How to kick-start your academic writing

Raul Pacheco-Vega offers six tips on how to keep the words flowing and hit your deadlines

February 25, 2016

I have finished two pieces this week: a conference paper and a journal article that I needed to have done by the end of the week. I still have four additional pieces to write, and I’m working towards completing those (particularly because they are co-authored). But all this “writing-in-excess” made me ponder my own strategies to kick-start my academic writing. I call this period “writing-in-excess” because normally I would write for two hours and stop worrying about what else I need to finish, because I had already done my writing for the day. Since I committed to complete more manuscripts, I have been writing well in excess of two hours a day. This has generated a different set of strategies from the ones I used to have. Here are some reflections on the topic.

I use conferences and workshops to force me to write a paper

I write the paper and use the conference or workshop feedback to improve my submission to the journal. I don’t do “academic tourism”. I travel to workshops, research meetings and conferences in order to present my work and test my ideas. So my goal is: one conference paper = one journal article or book chapter submission.

I move all my manuscripts forward on an everyday basis

This is perhaps a weird strategy for some people. Most academics I know like to focus solely on one manuscript and then move on to the next one. I can’t. Because I sometimes schedule fieldwork around when my interviewees can talk to me (or around when I have funding), I can’t just be writing one piece. I need to move forward all my pieces, every day (or at least, the vast majority of them). Even if it’s just a few sentences here, a little bit of formatting there, I try to make sure that all of them move forward.

I stop writing when I feel exhausted, not when the paper is done

I have a peculiar metabolism and I need rest on an everyday basis. My energy levels drop dramatically throughout the day. My best writing hours are from 4am to 1pm. Then, my energy takes a nosedive. So, for example, last night I was THIS CLOSE to being done with a colloquium paper. I stopped, because I knew that an additional hour of writing while exhausted would be the same as 15 minutes of writing well refreshed. I was able to come back to my paper this morning with a fresh mind and more focus.

I read while travelling

The basic excuse for academic writers not to read is that “they don’t have time to read”. Well, you need to make time. If you aren’t up on the literature, how are you supposed to write cutting-edge research? This week, I’ve had to travel back and forth as I’ve been doing some fieldwork in the city where my parents live, and last weekend was a long weekend, so I spent it with them. Instead of driving there, I took the bus and spent the two hours to and back from my parents’ city reading the latest literature on rescaling and water privatisation.

I write while travelling

I don’t solely read while I’m on a plane or a bus. I also make notes and write bits and pieces of text that I can then use and reuse. Because this writing is “generative”, I count this time as effectively writing (although not the consecutive two hours that I normally do on an everyday basis).

I read every day and make handwritten notes and highlight relevant text on papers

This is particularly helpful if I feel stuck. I read other people’s thoughts and scholarship on the field I’m interested in, and then I move forward with my notes, building an argument around what they were writing. For example, reviewing recent work on rescaling made me think that the way I approach scale is different from the way a critical human geographer would. This facilitated my writing an argument around the different ways of looking at scale from various disciplines (political science, economics, geography).

These are some of the strategies I use to kick-start my academic writing, hopefully they’ll be of use to you too!

Raul Pacheco-Vega is an assistant professor of comparative public policy at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), Mexico City. He specialises in environmental politics and often writes about academic writing. This article was originally published on his blog.

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Reader's comments (1)

Golly - I have to say that this is one of the smuggest pieces of writing of any kind I've ever encountered. And - perhaps not coincidentally - it has also completely and uncritically internalised all the values of the bureaucratic, techno-scientific and instrumentalist discourses which are current ruining any possibility for genuine thought _or_ inventive writing in the university. Let me pick out just two examples. Item 1) 'You need to _make_ time!' Leaving aside the monitory tone (patronising, much?) it's worth pointing out that it is in fact impossible to make time. Time is what we're given - and there are 24 hours of it in each day. In the academy it is increasingly taken up by administration, impact activities, the filling out of funding forms and meetings - not to mention teaching, of course. It is interesting that much of the 'time' Prof Patronising mentions is what used to be quaintly called one's 'own' time. If the time available for academic reading is on the bus to and from a weekend away, or at 4am in the morning - well then that is not 'making' time, that is using one's leisure time for work. 2) 'I don't do "academic tourism"'. Again leaving aside the holier-than-thou tone, I'll just point out the risks of such ostensibly virtuous behaviour - namely that if everything in your academic life is entirely functional and 'output' oriented, then the chances for genuine invention are slim. That's not to defend 'academic tourism' as such - not least because its costs to the globe aren't negligible. But real thinking, scholarship and writing - which perhaps might turn out not to be what the good prof, borrowing the unthinking and pernicious jargon of the day, calls 'cutting-edge research' - need a bit of room for play and serendipity. Little new will transpire without a bit of slack in the system. Prof Pious signs off by hoping that his 'strategies' might be 'of use' to me too. Well - insofar as I've spent 20 minutes writing this comment when I'm supposed to be writing an article, they've been pretty much the opposite. But - not being a New Model Academic, nor yet a robot - I cleave to the belief that a range of passions, including ignoble ones such as ire, tedium and resentment - might serve to foster thought and writing and even change. And so - angrily - I'll return to staring at my word doc, wracking my brains, pacing round, puzzling, feeling stumped, running up against brick walls, trying again from another angle; in short to all the aspects of the academic writing process Prof Functional seems happily to have overcome.

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