Writing Tips: Getting Organized (and Staying that Way)

Up to this point, I’m sure most of you are saying, “That’s great, but what about YOUR lab? What do YOU do?”

Following the advice in the book How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia (see our blog entry about the book here), I (and everyone else in the lab) set aside time exclusively for writing.  Given that at any time there are over a dozen papers in various states written in the lab, how to allocate that time across the different projects is not that obvious.  This piece of advice is probably more appropriate for someone running their own lab, and not a student.
What I do is inspired by the book’s advice to create a priority list of our writing projects based on how close each paper is to being completed.  Our lab has been tracking our papers and projects in Evernote monthly since October 2012 and continued to the present.  Overall, this approach, as well as setting aside dedicated time for writing, has significantly increased our lab’s overall productivity. We finish our papers much faster and spend less time being “stuck” without making much progress for long periods of time.
Here is exactly how we organize our Evernote notebook.  Each month I create a new note (this month’s note was called “Paper Organization February 2015”).  It starts as a copy of the previous month’s note and is updated as things change throughout the month.
The Evernote document has several lists of papers in order to how close they are to be completed.  Each paper entry in the list has a short title as well as the key student authors working on the paper.
Submitted Papers:
These papers are currently under review.  They are in this list because we don’t need to do any actual writing work, but periodically, we should check with the editors to see what is going on with the review process.  In the note, I keep track of where the paper is submitted.  Even when a paper is accepted,  I still keep it on this list until it appears in print and in Pubmed.  This way we can keep track of the paper through the proof editing process, uploading copyright forms, etc.  The reason these papers are listed first is that it only takes a few minutes to check in to see if anything needs to be done with any of these papers, but if something needs to be done, it is usually urgent.
Revise and Resubmit Papers:
This category is to track the papers when they have come back from review.  Regardless of whether the paper was accepted/rejected or whether or not the journal is willing to review another version, what we need to do is revise the paper taking into account the feedback and get it resubmitted as quickly as possible.  If the journal is willing to take a revision, then we also need to write the response to reviewers.  Since these papers are so close to being completed and published, any paper in this category takes priority over the remaining. During my allocated writing time, I usually spend the time writing the response to the reviewers and helping organize with the students what edits need to be made to address the reviews.
Active Papers:
This category keeps track of any paper that is currently being written by someone in the lab as their primary project.  I check in on these papers regularly and hopefully whenever my scheduled writing time comes around, I have a draft of one of these papers from a student who works on it, and I can make a pass on the paper and send back the edits.  If I don’t have any edits, I have the list of the students who I can send a reminder to ask for them.
Future Papers:
This category keeps track of the papers in the lab that we plan to work on or were working on before but the student who was working on the paper is no longer pushing it forward.  The reason we keep them separate from the Active Papers category is to keep it from distracting us when we are setting our writing priorities.  Anything in this category isn’t being actively pursued.
A few other categories that we have experimented with over the years is keeping track of “Collaborator’s Papers” where we are involved in the analysis, keeping track of “Grants” that we are writing, and keeping track of “Collaborator’s Grants” where we are responsible for contributing sections.
Our lab is pretty big right now and currently, we have eight submitted papers, seven papers we are revising after reviews and 14 papers which are currently being actively written by a student. Many of these papers will be completed and published in the next six months, but for a select few, we may be working on them for the next two years. Unfortunately, this is typical, as a paper which was just published from our lab was originally submitted for the first time in December 2012.  Keeping track of these papers in this way helps us keep organized and to prioritize our efforts.
Have any methods that work for you? Would you like to comment on what you’ve read so far? We’d love to hear from you!