice keeping that number low. Currently, I am researching an even more seamless approach to local backing up. Ideally, I would like a wireless connection that will backup in the background as soon as I am home and my machine is opened up to work.


Layer 3: Offsite backup

I needed a third and final layer to fill in where the previous cloud and local backup had gaps. In the first layer, I am not backing up system files or archives. The second layer works great, but what happens in the case of a fire or a flood and the local backup is damaged? Could I really risk that as I am building up to a dissertation? That might sound dramatic, but if I am preparing for an academic career where I could not afford to lose valuable research data in the future, I wanted to create a system now that works well and can transition into the future. This is where offsite backups come in handy. My current off site provider meets my current needs of (1) continuous backup; (2) family plan (more than one computer); (3) Mac, Windows, and Linux compatible. The offsite backup is my last hope for recovery, but it is also a set it up and forget it service that uses an application to backup my entire computer.


Any backup is better than no backup, but some backups are better than others.

Any one of the recommendations above or this 3-2-1 backup is better than not backing up at all, but there is not a universal prescription. When choosing your own backup strategy, there are a few key points to keep in mind:

  • Make it as automatic as possible: We lead busy lives, and the more work a backup requires, the less likely it is to be done regularly
  • Have at least two different backups: Data corruption is equally as bad as outright data loss. Multiple backups will reduce the chances that all are affected by corruption at the same time.
  • Do it: Your entire digital existence is at risk if you don't backup, so get smart -- backup today. With a routine in place you can breathe a little easier, safe in the knowledge that even if something goes wrong, such as a delicious glass of iced tea spilling on your motherboard, you will not lose precious data.


Have you had an accident like my iced tea debacle? How do you currently backup to protect your files?  

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The Master Plan


Nue Lee is a PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @thesisthreads or on her personal blog.


My spirit animal is Leslie Knope. Though her fictional character’s show, Parks and Recreation, ended a couple of years ago, Leslie is still relevant today. I was recently moved, for example, by her spirited letter to America regarding the results of this year’s presidential elections. In her honor, please feel free to watch this 16 second clip of Leslie unveiling her master plan as I introduce my own master plan of the five-year journey that will be my doctoral degree.


Leslie’s master plan is the park department budget proposal, but I also use master plan to describe what is essentially my five-year timeline: The Roadmap from PhD Program to Degree Completion to Tenure Track Faculty Position at a R1 Institution. This plan came to fruition during a series of consultation appointments with a career specialist at the conclusion of my master’s program last year. The majority of my cohort used that time to strategize being on the job market, but I went in to talk about planning my PhD degree. I walked out with a concrete map to guide me through the entire process from orientation to candidacy to beyond the dissertation.


After some research online, I found another great resource to continue my master plan in Karen Kelsky, better known as The Professor Is In, and her Five-Year Plan. Therefore, it is quite fitting that my first GradHacker post in the first year of my doctoral program is about how to construct your own master plan.


1. Use an easily editable medium.

I find that starting with a piece of paper on the landscape orientation a great way to sketch out five rows for five years. I then create 12 columns for each month of the year. I start my first column in September to align with the academic year. With this first draft, I also add an additional column for notes, but this last column is only for drafting purposes. There may be other layouts that better suit your needs, but the idea is to be able to see everything with one sweep of the eye. This means containing your plan to one sheet of paper for now.


IMG_7993 2.JPG


2. Set aside time to do one massive brain dump.

Start by generating a list of items that need to be included in your plan and prioritize them. Collect all necessary artifacts like the PhD handbook you have yet to crack open, bookmarked fellowship websites, your CV, and exemplar CVs of more advanced students and faculty in your department. Your list may include: (1) benchmarks in your program: yearly reviews, candidacy process (qualifying exams, defense), dissertation (prospectus, defense); (2) fellowship, conference, and journal submission deadlines; and (3) an understanding of the job market process and timeline for your intended career trajectory.


When you are fully prepared and can afford the time, sit down with your list and all the necessary resources. Simply start at the top and go through each of the five years in consecutive order. Keep working until you exhaust your list. This is a good spot to take a break. I then come back and assess the plan one year at a time, starting with year one. This way, with fresh eyes and a clear head, evaluating how sound my plan is will be easy. I may make adjustments by starting activities earlier given the deadline or add in additional needed steps to meet a program benchmark. Once this assessment is done, I am ready to create an electronic version of my plan with the intentionality of a working template that is easy to update. My current plan is a simple Word document with tables that I can simply go in and adjust.




3. Include areas of individual development with strategies for reaching goals.  

What really makes my master plan is a combination of a five-year timeline (steps 1 and 2) and my version of an individual development guide or areas I want to develop with strategies for reaching goals. Here is a list of my ten point plan to get you started, but please be encouraged to develop your own areas of focus: candidacy, dissertation, professional development, publication & presentation, teaching, grants/fellowships, job search, networking, informational Interviews, and self-care/family planning.


I included self-care, because it is important for all graduate students to focus on their well-being throughout the doctoral program. I dedicate a half day that is just for my partner and I at least once a month. Additionally, once a week I also make time to partake in an enjoyable, recreational activity whether it is volunteering, a book club meeting, dinner with friends, or an art class. Another area of individual development is the job search, which also guides the areas of networking and informational interviews. For this individual development, I start with the end goal and I work backwards with a list of all the potential R1 institutions I would love to work at. This list is readily accessible on my phone and even posted on my refrigerator. I am working to memorize it for two purposes. One, every time there is a talk at the University of Michigan, I can see if the speaker is from an institution that is on my list. This will be a wonderful opportunity for me to send the individual an email and create an opportunity for me to introduce myself in person. And two, whether I am traveling for leisure or for a conference, I can consult my list for institutions close to my travel location and make plans to visit the campus and meet key individuals from the departments I am interested in.




4. Your master plan is a living document.

This means your plan must be in a format that can be continually updated. As I mentioned earlier, my current master plan is in a Word document. I print out the document, grab my pencil bag of colorful markers, and I set aside 3 hours every 3 months to update my master plan. Evaluate the past three months and use that information to propel forward the next three months and beyond. Make sure deadlines are updated accurately and goals are accounted for or modified.


Well there you have it, the two components of a five-year timeline and an individual development guide that make up the master plan.

Do you already have your own master plan? Is this a tool that you would find useful as you complete your PhD degree? What is your master plan? Please feel free to leave your comments and questions below!
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