How to be a productive writer
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on August 1, 2017 and translated into English in 2022.
A while ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s My Profession is a Novelist. Despite differences in the type of writing we do for our careers (him as a novelist and I as an academic), his book profoundly resonated with me. With the inspiration that came from reading his book, I would like to share with everyone some writing insights.
The part I found most touching in My Profession is a Novelist was in Chapter 6 "Befriending Time— Writing a Novel." Despite the chapter focusing on how to write novels, I feel as though there is much to be learned and applied to writing academic articles as well.
When it comes to writing novels, there is a popular misconception that novels are just made-up stories and they are written when inspiration strikes the author. Many people blindly worship inspiration, falsely believing that inspiration is the main driver of an author’s words. But what actually goes into the writing process of authors like Haruki Murakami?
When writing a novel, I make myself write ten pages a day, each with about 400 words…Even if I feel like continuing writing, I will stop at ten pages. On the other hand, even if that day I don’t feel up to it, I will push myself to fill up ten pages worth of writing. I do this because in long-term projects, consistency makes the biggest difference. If you write only when it comes easily to you and stop when you feel like it, it is hard to maintain a consistent writing schedule over time. As such, I write every day as if I were signing in for attendance, never breaking my daily routine of writing ten pages.
Haruki Murakami’s words deeply touched me. Almost all of the productive scholars I know consistently write every day.
I’ve heard before that an assistant professor in a top American university had a blackboard in her office that she used to record how many words she wrote each day. The result of this was that not only was she a productive writer but every article she wrote ended up being published in top journals. She has since been recognized as a leading scholar in her field. Not surprisingly, she went from assistant professor to associate professor and was soon promoted to full professor.
Similarly, one friend of mine used an Excel sheet to track how many words she wrote each day. She felt most clear headed in the morning, so she would go to a cafe without wifi and write for three hours, completing about 600 words a day. I’ve seen her Excel sheet before. When there were two zeros in a row (meaning that she did not write for two days), she left a comment beside the “zeros” that said “cut my fingers.”
Another friend is also an extremely productive scholar. During her non-teaching days, she spends every morning writing. She does this because she believes that writing is a very draining task; by doing the hardest work in the morning, when her mind is the clearest, she produces better results. When I first knew about her daily routines, I felt admiration and also confusion because I often felt as though I had nothing to write. Therefore, I was curious how she was able to write so much every day. On the contrary, she felt as though she always had something to write about: starting a new paper, editing an existing paper, writing a response memo, beginning a new project, taking notes on articles related to her papers, and summarizing said articles (which would often be useful later on when she wrote her own papers). By now she has made it a habit to write every morning. So long as she doesn’t have teaching scheduled, she would turn on her laptop and instantly be in her “writing mode.” Thanks to the habit, writing every day has become a process that doesn’t require much thought. How can we write every day? Below, I share with you her tips and tricks that have inspired me a lot.
For me, I can only write in the morning. My brain literally stops working after 12pm, at least the part governing writing... I think one way that might help is to spend some time in the evening thinking about the paragraphs you're going to write the next day: the main point, the papers you're going to cite, the supportive evidence, examples, etc. Then the next morning, you just write them out. I know sometimes we just don't know what to write. In situations like those, I just write anything in my head, which may not make any sense at all, but can occasionally give you intuitions.
To put it simply, plan what you want to write tomorrow. Break up an entire paper into 20-30 paragraphs. Don’t let the thought of writing a 9000-word English paper scare you into inaction. Reframe your thinking to focus on smaller goals such as writing 2–4 paragraphs or 600 words. In addition, having an outline is especially useful.
Then how does one concentrate when it is time to work? I am lucky in that as soon as I begin working, I won’t be distracted by my phone or the Internet. The only website I really open when I’m working is Google Scholar. A colleague of mine uses the Pomodoro Technique to help her focus during her morning writing sessions. She installed a Pomodoro timer app on her laptop that counted down in 25-minute increments, during which she would write and then take a timed five-minute break in between. If this cycle of working for 25 minutes and then resting for 5 is repeated 7 times, that totals nearly 3 hours of concentrated work. This technique is great because it breaks down a large project into digestible work periods while also allowing us to balance rest and productivity.
Well, some people may say: “Despite hearing a lot of sensible advice, I still can’t implement it in my own life.” I used to also be paralyzed by inaction and caught up in thoughts of “should I write or should I not?” (of course, even now I still have such moments). But after hearing what my friends had to share, I decided to slowly try and incorporate those methods into my own workflow. For instance, in May of this year, I started keeping track of word count in my Word documents and taking note of the words I had written each day. At the same time, I divided my papers into different, smaller sections such as the introduction, literature review (1, 2, 3, etc.), data, sample, variables, methods, descriptive results, regression results, and discussion. Then, before each writing session I would brainstorm a general idea of what I wanted to write that day as well as how much I aimed to write. Now, when I revisit the document I had worked on in May, I can still see the word count records I made at the time, which indicated that I had written 6,561 words in 7 days. I can recall very clearly the sense of accomplishment I had while I was writing that paper and seeing the word count grow day by day.
Making a habit of writing every day is very difficult. It can sometimes take several years of consistent effort and self-discipline. It is also important to consider that everyone has different routines and lifestyles, so a process of trial and error is necessary in finding the most suitable way for you to develop a habit. The process of producing a paper is long and difficult, and waiting to write until the moment inspiration hits will not allow you to produce your best quality work. Here, I’d like to further share with everyone a passage from Haruki Murakami’s book My Profession is a Novelist:
At the end, it is my personal opinion, but novel writing is very tedious, slow work. Seldom will you find it exciting or glamorous. I spend entire days sitting alone in a room with back-and-forth thoughts of 'this isn’t right, but neither is that,' racking my brain in search for the right words to form sentences or improve on them even the slightest bit. During this, no one will acknowledge my effort spent putting words on a page or walk over to pat my shoulder in encouragement and say ‘good job.’ It's just myself, celebrating my small successes with short inner dialogues of ‘hm nice.’ After the book is published, maybe no one pays attention to that sentence I meticulously composed. Novel writing is at its core, work. It is extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, and it can be under-appreciated and discouraging.
Then why do we still write?
In answering this question, I’d like to share a quote which was used as a concluding sentence in Gengwang Yan’s book Essays on History:
Writing is not only critical for publishing and contributing to society but it is also the most crucial and serious stage of research. If we don’t write, research efforts will remain incomplete and our contribution to the field is rudimentary…Writing is the epitome of comprehension, a demonstration of the most rigorous thinking, and the most serious final stage of scientific research. If it is not written, it cannot be regarded as a completed research project.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "'写写写'的心得分享: 将每天写作变成生活习惯." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
How to edit and revise papers
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on March 4, 2018 and translated into English in 2022.
Last time, I wrote an article titled, “Insights on writing: Making writing into a daily habit”. In that article, I promised my readers that I would talk about editing and revising in a future article.
My academic idol Dr. Paula England recently tweeted something and I couldn’t agree more with what she said.
More and more I’m starting to realize that, like Dr. England, I enjoy “editing much more than writing first draft.” It’s so easy to become so caught up in the process of editing to the point where I become hooked. When I collaborate with someone for the first time, they sometimes take slight offense when I’ve edited so much of their writing. Once they get to know me, however, they come to learn that when I edit, I always restructure the article including its paragraphs, sentences, and word choice.
Today, I’m sharing my editing process partly because I was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s book “My Profession is a Novelist”. Writing a novel is quite unlike writing an academic paper, but Murakami’s process of revising his writing is so relatable to me. Next, I will draw upon excerpts from his original work and discuss my thoughts on editing academic papers.
The process of writing long novels isn’t like playing baseball such that completion marks the start of another game. If you ask me, the point at which a novel is finished signals the beginning of the most enjoyable part that’s worth your while.
Similar to Murakami, I usually take a break after completing the first draft of an article. If I have collaborators, I’ll send the draft to them. But after the initial draft, as Murakami describes, it’s “a rewrite from the very beginning, a process that is carried out on a fairly large scale”. During the first round of revision, I mainly look at whether the literature review is comprehensive and logical, and rearrange the paragraphs if needed. For example, in a recent article, my collaborator was responsible for writing the first portion of the literature review. Then when I read through it, I noticed that the deduction from the literature review to the research hypotheses was a little disjointed from our empirical analysis. I ended up cutting out a lot of what she had written. I also took arguments she had interspersed throughout the paper and combined them into one paragraph. As a result, the literature review, the formulation of research hypotheses, and the empirical analysis became more coherent.
Once this process is complete, I will set my work aside for another week and then enter the second round of revision. This time, likewise, I will make drastic changes and do a rewrite from the beginning, but with greater attention to detail. For instance, I might add some detailed descriptions of scenery and adjust the tone of conversations. I might check for inconsistencies with the plot development, and rewrite parts of the story that are difficult to understand at first reading to make the story unfold more naturally. This is not a major operation, but rather, an accumulation of minor procedures. After this stage, I will take a break before moving on to the next round of edits. This time around, it’s not so much an operation as it is an adjustment.
If we focus on the overall logic of the paper in the first round of revision, then the next stage is to revise the details of each sentence word by word. I’ll pay particular attention to the following things: Does each sentence have a transition word? Does each paragraph have an opening sentence? Does each section have a summary of reasonable length? Is there a bridging transition between each section? I’ll also check if I vary my vocabulary. For example, verbs (e.g. examine, investigate, assess, or evaluate), words that indicate a contrast (e.g. however, yet, but), or words that indicate causation (e.g. thus, therefore, hence). I like to alternate these terms and avoid having them appear in close proximity in my writing.
At this juncture, I'll take a long vacation. If possible, I’ll leave my work in the drawer for two weeks up to a month, forgetting that it even exists, or trying to forget about it...After carefully preserving the work like this, I'll begin to thoroughly modify the details again. A well-cared-for piece will leave a very different impression on me than it did before. Faults that were not discovered before come into sharp focus now. Whether there is depth to the work can also be discerned now. Just as my work was carefully preserved, so was my mind.
“Careful preservation” is another key component. After a few rounds of intense editing, I also like to take a break for a week or two, aiming to forget about the paper if I can. When I revisit the article, it feels as though I’m editing a completely new paper. Many of the faults that I missed in the first few rounds will now surface.
Sometimes, editing an article for long periods of time can be a strenuous task. I’ve noticed that oftentimes, I start off editing very attentively but I become more careless as I proceed. For this reason, I try to start from different sections every time I edit. This way, I can thoroughly review and revise each section clear-headedly and scrutinize every section meticulously. For example, in the first few rounds of revisions, I might focus on revising the front end (i.e. the introduction and literature review) and make slight edits to methodology and results, while temporarily disregarding the discussion section at the end of the paper. When I’m on my third round of revisions, I will carefully inspect the following: Is the equation in the methodology section accurate? Is the results section clear? Does the discussion tie back to the introduction and research findings?
Not only has the work now been carefully preserved, but it has also been rewritten to some degree. At this stage, the opinions of a third party are going to be of great importance...However, if you ask me whether I’d blindly accept any feedback, that would not be the case. After all, I had just finished writing a novel with painstaking effort, and though I had cooled down after taking a break, my head was still full of ardor for my work. As soon as I hear criticism, I will inevitably feel enraged and emotional, and perhaps even find myself entangled in fierce quarrels.
Murakami’s frame of mind deeply resonates with me. I still recall my reaction when I submitted articles in the past and received a letter of rejection along with comments from reviewers asking 'Why didn't you mention so and so?' or 'What does this mean?' I would complain to my advisor, 'I mentioned this in the article already. Why didn't the reviewer read it more carefully rather than saying I didn’t mention it in the first place?' My advisor would then tell me, 'Never blame the reviewer. If they make a critique, it means that we weren’t clear enough in our writing. We need to take those suggestions and make revisions and clarifications accordingly.' My advisor’s response has deeply inspired and impacted me. Later on, when I receive comments from reviewers, I would still occasionally feel dejected but I would only hold myself accountable for it; perhaps I could’ve been clearer in my writing, or I could’ve restructured the writing to enhance the comprehensibility. As an example, there was a past article where I did a lot of sensitivity analysis, but the piece was rejected upon the first submission. The reviewer said my analysis didn’t take into account many other important considerations, so it was unclear whether my results were robust. In reality, I had mentioned these additional analyses here and there when I introduced the variables and major findings. I didn’t blame the reviewer at all; instead, I singled out the important sensitivity analysis in the article and formed a new section dedicated to it. Sure enough, when I submitted my paper to another journal, reviewers didn’t make the same criticisms and they even commented that I did a “comprehensive, thoughtful analysis” and found my results very convincing.
In addition, when I bring in a third party, I will strategically choose the third party to review my draft. Everyone is extremely busy with their work and life in general, and it is time-consuming for others to read my entire article and make suggestions. Thus, I usually single out parts that I am most unsure about, and send them to my colleagues who have more expertise in the corresponding area. For instance, I once had a solo-authored paper where I wasn’t certain if I had sufficiently addressed the reviewer’s comments on theory and methods with my edits. Therefore, I sent the theory part of the article (roughly three pages of text) to a friend who specialized in theory. Meanwhile, I shared the equations and methodology sections with another friend who was well-versed in statistics. I explained my specific concerns to them and pointed out areas where I hoped they could focus more on. This way, they could read and make suggestions that were more targeted.
In other words, the most important thing is the act of editing itself. When the author is determined and believes 'I want to make this better,' sits down at their desk, and sets about revising their work, such an attitude is incredibly commendable.
I think if you have the mindset that “I want to make this better,” you may discover, like Murakami or Dr. Paula England, that editing is a fun process.
All good papers were accomplished through editing. I hope this article has been of some inspiration to you. Most importantly, I hope you can find joy in editing!
Haruki Murakami's excerpt is from chapter 6 of My Profession is a Novelist, “Befriending Time— Writing a Novel”.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "改论文改到嗨是一种什么样的体验." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on January 27, 2016 and translated into English in 2022.
People say that writing a dissertation is a very dreadful, if not the most agonizing, stage. Let me share some of my thoughts on the process with you.
In the United States, many PhD candidates compile the papers they published during their PhD studies and make that their dissertation. Although I have published a few papers during my PhD studies, my dissertation is entirely new. Originally, I was planning to graduate in August, but my graduation date was advanced to May because I will be starting my new job earlier than I had anticipated. Under such great pressure, I am glad to find that I have not fallen behind. In fact, I am in an excellent mood every day despite the pressure, so I would like to share some useful tips on how I am able to do so. It is my hope that everyone can write their dissertations efficiently and happily!
1. Setting realistic goals for yourself is very important
I am very determined to graduate on time because of various life pressures. This, in combination with my personality, makes me avoid resorting to delaying my graduation as a backup plan. Knowing myself, I can only focus on one single thing at a time, so I’ve paused all of my other ongoing projects (including a ‘revise & resubmit’) to not overwhelm myself. I created larger goals (like finishing a certain part before a given month) as well as smaller goals (like writing 700-900 words per day). As long as I complete a daily goal, I can be satisfied with my progress even if I have wasted some time here and there. If we write dissertations while working on other projects in addition to balancing family demands, it’s easy to burn out mentally and physically.
2. Documenting progress helps you gain a sense of accomplishment and remain in high spirits
This point somewhat ties into my first point. Every day, I document my progress on Weibo (a China-based microblogging platform similar to Twitter). Doing so not only spreads positivity to those who see my posts but also holds myself accountable. I’ve even developed somewhat of an urge to post something every day as a way to report my progress to my followers. This gives me a sense of security and at the same time, it makes me feel more accomplished. Consequently, I can focus better while I work to complete my daily goals. Meanwhile, don't be too harsh on yourself. There is no need to criticize yourself for writing too slowly or not getting anything done; life already comes with enough pressure as it is, so treat yourself gently!
3. Just sit down and write; don’t judge your writing
It takes me hours to get into the flow when I write on my computer. I always take my time, fixing things here and there. When I plan out the day, I like to take into account this warm-up period. Another key point is to write shamelessly. Oftentimes when I am writing I’m slow as molasses and the quality of my writing is simply appalling. But after you have a draft, you can take your time to edit it, and the quality will only improve from then on. Sometimes, I’m also not the most objective person when it comes to judging my own writing. For example, I was really displeased with my second dissertation chapter (update: this chapter has been published in Journal of Marriage and Family) no matter how much I edited it, but when my mentor read it, he remarked, “I enjoyed reading the chapter. It is well thought out and well executed. The writing is good and easy to understand. Great job!” As the saying goes, a good dissertation is a done dissertation.
4. Find a source of entertainment
Don’t make your life revolve around your dissertation because then you’ll start to feel lifeless. For instance, I always dress up before heading to the office to work on my dissertation. I also have peers who envision themselves to be bestselling authors writing a novel; this is actually quite helpful for writing the introduction because in essence, we write papers to sell our ideas to the audience. Apart from that, I also have to teach while working on my dissertation. Even so, teaching is a relief for me because I have the opportunity to interact with others.
5. Rest, rest, rest!
Generally, I concentrate on my work for 4 to 5 hours, and spend another 2 to 3 hours on campus dealing with other tasks and doing some errands. When I get home in the evening, I stop working altogether and don’t even think about anything work-related, and I don’t feel guilty about it! This makes it so I wake up in a good mood every morning because I feel energized and ready to take on the day. In the late afternoon, I’m still in a good mood because by then I will have ended a day of hard work, and I can look forward to the evening which is my self-care time. Also, I try to get at least 8 or 9 hours of sleep each day. If I sleep later, I would also accordingly wake up later the next day. This way, I can maintain mental clarity in the mornings and head to work fully recharged. I don’t do intense physical activities like running or aerobics, but I do make sure I go on a walk for 30 to 60 minutes on every work day. While I walk, I’ll listen to music, people watch, or space out.
These are some tips I have summed up as of now. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful. Once I finish defending my dissertation, I’ll revisit these points and see if I have any new insights to add. You’re also welcome to add to the list. Be open-minded to trying new things and find what works best for you. At the end of the day, finding strategies to work efficiently is also a part of figuring out who we are!
The original article in Chinese is "如何高效、快乐地写博士论文？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia