Writing is the bread and butter of academia. Yet, for many there’s hesitation and a feeling of vulnerability in doing it, not to mention the challenges in finding the time to do it. The other matter is a lot of people, myself included, struggle with knowing how to start and they worry about writing something good enough for publication. Particularly for graduate students, they often feel their work will be rejected and it isn’t even worth starting. And it’s not surprising when you consider students frequently exposed to curated collections of the most important and influential works of a given field in courses and recommendations from supervisors. They can make the scribblings of a lowly grad student seem irrelevant or inadequate, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, one professor has told me many of the best literature review articles are written by graduate students or freshly minted doctorates because they have the most time (and expectations) to be abreast of their fields. Graduate students are often the most widely read and current with the literature because doctoral studies demand it.
Still not convinced you, the aspiring graduate student or the timid scholar, has something meaningful to contribute? Consider this: The best and most cited articles in academia did not happen over night. Many articles are the results of years of work, unfinished drafts, false-starts, piles of scribbled napkins and post-it notes, and hours of hair-pulling to craft the ground-breaking paragraph that ends up being quoted over and over again. Wait, isn’t this post about writing an article in 2 weeks?
It is, and graduate students, especially at the doctoral level, have already been doing research for years. So, you do have something to contribute to the field! I also would argue the articles written in grad school are unlikely to revolutionize the field. I don’t mean that to be discouraging, but instead, to take the pressure off of feeling like the writing needs to be prolific to be published.
Fun aside: Go dig up your supervisor’s earliest papers or even their dissertation as a humbling and sometimes amusing venture in the beginnings of their career. Bonus points if you find typos!
As grad students, I think we sometimes forget great scholars are still just people. People, that stumbled and fumbled for years before becoming well known. There’s also the matter of many students never having meaningful discussions with their supervisors or others about writing. There is this paradoxical expectation that people will ‘just figure it out’ on their own. So if you’re not one of the lucky few to receive such guidance, ask your supervisor to have a meeting just about writing. DON’T talk about data, methods, or anything else, just writing! If they’re unwilling or unable, talk to a peer or seek out a local writing centre. There’s also plenty of resources online, specifically for graduate students (e.g., The Thesis Whisperer).
So, how do you write an article in two weeks or less?
Currently, I’m in the final editing stages of an article I started 2 weeks ago. It’s around 10,000 words, which is a nice length (or even too long) for many journals. Here’s what I did:
The first rule of write club, do talk about write club; the second rule of write club, don’t edit until the very end!
Phase 1: Prep
- This can’t be a cold start, so prepare your data, thoughts, and arguments, even if only in fragmented chunks; this could be things you’ve done over the last few weeks, months, or longer.
- Writing this much in a short time requires you to have either a completed project or at least a half-full baked idea, and ideally be something you’re excited to write about. My article is about a project that began a year ago. My colleagues and I have presented the ideas at a couple conferences and have been mulling over things during that time, so in someways, I’ve been brainstorming about it for a year now.
Phase 2: Write like nobodies watching
- Once you’ve collected your thoughts, analyzed your data, and poked around the literature, schedule a large block of time to get the ball rolling. Ideally 3-4 hours or a full day. You’ll also want to schedule 3-5 of these blocks over the first week and then maybe 2-4 more the following week. The trick is to keep the momentum going once you get started.
- I like a 3-4 hour block, a meal break, and then another 3-4 hour block.
- A day or two (preferably no more than that) before you start writing, review your data and/or re-read 2-3 of the most important literature sources for your article so they are fresh in your mind. This primes you to start mapping out your argument and article while you are reading. I suggest limiting yourself to 2-3 literature sources at this point to avoid being bogged down and muddling your thoughts with too many perspectives. Keep your reading focused and leisurely.
- I like to make very brief notes while reading, such as selected quotes for the manuscript, definitions of key terms, and flagged passages I might want to return to. Avoid doing a full literature review at this stage as that will come later.
- On W-day (writing day), find a comfortable place, turn off your email, notifications, and distractions and prepare to hunker down. Only bring your computer or preferred writing tools, the most important data (if applicable), and the 2-3 literature sources you read the day or two prior.
- If you’re lucky, like I was, go to a writing retreat or boot-camp where others are also writing. Even if it’s silent, there mere presence of others writing can nudge you to stay accountable and power through the day.
- In the first few minutes, jot down the key thesis, argument, or idea your trying to convey. As others have told me, an argument driven article is always stronger than a data driven article. Don’t more than 10-15 min on this. It’s critical to keep this short to not get stuck trying to perfect it. Assume you will revise it as the article takes shape.
- Jot down the headings for your article to give a high-level outline of the article. Again, this shouldn’t take more than 10-15min.
- Now the writing begins! Baton the hatches, rev the engines, and top off your favourite beverage. Without second guessing or doubting yourself, write as much as possible without stopping. Whether it be a paragraph or a page, ignore grammar, punctuation, spelling, or any sort of editing. Just write whatever comes to mind. The goal is to avoid taking your hands off the keyboard for as long as possible.
- Rely entirely on the readings and data fresh in your mind to write the first messy awkward draft.
- If you think of other literature (beyond the 2-3 mentioned), but can only remember pieces of a quote, an author, or even just an idea without knowing where exactly its from, just put in a note on the page to come back and find the proper reference. The goal is not to break the flow of writing because it will take too long to get back into the writing.
- I often like to put a haphazard note-to-myself like, “(**insert Gee reference about discourse analysis, 20??**).”
- Pro-tip: I put asterisks or highlight anywhere that I plan on coming back to and then just do a Ctrl/Command-F to find them again later.
- Don’t be afraid to write out of sequence, such as writing the theoretical framework before your literature review. Trust your yourself to jump around and write about whatever is at the forefront. This might seem scary and you’ll think half of your work will be useless, which is possible, but 50% of something is still better than 100% of nothing. Besides, no one will be reading your clunky draft besides you.
- If you’re like me, once the juices start flowing, you’ll probably think of more things you’d like to write about mid-way through your current paragraph. If so, I like to jot those down in a random list of scratch notes so I don’t forget, and continue with the current paragraph. Then I go back to those notes and write about those.
- If you run out of ideas, refer back to your scratch notes, your outline, or your 2-3 key literature sources until you find some more inspiration to keep you going.
- For this type of disjointed writing I like using a non-linear writing program, like Scrivener, but split view in Word can work too.
- Keep going with this process for a few hours or a scheduled break, whichever comes first. Then take a break and dive back in for another 3-4h block.
- With this process, I was able to write ~3000 words in 2 x 3h writing blocks in one day.
- If all goes well, by the end of the day you’ll have a solid word count and be brimming with ideas of how to keep going.
Phase 3: The filling
- Ideally within the next day or two, settle in for your next block of time. If you’re itching to get going, just sit down and continue writing without editing or over thinking anything. If you need a little inspiration, re-read what you’ve written, review your scratch notes, and tinker with your headings/outline. As before, try to keep this brief. You don’t want to go into full editing mode.
- Write until your time is up or you’ve run out of things to write about.
- Then go back and re-read (without editing) to see if there’s any gaping omissions. Review the headings and sections for a logical flow of ideas. I sometimes like to write overly-blunt transitions between sections to organize my thinking, even if I end up deleting them anyway. For example. “This article will be organized into three sections, first… , second…, etc. In the next section, I introduce the framework and the data and argue point X and the relationship between Y and Z.” This may seem redundant, but sometimes its easier to write them down while contemplating the bigger picture of the article
- While you’re doing this, add in the data and figures if needed
Phase 4: Peppering
- By this point you should have a sizeable manuscript underway with the most salient ideas already on the page, and guess what. You didn’t even have to do the dreaded literature review, yet.
- Before you groan about the literature review, as many do, now is the time to venture beyond those 2-3 sources you initially relied upon, but only just. In order of importance, review the next most relevant literature source and see where you can pepper (aka interject) it into your manuscript. I find it easier to layer literature over an existing manuscript than trying to awkwardly piece together some ideas from the literature from scratch. This also helps keep your ideas at the forefront while adding references without going astray. Do this for another 2-3 literature sources and it should give enough fresh ideas to get you going again and if necessary, add some sections you might have previously missed.
- Work through this phase over a few days, if needed, allowing breaks so you things can simmer in the back of your mind. Try to finish this within the first week.
Phase 5: Literature review and the formalities
- This will likely be the second week of writing and its the home stretch!
- By now, you’ve reviewed at least 4-6 of the most important literature sources for your article, included your data, written your key arguments, and fleshed out your outline. Depending on the type of article you’re writing, now can be a good time to do a dedicated literature review section with anything else you feel is relevant
- Add in any other sections that might be still missing such as implications, conclusions, figures and tables, and the introduction (though some might like to do this part last)
- If possible, find a friend/colleague to bounce around some ideas and tie up any loose ends. Talk through your article and ask them to review the draft.
Phase 7: Making it pretty
- Here’s where the editing happens
- Figure out where you’re submitting the article, if you haven’t already, and do a full edit in alignment with the publication’s formatting requirements
- Ask someone to review the final draft
Phase 7: Click send
- Finish your edits and submit it before you over think things and doubt your work.