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!

Writing Tips: Motivation (or the Lack of It)

In our last post we wrote about how to overcome writer’s block and the fear of writing. So now you’re on a schedule, and you’re ready to tackle this “writing thing.” You wake up, coffee and computer in tow, but there’s just one problem: You still can’t write! What gives?!

In his book, How to Write a Lot, Paul Silva, PhD acknowledges that academic writing doesn’t get easy the moment you get on a schedule. (Silva, 2007) Before you were full of adrenaline and motivated by impending deadlines. Now that you are writing a few times a week, you aren’t in the this anxiety-laden “write of be written off” state anymore. According to Silva, there are three steps to getting your writing juices flowing:

  1.  Set goals.
  2.  Determine priorities.
  3.  Track your progress.

Let’s start with goals. Clear and concise goals in themselves should be motivating. Goals give you a plan of action, a sense of direction and a deadline. What do you want to write about? What projects are you working on? Are there some papers that need revising? At first, make an exhaustive list of everything you would like to accomplish. Secondly, organize it into a list you can conquer. Break this plan of action into monthly, weekly and daily goals.

This takes us to Silva’s second phase of finding your motivation: determine priorities. With some writing projects, there are not set deadlines. Our lab is constantly developing new software and performing research projects. Some projects take weeks, months or even get revised over a period of a few years! The research most often comes before the writing. There are, however, those moments when we write grant proposals. If we miss the deadline, we get none of the funding. Writing assignments like these definitely take more priority the closer we get to the due date.

The third and final step to finding your motivation is tracking your progress. What better way to see how far you’ve come and the work ahead than to keep inventory of your writing. Behavioral research show that self-observation alone can cause the desired behaviors (Korotitsch & Nelson-Gray, 1999), in this instance writing. If you keep yourself accountable, whether that means in your planner, on your phone or with a wonderful spreadsheet we all love so much (only slightly kidding– every plan deserves a good spreadsheet.), you are more likely to stick to your schedule and meet your goals.

In our lab, we do this through a systematic process which we will reveal in our next blog post. We have records that date back nearly three years of every project we have ever started, finished and everything in between. We have sections for published works, active papers, grants, collaborations and future research projects.

Check us out next week for an outline of how our lab has reached writing success.

Hope this helps! Give it a shot and let us know what you think in the comments below.

Cited publications:

Korotitsch, W.J., & Nelson-Gray, R. O. (1999). An overview of self-monitoring research in assessment and treatment. Psychological Assessment, 11, 415-425.

Silva, P.J. (2007). How to Write a Lot. 29-40.

Interested in obtaining a copy? Here’s a link to Amazon.

Writing Tips: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Many who write regularly know what it’s like to be at a loss for words. Some days we can churn out ten pages and others we struggle to write ten sentences. Writing is hard, which is why it is intimidating to a lot of people, whether you’re a student or you’ve been publishing papers for years. There can be a dozen reasons why we can’t find the right words: can’t find the time, don’t feel inspired, too many distractions…

The key to developing great writing is all in the habit of writing frequently. Writing must be intentional. If you wait for the world to provide you with the perfect conditions to write (Spring Break, perhaps?), you won’t be doing much writing at all. Instead of finding time to write, you must MAKE time to write. Create a schedule and make writing a productive part of your day. A draft is never perfect the first, second or even eighth time it is written, but I can assure you it gets better every time.

This may sound like a stretch, I know. The rebuttals are already coming to mind: I really don’t have time. I have a busy schedule. I need to escape my routine to write. My life is sooo unpredictable.

What’s the worst thing that can happen if you give this a shot for the next three weeks? Set aside a time, at least a few times a week, to focus and write. Making writing intentional has to be a better option than writing your paper at the last minute on a Saturday skipping meals on no sleep, right?

So here is my challenge to you: get off the Internet, silence your phone and start writing!