Writing productively

Writing productively does not always come easily. It requires persistence and practice.

There are many books of advice on writing, and many writers have shared their experiences online in blogs. Here we bring together some common suggestions to help you fight procrastination and to ensure writing gets done.

But before we get started, look at the list of strategies below. Which do you think are good tips for productive writing?

Tips for productive writing

Select the actions you think would help to make your writing more productive, and drag them under the heading.

Did you identify the best tips? Now find out more about ways to make your writing time productive.

Create a writing habit

  • Have regular times to write. Try to make them non-negotiable.
  • Even if you aren’t actively engaged in writing a chapter, use your writing time to write - about how something you’ve read relates to your research, for example, or a method you want to use, or something you want to talk to your supervisor about.
  • Think of your writing sessions as a structured set of limited blocks of time, rather than unstructured times to fill with writing.
  • Become aware of the time of day when you’re most productive; do the hard writing then and use the other time for routine tasks (organising references, editing etc.).

Whatever you decide to do, give it time to work. Habits take time to establish.

Be prepared

What do you need to do?

Think about the tips you selected at the beginning of the tutorial. Are there any that you would change? You can download a checklist (PDF, 0.54 MB) to keep track of your priorities.

Use a range of strategies for writing

Some people have no problems putting words on a page; others struggle with where to start. Even prolific writers can have times when the words do not flow. Experienced writers seldom use the same techniques at every stage of their writing.

They all agree, for example, that you need to separate composition from editing, and each requires a different approach.

They have various terms for these two activities, but the idea is always to focus first on getting the words down in some form, and polishing them later, rather than trying to do both at the same time. It can be helpful to think of writing as though you were doing a painting: sketching out the general lines first, then filling in the basic colours, coming back and building up the detail, and finally polishing and checking the whole.

The techniques outlined below (sometimes thought of as ‘pre-writing’) can help to build up that first, unpolished draft. They can also help at times when you’re feeling stuck.


Deal with writer’s block

Even with good writing habits, and using the range of techniques described above, writing does not always go smoothly. It is common to get stuck from time to time with a particular piece of writing, or to have trouble starting a new one.

Writing is a complex process, and constantly involves making decisions at many levels: order of ideas, sentence structure, word choice, etc. Often, getting stuck means not being able to make a decision, or having to make too many decisions at once. So when you are stuck, it can help to go back a step, and concentrate on one set of decisions at a time:

Can't get connections right?

Step back from writing sentences. Think about the planning again. Does this section really fit where you’re trying to write it? Should it go somewhere else? Should you leave it out?

Can't work out the right order for your ideas?

Step back from trying to write things in order, and write down all the points you want to make on a big sheet of paper. Use mind mapping techniques to work out the best order.

Can't get the words right?

Step back from formal academic style, and write what you want to say in everyday language. Concentrate on the ideas, and put off the decisions about word choice until later. Freewriting might help too.

Sometimes the best course of action is to take a break from the problem and let your unconscious mind work on it. Make a cup of coffee, go for a walk/run, do some other thesis-related work, and come back to it tomorrow.

Above all, don’t worry about it too much. Everyone gets stuck sometimes.