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Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MLIS student at the University of Iowa where he works as a Graduate Careers and Fellowships Advisor in the Grad Success Center. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.
Over the course of these last few weeks, I’ve been buried in writing. In addition to working on my dissertation, I’ve also been working with graduate students on their applications for national fellowships and academic jobs and together we’ve scaled a small mountain of research and personal statements. I just gave a presentation on preparing for literature reviews and tomorrow I’m co-hosting a webinar drafting diversity statements. It has been, in a word, delightful.
Yes, admittedly, helping people with their writing can be hard. Actually doing the writing oneself is occasionally really hard. But talking about writing is most often a joy, particularly when you get to work with really thoughtful and skillful writers. Fortunately for me, most all of the graduate students that I work with fall into this category.
With all of this writing on my mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about effective writing strategies for graduate students. There are numerous books of writing advice that can serve graduate students well (my favorites include Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers, Cal Newport’s Deep Work, Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft) and quite a few ideas from other GradHackers (including this one, this one, and this one). These resources and others like them offer great tips and strategies for managing a wide variety of writing tasks. Often their suggestions seem to echo one another (e.g. Write every day) but they also frequently diverge and over the years I’ve heard about a lot of different strategies that vary wildly (my favorite is a student who has a “writing mug” that, when filled with coffee, apparently never fails to summon the writing muses).
In the midst of all of these competing strategies, suggestions, and occasional superstitions, I think the best piece of writing advice for grad students is actually rather straightforward: Find a strategy that works for you and stick to it as long as it continues to work for you. I think that we all have a vision of the kind of writer that we aspire to be. I, for one, have always wanted to be someone who is able to fill fill notebooks with neat, multicolored diagrams that flow seamlessly and beautifully into the text around them. And yet, no matter how many Moleskine or Leuchtturm notebooks I buy, my notes are still chaotic and I’ve never managed to become more than a binge bullet journaler.
Yet somehow, in spite of this failing, I consistently manage to produce writing. My dissertation continues to grow bit by bit and I’ve been making a surprising amount of progress on other writing projects while working full time. This has a lot to do with experimenting with a wide variety of strategies over the course of five years of graduate school and finding several that really work for me. I’ve pulled together some ideas for different ways to approach the writing tasks that this point in the semester inevitably brings. Try experimenting with them and see if any seem especially productive:
Write for Time: This is my personal favorite. The rules are simple. Set a timer (I like 50-minute double Pomodoros) and keep writing (and only writing) until the time runs out. No email, no “quick requesting that book,” just writing. Once you complete your writing goal for the day, you are free to live your life unencumbered by the lingering thought that you should be writing. On the days when the words are flowing, you can get a lot of words on the page in a given amount of time and on the days when the words come at a trickle, you can end your suffering once the time is up knowing that you’ve done your part for the day and tomorrow will likely be better.
Write for Distance (i.e. Length): The idea here is to set word count goals for yourself for each day or week or or phase of the moon or whatever length of time works for you (days or weeks are probably best). Then write till you hit your quota. 300-500 words in a session or day is a good place to start, but you need to find something that works for you. They don’t have to be brilliant words, they just need to be words that you can go back and revise later.
Write Your Way In: In the early stages of writing, it’s often easy to find yourself in search of what it is that you actually want to say. This strategy is about using writing as a tool for thinking and honing your understanding or develop an insight. The core task here is to focus on a topic, concept, or idea and to continue writing about it until you come to a new insight or way of understanding. This can be thought of as writing as searching and is often most effective at either the ideation stage or if you find yourself stuck with the particular concept.
Write Your Way Out: Sometimes, on the other hand, you find yourself stuck in the middle of a chapter or an article and you don’t know where to go. The idea here is to write your way from where you are at to a logical conclusion as directly as possible. It’s the writing version of making for the nearest exit and it can be a great strategy for stripping away tangents or extraneous detail and finding the straightest path out of whatever project you’re in. Don’t worry about the details – you can fill those in later – just search for the most logical way to conclude your project so that you can return to flesh it out once you know how it ends.
Keep experimenting and reassess your writing writing strategies frequently. What’s working? What’s not? How do you need to adjust to meet your goals? Remember not to let perfect get in the way of good and, similarly, not to let aspirational writing habits get in the way of productive ones.
What writing strategies have you found particularly helpful or valuable? Share with us in the comments or on Twitter - @bradykrien and @GradHacker.
[Image by Unsplash user Marten Bjork and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]