Things my PhD taught me about how I write best

It’s interesting that we’re never really taught to write. We even consider our PhDs (the biggest bit of writing that many of us ever actually do) about the topic we study, and not about writing itself.

So, here are some things that my PhD taught me about how I write best.

I write best, slowly, trusting a small daily target to add up over time.  

I don’t write quickly. I need to get things right – or as right as I can – before I’m happy with them. If I write too much, and go too ‘sh*tty first drafts‘ then I take so long to do anything with that material that I might as well start again. (more…)

A Tuesday limerick

Since writing comes in all shapes and sizes, here’s a limerick for a WriteFest Tuesday:

There once was a male academic
For whom writing was a bit of a gimmick
When at last he was fired
He claimed he’d retired
But his victory was somewhat pyrrhic

(OK, it’s not very good, but you try find something to rhyme with ‘academic’!)



Daily Routines of Creative People

When we’re talking about writing, we often suggest that a regular routine is best. That routine doesn’t, however, have to be one that fits into a neat 9-5 day. As the following examples show, the routines adopted by some of history’s most creative people, vary widely.

Visualisation of creative routines

Some are more 9-5… Maya Angelou worked regularly from 7 a.m. to about 3 p.m., and then took a break, doing about a half hour’s more work at 7.30 p.m.

Some, though, are very different. Honoré de Balzac, for example, did most of his creative work between 1 a.m. and 8 a.m., had an hour’s snooze, and then worked again from 9 a.m. until about half past three in the afternoon.

Charles Dickens worked only in the morning, spending the afternoon tramping for miles around London and in the countryside soaking up the atmosphere that he then wrote into his prose.

Voltaire, on the other hand, appears to have done little else but work, sleeping only 4 hours a night, and pausing only briefly to eat.

And in terms of working environment, they differ too. While Dickens wrote in absolute silence in his study, Angelou wrote only in hotel rooms. John Milton was blind by the age of 40, and so dictated his work. W. H. Auden (and this is one that, even as much as we encourage productivity and focus, we probably wouldn’t recommend) took a daily dose of Benzedrine to aid his concentration.

Visualisation of daily routines

What’s your routine? And your own working practice?

(note – Due to copyright restrictions, these images are screengrabs. But various versions of these have proliferated online, so you’ll find alternative, or better quality versions by simply searching for ‘Daily Routines of Creative People’). 



Writing when you have nothing to do but write!

There are two common problems that academics face when it comes to writing. They are linked by one thing: time. It is one of the most important resources when it comes to writing. We need time to reflect on our research and to think about the best way communicate it to our audience. During some phases of your career, you will need to fit writing around a range of other commitments and may feel that you simply do not have time. At other times, particularly when faced with long periods of research leave, you will have the opposite problem, too much time, making it difficult to focus.

Personal relaxing with laptop in a hammock

This post addresses that second question.

Writing when you have nothing to do but write!

So… You have a year to finish your monograph. Your teaching time has been bought out, your administrative roles have been re-assigned. Time seems to yawn ahead of you. Distractions are tempting as you feel the need to fill your time to feel busy and productive.

Here are five steps to think about:

  1. Choose to start
  2. Choose an approach that will get the best out of you
  3. Understand your project and plan
  4. Seek inspiration, not distraction
  5. Write regularly, write smart

Choose to start

… because, you know that old adage that ‘if you don’t choose a path, then someone will choose it for you’.

I’ve known a number of people start an entire year of writing with a wonderful sense of freedom, but then fail to deliver the promised monograph or research bid… or anything, in fact. The reasons that they give often boil down to the fact that they didn’t actually ‘choose’ to write.

In my book, choosing to write is OK, and choosing not to write is OK. Both are empowering, in different ways.

What’s less empowering is not making a choice – because that’s still, really, making a choice. Just not one that we own.

If we want to write, we have to choose to start.

Choose an approach that will get the best out of you

Take time to plan. Having chosen to start, simply piling into writing might be the worst thing that you can do. You have time – loads of time. So take time to plan, to think, to experiment, to reflect, to change your approach and try again. If you find your best approach and rhythm, you’ll get a lot more done, and better, and with better mental health, than simply putting fingers to keys and seeing what comes out.

Be self-aware. Think about how and when you have worked at your best in the past. Do you write slowly and methodically, or do you take the Jack Kerouac route? Do you need human interaction to develop your ideas? Do you need seclusion for long periods of time? Do you need to move your writing space regularly? Do you need noise or quiet? Different people need different environments to produce their best writing. Work out who you are as a writer and arrange your time and space to fit your best habits (not your worst!).

Understand your project, and plan

Bring together all the tasks you need to do to achieve your project(s). You’ll almost certainly have background reading, data organisation and choice, structuring at different scales, writing (in chunks), proofing, image selection, correspondence, bibliographies etc. When do they need to be done by? What else is there that needs to be fitted in? Conferences, travel, training, being ill? Family birthdays, housework and improvements? Christmas shopping? (it’s a whole year remember, and anything that you can plan-in is planned and won’t hijack your timetable).

Break your writing into segments. Like eating an elephant, one person I know got so much stress from trying to work out how to write their PhD ‘as a whole’, that they were on anti-depressants and only days away from giving up. And then they realised that if they wrote just 500 words a day, they’d produce a chapter every 6 weeks, and the full thesis would write itself in about 9 months. Then it just became a question of hitting a very achievable daily target.

Prioritise and allocate time. Make a list of all the writing, the tasks, the deadlines and put them in order. Make sure all your objectives have an appropriate list of tasks to get them done – is there anything missing from your list? Then allocate time to each task. And be generous.

Be kind to yourself. And, if you miss a deadline, be kind to yourself and reschedule. In many ways, that’s the advantage of planning. If you miss one target, you can see it in the context of the whole (which is planned) and don’t feel like the entire project has gone off the rails.

Seek inspiration, not distraction

Allow yourself to seek inspiration. Distraction [Dis-traction – or being ‘pulled away from’] prevents you from concentrating on a task. Inspiration [literally ‘breathing into’] feeds ideas into your task and transforms it.  A key difference between the two seems to be the mental state that each puts you in. Distraction is about mental agitation, which prevents you from focusing on anything. Inspiration comes from deep focus – even if that focus isn’t your work. I’ve had some of my most inspired moments pruning fruit bushes in the garden!

Be in the moment, rather than being ‘always in the writing’. If you’re working to a plan, then this should be possible. If you’re on holiday, be on holiday – don’t be thinking all the time ‘I should be writing’. If you go to a conference, then ‘be there’. If you’re ill, then ‘get better’. If you’re reading, then ‘read’. Being always in the writing is – again – a state of mental distraction. Be where you are, and enjoy – knowing that the bigger project is planned, and still safely on the rails.

Write regularly, write smart

You’re looking to make all your writing time count. So these all bear repeating:

Once you have planned your writing project, then half and full days are best. Start each writing session by planning what you are going to do that session – don’t just start writing!  It’s not always possible to write every day but write regularly, even in your research phase, to keep in practice and keep improving. Book onto our Regular, Productive Writing workshop to learn more about getting into good writing habits.

Or try the Seinfeld method known as ‘don’t break the chain’. Make a cross on your calendar every day when you write something – even if it isn’t much – some days it will be just enough to open up a new idea. Most of all, the visual cue of the calendar can help motivate you to make sure you write a little every day – just don’t break the chain:

Calendar with crosses against each day

  • Plan each writing session. Think about how much writing you can manage in the time you have – write a few sentences specifying what content you will cover and how that will fit into the larger structure of the piece you are working on (if appropriate). This gives you focus for the day and stops you from getting distracted by your larger project.
  • Eliminate distractions. Turn off your e-mail, switch off social media, put your phone on mute. Try to ignore that itchy feeling. It’s easy to distract yourself when things get hard. Enjoy a deeper focus without distractions.
  • Write with others. By agreeing writing time with others, it’s easier to feel compelled to use it properly. Invite a colleague or a small group of colleagues to write with you. Agree a place and a time and commit to being there. Attend one of our writers’ retreats to try a great structured approach to writing regularly and together.
  • Take breaks. For every 1.5 hours you write, you should take a ½ hour break. Your brain needs time to rest properly and regularly when you are working it hard. Most of us don’t take breaks because we are afraid of losing our train of thought or momentum, but it can be very damaging. A practical solution to this is to write a short summary of what you’ve written so far and what you want to tackle next before taking a break to help your brain rest properly and to help you get going again as quickly as possible.
  • Find the right place. If you find you are interrupted too much in your office, write somewhere else. Or simply lock the door and unplug the phone during your writing periods – let the world back in for breaks and non-writing days.


Three things to read if you want to know more:

  1. Cal Newport, Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (London: Piatkus, 2016)
  2. Rowena Murray and Mary Newton, ‘Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?’, Higher Education Research & Development 28:5 (October 2009) 541-554
  3. Maggie Berg, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016)


Writing when you have little time

There are two common problems that academics face when it comes to writing. They are linked by one thing: time. It is one of the most important resources when it comes to writing. We need time to reflect on our research and to think about the best way communicate it to our audience. During some phases of your career, you will need to fit writing around a range of other commitments and may feel that you simply do not have time. At other times, particularly when faced with long periods of research leave, you will have the opposite problem, too much time, making it difficult to focus.

This post is about the first problem. A second post, coming up on Wednesday, addresses the second.

Note – If you simply do not have any time and space to write because your teaching or administrative load is too great then take care of yourself first. You will not write well if you are stressed and tired. Don’t simply add writing to an already exhausting workload:

clock with wings

Writing when you have little time

Four steps to writing when you have little time:

  1. Make time
  2. Prioritise
  3. Allow time to plan
  4. Write smart


Air & Light & Time & Space – How successful academics write, by Helen Sword

Front cover of book

Time & Space & People & YouTube

(by Elisabeth Meyer, Senior Research Associate, School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience)

What makes academic writing challenging? Helen Sword captures a multitude of answers to that question from real-life scientists in her book ‘Air & Light & Time & Space’. She interviewed well-established academics in their field as well as grad students, post-docs and early career researchers to present a book in which scientists are given the chance to describe their strategies, their coping mechanisms and their motivations when writing. The sheer amount of individual experiences makes this book a multi-faceted reservoir of ideas and inspiration for the aspiring writer.

The first two parts of the book deal with rather classic writing advice, such as how to find the ever-elusive time to write, or to pick up a book about English grammar now and again. While these sections can hardly be expected to yield any novel insight, I nevertheless appreciated to read that instead of desperately trying to bash out 1000 words before the sun comes up, I’m being encouraged to find my own way of staying motivated and productive. Suggestions range from simply listening to music or watching penguins on YouTube (adorable) to engaging with fellow academics and/or writers in order to build up a solid support structure of people who are willing to offer constructive criticism or even just a shoulder to cry on over a glass of wine.

The last part of the book is dedicated to the emotional side of writing: How does the writer deal with the inner editor, with critics or inevitable rejection?  Reading about established scientists receiving harsh rejections has put my personal experiences with reviewers in perspective. Additionally, she quite rightly calls out the serious lack of formal writing training for academics, since writing advice currently is mainly offered by mentors or colleagues volunteering their time and expertise.

Helen Sword has produced a very useful book jam-packed with inspiring stories about successful academic writers and their habits. And while no book will unlock a magic strategy that will suddenly make beautiful words effortlessly flow from the academics’ fingertips, this one might just give you the right idea about how to bring time and space and people (and maybe YouTube) back into your academic life to kickstart your writing project!

How to Write a Lot – a practical guide to productive academic writing, by Paul J. Silvia.

Image of book cover

In “How to Write a Lot”, the author, Paul J. Silvia, proclaims the message that “productive writers don’t have special gifts or special traits – they just spend more time writing and use this time more efficiently”. In academia, it’s very easy to find excuses as to why you’re not writing enough (and I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of many of these): there isn’t enough time, there’s more analysis required first, that surely tomorrow you’ll find the motivation needed to create your very best writing. Silvia begins this book by breaking down these “specious barriers” that hold us back. His arguments are convincing, and quickly unravel the flawed logic that creates such road blocks. Instead, he claims, the secret to success is forming a regular writing schedule and sticking to it. Simple? Sure. Too good to be true? Probably not. (more…)