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Writing Tips from an Aspiring First Author

Exhausted young woman with tousled hair working hard reading a lot of documents at office.

Sometimes writing goals are difficult — trust me, I know: I submitted this article late, despite a two-week heads-up on the deadline. There are many things, both internal and external, that can derail even the most fervently well-intentioned ambitions. One thing I’ve had to learn as I tackle increasingly long-term and daunting writing projects through my journey to earning a Ph.D. is that my determination and enthusiasm when I first open a blank document rarely matter. Rather, it is my adherence to a writing schedule and productivity-supporting habits that determine the difficulty of the writing process. Here are some of my tried-and-true tips for navigating the meandering path between the blank page and the last period.

1. Set yourself up for success.

Figure out what time of day your brain is most engaged, and try to prioritize that time for writing. Don’t worry if it’s 10 in the morning or 10 at night; fretting about a “normal” work schedule is so 2019. Design a good writing space for yourself, with the appropriate amount of background sound, lighting and space. Remove potential distractors, such as phones, recreational internet tabs or email alerts (though, if anyone knows how to remove cat assistants, I would appreciate pointers in the comments). And, most importantly, make yourself comfortable before you get started. Pausing to grab a sweater or take a bathroom break will break your flow, so do those things before you sit down to focus.

2. Find some form of accountability.

If you’re writing a manuscript draft, discuss how to keep on track with your adviser. Find a writing accountability group (there are a few already established at Hopkins. Have weekly coffee-break writing updates with a classmate or friend. But accountability doesn’t necessarily require other people. I use a whiteboard by my desk, where I shift tasks from “to-do” to “to-doing” to “done,” and this visual cue is enough external accountability to keep me on track most of the time. Another strategy that can prove helpful is an easily-visible calendar that immortalizes your arbitrary deadlines in accountability-inducing ink.

3. Create a calendar.

Mountains aren’t climbed in a single leap. Break your large writing goals up into smaller, less daunting tasks, such as organizing an outline; crafting the introduction; or polishing off a subsection of your results. This has the dual benefit of allowing you to set intermediate deadlines to keep your progress on track. In addition, it makes getting started on that first (then second, then third, etc.) to-do items doable. Front-load your schedule, in case other obligations unexpectedly steal time along the way. Most importantly, be reasonable when creating the calendar. Even if you’re psyched to get started today, know that some days you may struggle to make any real progress toward the end product. By setting reasonable goals, you are not only more likely to achieve them, but you can also celebrate the days when you’re on a roll and well ahead of your schedule.

4. Expect difficult days.

Thursdays and I just don’t get along, and rather than fight that reality, I plan for it. There will be days when you absolutely won’t feel like progressing toward your goals, and that’s okay. The best way I’ve found to capitalize on difficult days is to pre-identify tedious, low-brainwork tasks, such as compiling citations, formatting the document or making figures to work on when my brain doesn’t sit down at the keyboard with me. Another option is to give yourself a day off each week. If you choose to take off Monday, however, make sure you’ll have the discipline to power through tough days later in the week.

5. Be kind to yourself.

Of all tips, this is the most instrumental to success in my experience. Despite all your planning and good intentions, you may sometimes fall behind. That’s okay. During times of perceived self-failure, you must turn off your internal criticisms and talk to yourself as though you were your own best friend. Once you’re in a less self-flagellatory mood, reassess what went wrong. Did you not build enough space into your calendar? Is it just a bad week for you, or were you overly optimistic when you made the schedule? Do you need to change how you’re approaching the writing process? Do you need to engineer more external accountability or motivation? The more time you spend beating yourself up, the longer it will take to fix the problem effectively and get yourself back on a productive track. Even if you’re not doing your best today, you want to be better, so focus on that in as gentle a way as you can.

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