Write on: Tips for a successful writing career in graduate school
By Lindsay Huffhines and Grace Bai
Graduate school consists of numerous tasks and responsibilities – coursework, teaching, clinical practica, research, and of course the writing of a thesis, dissertation, and perhaps a number of research articles. With so many demands, it can be challenging for graduate students to find time in their schedules to write, especially for major projects. Even when time is available, the actual practice of writing is often difficult. What follows is a list of tips compiled from our personal experiences writing in graduate school, some sage advice from others, as well as resources to help you along your path. Whether you are just beginning your first journal article or are working to complete your dissertation, thinking about how you write–and how you can write better–will be time well spent.
- Protect your writing time.
As impossible as it may seem, block off a chunk of at least three hours per week just for writing. You should see this time as a firm commitment, like a class or a research team meeting – something that you can't get out of easily. Write it in ink in your planner. Get into the habit of using this time each week. Remember, other tasks/obligations/people will always try to sneak into this time, but if you can make writing a regular practice, you will meet your grad school writing goals.
- Make concrete, achievable writing goals.
These goals include things like completing one manageable section of a manuscript or document, or writing several pages. Small, doable goals can help make a daunting writing task smaller. Write your goals down on a whiteboard each week and hang it where you write.
- Make a priority list for writing tasks.
It can be easy to get sucked into the millions of little things to do each week, leaving little time for those major projects. Once you have a priority list, you can make sure that you're attending to your priorities and not just focusing on the immediate.
- Write and then revise.
Getting something down on paper is usually the hardest part. While the desire to revise as you go is tempting, and it feels good to get every sentence perfect, it will take a lot of time and you will see much less movement.
- Read extensively.
I've found that printing off relevant articles allows me to engage with them more, as well as to highlight and make notes of things that might be useful for me later. I always carry several of these articles with me, in case I'm stuck waiting somewhere.
- For writers' block, it sometimes helps to read those fantastic articles related to my research.
If I'm really stuck, I will type up a paragraph that I particularly admire. Weirdly, this almost tricks my body into thinking that it's writing something itself, and it will often spur me to write something of my own.
- Get a group.
Whether it be a thesis/dissertation group hosted by your university library, or a group of graduate students in your program, having fellow writers to commit time to their projects can be very helpful. I personally enjoy setting up writing dates with an out-of-state friend over Skype. We book two hours and write with each other on screen. We sometimes read what we've written or bounce ideas off of each other. It can be great to have the companionship and someone to help you stay committed.
- Don't underestimate self-care.
Getting into a good self-care routine helps you feel better all the time, so you're more prepared for writing. Also, if the writing just isn't working out, going for a walk, doing yoga, or doing something else you enjoy can get your mind out of a rut.
- Be confident in your ability to complete the task.
Remind yourself that you made it to grad school, and that is no small feat. You have what it takes.
- Remember why you do it: the bigger picture.
It's easy to get bogged down in requirements and it can be helpful to recall why you are writing in the first place. Paul Silvia, PhD, reminds us in his book: “Unlike writing for mere publication, writing for impact seeks to influence peers, to change minds about something that the field cares about. Science is a grand conversation that anyone with a good idea can enter” (“Write It Up," pg. 9).