An almost unbelievable workflow

She was probably a perfect student who always did her homework and came to class prepared. Perfect students do the extra recommended readings, they write out study outlines for exam essay questions, and they finish everything before the deadline. I haven’t met many perfect students in graduate school. We tend to gripe about feeling behind, overwhelmed, and underprepared for everything.

This blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes one writer’s strategies to getting more writing done. Her list of seven “secrets” cover some familiar territory: read as much as possible, dedicate chunks of time to writing, be accountable to yourself and to others, take breaks when the you know your work is getting weak, switch between projects to prevent boredom use other parts of your brain, focus on the questions and ideas that you fine really compelling, and make writing a daily habit. The author anticipates finishing a book project that she is co-authoriing with another academic.

I don’t think any one tip is going to make much of a difference for me as I strive to increase my productivity as an academic writer; however, I am inspired by her preliminary comments about the necessary preparatory work for the project.

we conducted the research for the book over the course of the academic year, outlined the chapters, and read all the background literature

I’m inspired because even though I’m not a perfect student, this workflow is obviously working for the blogger (or at least that’s the version of reality she wants to share). I write much better when I have a clear sense of what I want to say, when I know the research and references I want to use, and when I have a sense of how to organize the material.

I’m not great at creating outlines for my thesis chapters because every time I try to finish an outline I find myself getting all “prosey” and start writing out my ideas in full sentences and even longer chunks – not helpful for the outline! And so I haven’t devoted much to this stage of the writing recently because I’m under very real pressure to revise and polish the material I have already written. Honestly, I think I tried to write chapters way before I was ready. It would have been much better to write smaller chunks – a few sentences or paragraphs on specific issues in my research, for example. It seems like from the very beginning I’ve been under the gun to write the chapter, finish the chapter, polish the chapter, submit the chapter…

This idea of taking time (a year!) to do research, outlines, and reading is connected to some advice given by “productivity gurus” who recommend that we take the time to actually identify the tasks we are doing. Separate the reading from the outlining, and the research from the writing. It seems obvious, but when I’m feeling the pressure of deadlines I try to take shortcuts (which turn out to be detours and delays) and go directly from the reading/research to the chapter. It’s good to be reminded of what makes the process more efficient.

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