Academic writing: the one book you really need

There is no shortage of books on academic writing. If you cannot decide where to start, in my view, you should start with “Write No Matter What” by Joli Jensen. Here’s why:

  • it’s relatively short
  • it summarizes the best advice out there
  • it’s realistic

Like other books on academic writing, it starts by addressing common myths about academic writing. I find it painful to see these myths repeated in my own environment. In Jensen’s book, you’ll learn three taming techniques (creating a project box, using a ventilation file, and writing at least 15 minutes every day). So we’re looking at being organized, being realistic (i.e. having room for frustration, writing blocks, etc.), and that important continuing contact with the writing project.

Compared to other similar books I know, I really liked how “Write No Matter What” does not imply that if only you were more disciplined, you’d get all that writing done. No, instead there is an entire section on maintaining momentum, lost trails, and handling revisions and rejections. Getting stalled? There’s an entire chapter on that.

I didn’t enjoy the chapters on writing support that much, but if you’re looking into setting up a campus-wide (or even faculty-wide) writing support, you’ll get plenty of ideas what may or may not work.

Writing style is explicitly not covered, and I think that’s a good thing. Not that books on good writing were redundant — to the contrary! — but this way we get a focused book that can serve everyone from a first-year PhD student to established faculty.

Tweaking Pomodoro

What is known as the pomodoro technique is a common time management method. Set your (kitchen) timer to 25 minutes, and work until time is up. Take a short break and repeat. There is no particular reason for setting the time to 25 minutes, though, except that the person popularizing this particular variant used 25 minutes. I have recently discussed this with a friend, mentioning that I often use this with much shorter periods, like 10 minutes. I do this, when I need to get started — the first 2 minutes of writing tend to be the hardest one. On the other hand, once I get into the flow, I find any solution with popups or audible sounds (i.e. almost all of those I know) quite distracting. Perhaps I’m calling for a timer that starts with 10 minutes and then automatically sets itself to 20 or 40 minutes to motivate me to keep going?

Image credit: CC-BY Lenore Edman.

Better the Average after Breaking the Chain

I have written before about habit formation and the longest chain or streak. The idea is simple: decide to do something (concrete) every day and measure how many days in a row you did that. Just don’t break the chain… go for the longest streak possible. I found this a useful approach for getting into daily habits.

There’s one problem, though: Once I have a long chain and break it, it seems hard to get started and going again. Say my daily task is to learn one new word. Every day I note for how many days I have been doing this. Say I’ve done 61 days in a row, and then break the chain. After a day or two (or so), I get back to studying new words. Now, after three days the incentives aren’t very strong. It’s still very far to get to the longest chain; if I don’t study, I only ‘lose’ three days — not much. (The incentives are quite difference when my chain is longest: now there’s everything to ‘lose’. This is why the whole thing works.)

What’s the solution? Don’t seek to do your best every time: go better than your average. This means that in addition to recording your current chain or streak, you also keep track of all the other chains. We still try not to break the chain, but there’s a secondary goal to better the average. (And if we use the geometric mean for the average, there’s even not that much information to be tracked)

Habit formation: What’s the longest chain?

It’s paradoxical… we humans are creatures of habits, yet it can be hard to form new habits. Here’s one thing I found useful: (1) deciding to do something regularly (e.g. daily), (2) tracking how many times in a row I did this. The motivational trick is trying to create the longest chain; if I fail to do whatever I’m tracking, I start at zero.

Now, the first step is important. It’s about a concrete, measurable goal. For example, do more reading doesn’t work; read one paper every Wednesday is. I found that less is more here: being too ambitious is more likely to lead to breaking the chain or just fatigue and motivational lows. By contrast, doing a little every day, or once a week, does add up… What is more, I schedule different things according to my week: weekends and weekdays are different, and days I spend commuting are different from days working from home.

For the second step, I also have clear rules (which vary according to the goal). For some, it’s every day, no excuses. For many there’s a list of acceptable excuses. For example, if I have to work later than a certain time, I allow myself to pick one of the remaining chains only. Or, for some goals I allow myself to skip once a week. I find these acceptable excuses useful to maintain the motivation of tracking chains, yet being able to adapt to real life. That said, I only permit one acceptable excuse in a row (irrespective of goal tracked).