Developing Effective Writing Habits

In this module, you’ll learn how to overcome the barriers that keep you from finishing—or starting—a writing project, and how to develop a writing routine. With a few of these tools under your belt, you’ll be ready to form a writing habit that saves you time and maximizes your productivity.

We imagine prolific writers as geniuses who, struck by an idea, simply begin to write and, with very little effort, produce a finished product. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, prolific and skilled writers have developed writing habits that help them take charge of the writing process.

Make writing a habit

When you make writing a regular part of your life, it becomes much less of a burden. When writing becomes part of your routine, you’ll start getting more done in less time; thus your writing becomes more automatic, fluid, and natural.

Identify and overcome writing obstacles

When you have a writing project with an approaching deadline, you may suddenly decide to do more reading, check your email, or start a load of laundry . . . instead of sitting down to write. In effect, you’ve basically decided to procrastinate.

Procrastination is not an obstacle but a manifestation of a writing block. While nearly every writer is aware of procrastination, far fewer writers know about the different types of obstacles that are at procrastination’s root.

Writing obstacles include (a) lack of confidence, (b) distaste for writing, or (c) a lack of time. These three top obstacles have one thing in common: Once they’re identified as productivity blocks, they can be directly confronted and overcome.

^ identified by psychologist Robert Boice, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1990. PP 20-22.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. —E.B. White
Students working on writing together
Students working on writing together

Writing Obstacle 1: Lack of confidence

Writers who lack confidence worry they don’t have the skills necessary to make a contribution to their field or they haven’t correctly analyzed their data, so their conclusion must either not be worthwhile or simply wrong. This is similar to the impostor syndrome: the belief they aren’t good enough to succeed, or they’ve deceived themselves or others about their ability to succeed. Additionally, telling yourself that you’re “not a good writer” is also counterproductive.

Strategy: Counter negative self-talk

Self-talk is about remaining confident in your skills and addressing any negative thoughts about your abilities. When your negative voice emerges, recognize it and gently self-correct. Counter those feelings with an affirmation about your abilities: You’re in graduate school because you are smart enough. You can learn to write well. From there, take one task at a time (if you’re overwhelmed by a number of tasks, it’s difficult to make headway). A checklist helps build confidence in your abilities to continue making progress. Source: thewritepractice.com/self-talk

Strategy: Form a writing group

Writing groups help you gain confidence by providing feedback, receiving encouragement from others, and helping you realize you’re not alone in your struggle to write. When you share your project timeline with others, you also become more accountable in completing tasks. Writing groups work best when writers are at a common stage in their careers (working on a final paper is a different task from writing a dissertation) and have a similar disciplinary focus, although members need not be from the same department. However, a word of caution is in order: A writing group must retain its focus; if it devolves into a social gathering or a meeting to vent frustrations together, you should either redirect the members to the group’s original purpose or, failing that, leave the group altogether. To start a writing group, talk with colleagues in your department or contact the Office of Graduate Studies.

Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”

―Walter Benjamin, One Way Street And Other Writings
Student working on computer in study space
Student working on computer in study space

Writing Obstacle 2: Distaste for writing

Perhaps the most common obstacle, many writers have a distaste for writing. Those who dislike writing think about how difficult it is and what they’d rather be doing. They often find writing exhausting.

Strategy: Outline

For writers who have a distaste for writing or who lack confidence in their writing abilities, outlining is a strategy to help them make measurable progress. Before writing, outlining the argument for a chapter, section, or even a pragraph gives the writer perspective on the project and shepherds thoughts into place. When it’s time to write, the writer doesn’t have to sit staring at a blank screen, wondering how to start.

Below are a writer’s two attempts to outline his progress report on the 1988 forensic investigation of the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 103—an air disaster that killed 243 passengers and 16 crew members.

When you read it closely, you’ll see that the weak outline suffers from vague descriptions, inconsistent coordination and subordination of ideas, single item headings, and an overall lack of transparent logic. After reading it, ask yourself this question: Does this outline really provide the direction the writer needs?

Weak Outline
  • Debris recovered
  • Cataloguing
  • Interpretation
  • Results
    • Placement
    • Bomb makeup
  • Work to be done
  • Interpretation

Unlike the first attempt, the revised outline reflects the writer’s intentional efforts to organize thoughts into a naturally logical, consistently well-coordinated and subordinated flow of ideas . . . before the actual writing begins! The strong outline provides clear directions for the writer.

Strong Outline
  • Completed Work
    • Recovering debris
    • Cataloguing debris
    • Interpreting debris
  • Preliminary Results of work
    • Placement of bomb
    • Construction of bomb
  • Future work

So, you’ll need to be self-critical of your first attempts at outlining. Taking the time to do so will make writing much easier and save you a great deal of time. Outlining is a powerful tool that helps you reflect on your own thinking and puts you in charge of meaning making when you’re ready to put thoughts onto the page.

Strategy: Create a distraction-free environment

Once you’ve scheduled writing times, it’s important to have an environment that’s conducive to writing. A designated workspace minimizes distractions and helps you get in the right frame of mind for working. Before you start writing, have things like snacks, water, and tissues within easy reach. Doing so will keep you from getting up every few minutes. Turn off your phone and leave it in another room. Let your family and friends know there will be times when you’ll be unavailable because you’ll be writing. Similarly, use a productivity application on your computer to block internet sites you know will be especially distracting to you. In addition to physical distractions, there are mental distractions to writing—usually remembering something you have to do that’s totally unrelated to the task at hand. Keep a pad of paper within easy reach to jot down reminders for later, then put the pad aside.

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

—Zadie Smith
Student studying interior of building at night
Student studying interior of building at night

Writing Obstacle 3: Lack of time for writing

Ask any graduate student, postdoc, or faculty member—there are a lot of demands on their time, and there’s always something else that needs to be done. If you don’t make writing a priority it’s easy to go days or weeks without writing, and deadlines arrive before you know it.

Strategy: Create a schedule

Scheduling a regular writing time will help you make writing a priority and keep you working on your writing projects, even in the middle of a busy semester. Here’s how to schedule a regular writing time:

  1. Use a weekly planner to break days into 30-minute increments. First, fill in your weekly commitments: classes, meetings, and appointments.
  2. Next, schedule one or two hours a few times a week at the time of day you know you do your best work.
  3. Finally, allocate the time for less important tasks to the slots that are left. These blocks of time are flexible—you might use them to scan readings ahead of a seminar or quiz. Start writing for 15 minutes or half an hour. Over time, you’ll be able to lengthen your writing sessions to an hour or two. Distinguish your writing time independent from secondary writing tasks such as outlining, editing, fact-checking, and writing footnotes. These are common distractions for writers who put off the more challenging writing task of actual writing.

Strategy: Set goals

Make the most of your writing time by setting goals—for the project, sections of the project—even for a day or a week.

The best goals are SMART goals. They are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.

Setting SMART writing goals takes practice. Over the course of a project, by setting goals and reflecting on the work you did that day, you’ll learn when you’ve been too ambitious and when you can push yourself a little more.

S

Goals that are SPECIFIC are narrow and defined. For example, "I will write every day" is vague, while “I will draft the methods section” is clearly defined.

M

MEASURABLE goals can be checked off of a to-do list. “I will write two pages” or “I will finish the data analysis section” can be measured.

A

ACHIEVABLE goals are challenging, but reachable. Doing anything worthwhile requires persistence in spite of obstacles. Writing is no different. By keeping to your schedule of specific tasks, the more likely you’ll be of completing your writing project.

R

All of your intermediate writing goals are RELEVANT because they help you finish your writing project. They are also RELEVANT because they move you closer to having your research published, completing all course requirements, or finishing your dissertation. Finishing the project matters to you because it’s another step towards achieving your long-term aspirations.

T

TIME-BASED goals include completion dates and intermediate deadlines to serve as checkpoints.

Summary

It’s true that writing takes serious intellectual engagement. Sitting still for an hour or two, finding the right words, and shepherding ideas into a logical order takes extreme focus. But there’s a pleasure in creating clear prose, of communicating a particularly difficult idea so the reader grasps your meaning. There are a few common obstacles that can stymie even the most seasoned writer, but they can be overcome! Counter a lack of confidence with affirming self-talk or by participating in a writing group. Work through a distaste for writing by learning to develop an effective outline for a writing project and then creating a distraction-free writing environment. Find time to write by establishing a workable writing schedule and setting SMART writing goals. With a little practice, you can develop the good writing habits that will help you finish your writing projects. Developing these writing skills will help you look forward to the writing process (or dread it far less!). These skills eventually become habits that translate to other realms of your working life as well.

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. —Robert Cormier