New ABD (And Professor) Deadly Mistake #4:

in Articles from our Newsletter

Writing Too Little, Too Late

Are you waiting until you know enough, are clear enough, or are smart enough to smart writing? If so, you’re making a big mistake. Read on to find out why, and what to do about it.


Most professors know that you should be writing as often as you can—daily if possible. Unfortunately, dissertation-writing graduate students often aren’t aware of this advice until they are far along in the process. Don’t wait until you have completed your literature review to begin writing. Instead, use active note-taking as you read. Active note-taking involves free writing about what you’ve just read; how it ties into the bigger picture, what is important about it, and how it connects to other work you’ve read.

As you progress, spend more time writing, even if you’re not sure where you’re going. The act of reading can be very paralyzing. After all, these writers have such well-formed thoughts and you’re just struggling to say something coherent. By forcing yourself to write frequently, you can surmount that block.

Many of my clients tell me that writing each day BEFORE they do any reading works best. At the end of a session of reading they may be too tired or overwhelmed to write. Determine what kind of writing schedule works best for you, then stick to it!

Here are the most frequent excuses I hear for not writing enough (or at all):

  • I don’t know enough on this subject yet to be able to write anything
  • I need to read more before I can write anything
  • When I free write, it turns out to be useless drivel
  • I wasn’t in the mood to write
  • I just couldn’t get started – I felt paralyzed.

And the most frequent excuse at this time of year or after any break:

  • I’ve lost my momentum; I can barely remember what I was working on.

The truth is that NOT writing feeds on itself. The less you write, the less you feel like writing. Conversely, the more you write, the more you feel like writing.

So, the trick is to get started and to keep that momentum going.

I wrote an article last year about getting started after the holidays. It contains some useful hints for jump-starting your writing process. You might also like to read “Write Before You’re Ready: First Steps to Avoid Writer’s Block,” also in my newsletter archives.

Few people are aware that the act of writing daily actually increases creativity. Robert Boyce, who wrote Professors as Writers, which I highly recommend, did some research in this area. He showed that those professors who were assigned the task of daily writing had many more creative thoughts throughout the day than a group who only wrote when they felt like writing.

One way to increase the amount that you write is to keep a journal. I believe journal-writing is effective because it makes it more obvious to our “inner critic” that whatever you’re writing is not for public consumption. Therefore your writing can flow more smoothly, since you’re only writing in order to find out what you think.

I’ve just discovered some software called LifeJournal. I’ve started using it and I’m surprised at how effective this software is at helping me keep perspective on my projects and increasing my productivity.

I love LifeJournal’s tagline: “A Place to Hear Yourself Think.” It has many features that could be useful to an academic who wants to track thoughts and ideas:

  • You can search your entries by topics that you assign, by date and/or by journal type

  • You can keep multiple journals if you wish – personal, academic, and artistic, for example.

  • A feature called “Daily Pulse” allows you to measure how you’re doing on a number of dimensions, including stress, mood, energy, health, and six more categories that you define yourself. You can then graph it each of these dimensions.

  • There is a paper version available that you can carry with you.

The journal accomplishes what a blog does for some: it’s a place to see your thoughts, organized by day and also theme or topic. It has an advantage, though – it’s private. I would imagine that some bloggers could use a journal and then turn the entries that they’d like to share into blog entries.

Download LifeJournal for fr*ee – you can try it for 15 entries and see if it works for you. I made my decision after 5 entries!

If you don’t want to buy software, one of my clients suggested that gmail, which is Google’s email client, is another way to store data and then use it for retrieval of information, since the contents of your emails are searchable. Gmail can also automatically store your email according to subject line or conversation. And because Gmail has such a high storage capacity, my client periodically emails herself her work, as a secondary backup.

No matter what technique you use, start today to write at least 15 minutes a day. I promise you; in a few months, you’ll be very glad you did.


Previous post:

Next post: