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.

Collaborative writing in SciFlow now with Zotero

This deserves mentioning: The collaborating writing service SciFlow now supports Zotero. You can find instructions here and here; all you need is an account with Zotero for syncing. Like the Mendeley link they provide, fetching references from the connected (Zotero) account can be a bit sluggish if you have a large library. If you’re a student writing up a term paper or a Master thesis, you will probably not notice this. If you have a more substantial collection of references, you will notice this. A downside of the Zotero link is that it searches your complete library, including notes and extracted annotations if you have this. I would have liked a more selective sync to speed up things.

So I’m still waiting for a reference search like in Authorea or ZoteroBib. With the many export styles to choose from, SciFlow easily beats Google Docs, and it works in a limited way on a mobile phone (you can log in and edit the text, but formatting etc. are now disabled in recent versions).

Tracking Revisions Step by Step

Sometimes my work involves revisions that take a considerable amount of time, and I split the work over a longer period. Revising a page every day makes the work much less daunting. Here is how I go about staying motivated: a graph to track the revisions.

When doing revisions, I first identify the changes I want to make (e.g. in response to reviewer comments), and then identify where exactly in the manuscript I’m going to make changes. In a word processor, I usually use “comments”. This is work that usually does not take me long, but the revisions can. So I count the number of pages, and the number of comments, and track them in a simple spreadsheet. Whenever I have “done” one of the comments, I remove the comment in the manuscript, and update the progress chart.

Here’s what this looks like. At the top, I track the progress, with a row for each day until the target date. At the beginning of a day, I copy over the values from the day before, and update them as I go along. At the bottom, there’s a simple graph, with a smoothed trend line. On top of the graph, I draw lines that link to the target date, and to roughly a week before that. This gives me a range where my lines should be if I’m making progress as planned.

I also include a shaded area for situations where I know I won’t be (able to) doing any revisions.

In this particular instance, a journal article, I was “on target” at the beginning; then follows a day (Thursday, week 1) where I made progress on the comments front, but not in terms of pages. It was a combination of many comments on a single page and removing text. Later, after the planned time off, I managed to address many comments in one go (Tuesday, week 2), and at the end we have the list of references, so a rapid progress in terms of pages.

shorter

Here’s another example, of a longer project. In this instance, I added two shaded areas after the fact (“no work on the train”, “computer died”), in addition to the planned time off (“visitors”). HT1 etc. is just a peculiar way to refer to week names.

longer

In this case, I actually started a bit slow, not tackling many comments, and falling behind in terms of pages. Perhaps these were rather substantive comments, or I struggled to get back into the project. With the chart on the progress, I could see that I needed to put in more effort if I wanted to finish on time. We can also see a “classic” situation in the first shaded area; I planned to do revisions on the train, but after successfully getting into the range just before (at least for the red line), the pressure was off, and I did other things.

During the second week, I progressed well, perhaps in anticipation that I wouldn’t get any work done with visitors around (second shaded area). Then the computer died (as Murphy’s law dictates), but with a quick replacement and a range for the target, this would not throw me off. As in the example above, at the end we have the list of references, which means rapid progress.

One final note, the lines on top of the figure are deliberately not parallel, but narrow at the beginning and wide at the end. This way the figure is less forgiving at the beginning, but once I am into the revisions, remains flexible.

Why am I doing all this? To keep motivated when 275 pages and 376 comments seem too much to get started, or when these three weeks seem so far away. The figures help start early and keep going (at least one comment a day).