The essence of writing productively is to develop a writing habit. You will find it productive to get into a routine of writing and to write regularly over the time period you are writing. Eg everyday, or every day over two weeks regularly.
Writing productively is also about regularly practising the different kinds of writing required in your field of study. There are many different strategies that you can draw on to help you develop a productive writing habit.
Plan to write - that is the top strategy for writing productively.
- Get focused by setting realistic and relevant writing goals for each writing period.
- Get started by brainstorming, mind mapping or making an outline.
- Do some freewriting or writing to specific prompts to help you develop a draft.
- Form or join a writing group and write with others to stay focused and motivated.
10 tips to creating a productive writing habit View
Here are some tried and tested tips for achieving productive writing habits.
1. Set up writing blocks
Set aside regular days and times to write – make them non-negotiable. Think of your writing sessions as a structured set of limited blocks of time, rather than unstructured times to fill with writing. Be conscious of how to use the blocks. Choose the time of day when you’re most productive to do the challenging writing at those times.Use other times for routine writing tasks like organising references, editing, etc.
2. Timed writing
Breaking writing sessions into blocks divided by breaks works well for many people. The well-known Pomodoro Technique (named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer) provides a structured time frame for writing and taking breaks. Writing sessions often last 25 minutes, followed by 5 minutes’ break. This rhythm can maintain focus over a longer period than open-ended, unstructured writing time. You could start with 3 x 25 minutes and build up sessions over time.
3. Create a regular writing space
Establish a regular workspace with everything you need on hand. Ensure your chair is comfortable and the desk or monitor are at the correct height for comfort. Have all the books/articles and other essential resources accessible so that you don’t have to keep leaving the workspace.
4. Minimise distraction
Ensure you won’t be disturbed – pause your phone and social media notifications; alert your co-habitants that you’ll be working and suggest they only interrupt in an emergency; consider putting a “Do not disturb” sign on the study or front doors.
5. Set writing goals for each writing block
Set specific goals for what you want to achieve in your writing. For example: “Write 300 words expanding on this idea”; “Summarise the contributions Theorist X will make to my analysis (about 300 words)”. At the end of the session, write down what you need to do next time so that you know where to start when you return to your desk.
Freewriting is a technique that can unlock your thought processes. You are just writing for yourself, not for any imagined reader. It means writing anything that comes into your head about your topic for a limited time. There are two conditions: freewriting must be in whole sentences and you must not stop. If you have nothing to write, write ‘I have nothing to write’ or try out some prompts. This technique can:
It can be useful when starting on a new section of your writing or at the start of any writing session.
7. Brainstorming and mind-mapping
Some writers prefer to brainstorm and organise their ideas visually, using a mind map, instead of linear sentences or dot points. Mind maps can be very helpful when you get stuck, because they can reveal connections within your ideas that would otherwise be difficult to see. There are many ways of doing this: hand-drawn maps on large sheets of paper, post-it notes on a table or whiteboard, even PowerPoint slides which you can shuffle around. There is also software that helps you to create a mind map. A mind map can also be developed into an outline.
Whether you create it from scratch, or generate it from other pre-writing activities, an outline is an essential tool in writing. It allows you to keep connected to an overview of your writing, and to work on different parts at different times. With the outlining tool in Microsoft Word you can even plan at the paragraph level.
9. Writing to prompts
Turning dot points in an outline into a connected series of sentences can be challenging. Treating your points as prompts can help you to start developing them further.
Turn a point into a sentence starter, e.g.: ‘importance of context’ ➝ The context is important because...
Finish the sentence. Write another 2 to 4 sentences, or keep writing until you’ve taken the idea as far as you can, for now.
Prompts can also be used to get you started on bigger ideas, e.g.:
You can also take points from your freewriting and turn them into prompts to develop them further.
10. Writing with others
Although it might seem distracting at first, writing in the company of others can aid concentration and keep you on task. The Shut Up and Write (SUAW) movement has joined the concepts of timed writing and writing in company. Groups meet for a social catch-up and then stop talking for a set of timed writing sprints with breaks in between. See if there are any Shut Up and Write groups in your faculty or library, or even consider starting your own!
Whatever you decide to do, give it time to work. Habits take time to establish.
Building your writing habit
Select one of the following prompts and complete a 25 minute writing sprint. You could try out different prompts. These can help you write productively and also overcome writer’s block.
- Choose a technical term, theory, or a piece of equipment from your field of study. Write several sentences to define and describe it.
- Write two or three paragraphs explaining a concept from your field of study to people who are not experts in your discipline.
- Choose four key terms from your field of study or research, and write a one sentence definition for each.
- Identify a claim, theory, or idea in your field of study that you strongly agree or disagree with. Write a paragraph summarising the claim and a second paragraph with your response and opinion.
- Describe an important experiment, study, book, or piece of research in your field. What did the researchers do? Why is it important?
- Describe a common process in your field of study, work, or research. For example, you could describe an experimental technique, a statistical test, or a workplace activity. How is it done? How is it used?
- Using your own data or data from an article, write a paragraph describing and analysing the data.
- Choose an influential thinker, researcher, or practitioner from your field of work, study or research. Describe what this person did to be considered important.
Source: Adapted from Caplan, N.A. (2012). Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers. University of Michigan Press; USA.
Dealing with writer’s block
Even with productive writing habits, we can sometimes experience writer’s block – that is, we can get stuck at various stages of our writing process. Writer’s block is when we experience writing-related anxiety which then obstructs our application to producing text. Writer’s block is common in academia. Some of us have trouble getting started on a new piece of writing while others have trouble progressing a piece of writing already underway.
The reasons for writer’s block are many and complex. It is caused by a mix of cognitive, emotional, behavioural and rhetorical factors. We can feel as though we’re not ready to write, or not a good enough writer. Procrastination and perfectionism are common causes of writer’s block.
It’s important for you to reflect on the cause(s) of your writing block. Depending on the cause(s), you might make an appointment with a Student Academic Success Learning Advisor or consider seeking support from the Monash University counselling service. This will support you in developing specific strategies for your situation.
Ways to overcome writer’s block
Try out different writing strategies and evaluate which are the most suited to motivating your writing.
“Step away”. Take a break from the writing problem – this could be 15 minutes, one day, a week. Give yourself time to clear your mind, and restore fresh concentration and energy.