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Productive Writing in Grad School: Solutions for the 5 Most Common Problems

UL Grad School -- 11/25/2019

Succeeding in grad school requires many skills, from learning to network with your peers, to time management, to working effectively with your advisor — and then comes the writing part of graduate school.   

Once you’ve completed your coursework and made headway on research for your dissertation or thesis especially, writing takes center stage. And this is writing in a different way than you did as an undergraduate, when all-nighter papers may have been the norm.

Tackling a thesis or dissertation requires that you examine your habits and learn to manage yourself effectively. Dr. Jan Allen, the author of The Productive Graduate Student Writer, has worked with scores of grad students on their writing.

On a recent visit to UL Lafayette, she shared some of the most common blocks and effective strategies for moving forward.

“Writing is based on skills, which we can identify, learn, practice, and refine.”

- Jan Allen, The Productive Graduate Student Writer.

1. Binge Writing

Even professional writers are guilty of binge writing at times, but this is simply not an effective strategy for completing your graduate degree. To successfully finish a dissertation or thesis, you need to be writing regularly — whether you’re feeling inspired or not.

The Solution: Write Every Day

Allen recommends writing for 90 minutes every day for two weeks. Even 15 minutes a day of writing can bring you closer to a flow state, when your mind fully focuses on a task and loses track of time.

By developing your confidence in your ability to write, you’ll become more relaxed and find your writing practice enjoyable. Consider knocking out your writing first thing in the day, when your concentration levels are usually higher.

2. Lack of Motivation

We tend to view writing as an artistic pursuit that requires inspiration, but the magnitude of completing a thesis or dissertation should hint to you that quite a bit of discipline is involved!

Rather than appealing to the Greek muses, we suggest you find creative ways to get motivated. 

The Solution: Incentivize Yourself

For some, incentivizing yourself may be as simple as rationing out a chocolate bar as a reward for a hard-earned word count.
You can also opt to raise the stakes of your commitment to writing, by pledging a donation to an organization you despise (known as an anti-charity) if you fail to reach your goal. This strategy can be highly effective!

3. Can’t Find the Time

Spending time writing may feel superfluous if you’ve got a full inbox and a stack of papers to grade, but remember to think big here. The busy-ness will always be present, so the key is to identify ways to prioritize your writing.

The Solution: Schedule Writing into Your Calendar

Keeping a calendar that includes blocks of time for writing provides accountability to yourself, and signals to others that you have set boundaries around your time.

Anytime you are tempted to cancel your plans to write, remember that each writing session is an important step towards meeting your goal.

4. Perfectionism

Our culture undoubtedly rewards perfectionism, and your commitment to excellence is what landed you in graduate school in the first place! And yet, perfect can indeed be the enemy of good.

If you are unable to stop reworking syntax or pursuing tangents in your research, stop to consider the bigger picture.

The Solution: Break Down the Big Goal

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The key to staying motivated to reach your overarching goal is to create manageable daily tasks. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details of your work as you complete a thesis or dissertation, so remember to take it one day at a time. 

5. Procrastination

Procrastination gets the top slot in our book, because it often underlies the aforementioned issues. Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today? You can probably think of a few reasons!

While you may be tempted to prioritize conducting additional research, or are feeling the pull of the latest Netflix release, you owe it to yourself to make sure your writing gets done.

And, while it’s easy to get stuck in your head when it comes to writing, you don’t have to go it alone!

The Solution: Accountability

The most effective way to stave off procrastination is to find accountability from a writing group or friend. If you tell a colleague you’ll be writing five pages over the weekend, the knowledge that you’ll see that person first thing Monday morning can be just the motivation you need to get down to work on Saturday morning.

Plus, campus resources like the Writing Center are available to help you find accountability and progress in your writing. Stay tuned for information about our dissertation boot camps, where students gather to make progress on theses and dissertations — no email, Facebook, or texting allowed.

“There is a paradox of writing, especially grad school writing. It seems like a solo endeavor, but it works better as a team sport.”

- Chris M. Golde, Foreword, The Productive Graduate Student Writer.

Shut Up and Write

Students and faculty alike are invited to join our Shut Up and Write sessions throughout the semester. Give yourself the gift of two hours of distraction-free writing time in the company of others.

Fall 2019 sessions are held on Tuesdays from 9-11am and Wednesdays from 11-1pm in F.G. Mouton 201. There’s no need to register ahead of time. Just show up and get to work!