Grad Students: Tips on Writing

In a recent post, I mentioned speaking to my department’s graduate student organization, COGS (for which I am the advisor), about tips and tricks for having a productive summer. One of the topics they were particularly interested in is the writing process, which exceeds an exclusive focus on the summer. At the outset, everyone needs to understand that there is no magical formula for being a productive writer. I think the biggest things good writers have in common, however, are (a) that they have a game plan/methods that work for them and (b) that they view writing as a process rather than an event. With that in mind, here are some things that I find helpful in becoming a mildly productive writer (or, at least, pretending to be one). These notes were written for my UNT audience, so there are some specific references that won’t apply to others. 

  1. To-Do Lists: You’ve got to keep a good to-do list that breaks down tasks into digestible chunks. “Do X Project” is not a to do list item; rather, it’s probably several specific tasks (research journal articles, search library catalogue, get books from the library, process research, draft lit review, draft analysis section, etc.) that occur in several unique contexts (at the computer, in the library, at the archives, etc.). Breaking things down helps to make order out of the chaos and makes it easier to set a good game plan and track your progress. I use Toodledo, which has an iPhone app of their own and several other 3rd party apps. A lot of folks like Remember the Milk, which also has apps available for iPhone and Android. Both are based on David Allen’s [amazon_link id=”0142000280″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Getting Things Done[/amazon_link] system.

  2. Good Notes: I’ve sent emails out to the Comm-Grads list about the importance of effective note taking, making special mention of the free, online/offline app Evernote. You need an effective way to take notes on-the-fly so that you can preserve your great ideas.

  3. Research Management: You need an effective and efficient system for managing your research. If you’re old-skool, you need a good file system (proper labeling, color-coded files, a real file cabinet, etc.). In this modern day-and-age, though, I recommend something like Sente (Mac and iPad-only) or Endnote (Mac and Windows), which not only helps you store and organize your PDFs of articles and book chapters, but also lets you do research from within the app, take notes on and highlight the research you collect, and produce reference lists and formatted endnotes. On the PC (or the Mac, even), you might check out something like Zotero, something I haven’t personally used but have on good authority that rocks.

  4. Outlines: If you don’t outline already, then (IMHO) you’re doing something wrong. Outlining is a key part of the writing process because it helps you plan out your argument and gives you a visual roadmap to keep you on track as you write. When I’m writing in my office, I print it out and tape it to the wall near my desk (I do the same thing with decision letters from editors and directions from reviewers). You may not always keep exactly to your original outline—it’s a living document, in the end, and may even require revision. That said, outlines force you to conceptualize your project and make sense out of the mess of research and ideas floating around your desk and brain.

  5. Cut Cards: This is an old trick from debate that I still do to this day. Before I start writing, I go through all of my scholarly research and I type out quotations and my notes from the articles. Half of it may not actually get used in the paper I’m setting out to write. However, the act of processing all of that evidence (a) helps to make an unmanageable stack of resources more manageable as a single Word file, (b) makes connections between authors/ideas more apparent, and (c) cuts down on interruptions while writing (because I can just copy/paste notes/quotes from one document to my draft paper). Even if I don’t use half of the quotes/notes in my file, this step saves me a ton of time.

  6. Drafts/Revisions: Understand that writing is a process. When you set out to write a paper, work from being done. What does that mean? It means that the important thing at first needs to be simply getting a draft on paper. This is only a draft, which means that you can’t be too attached to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve trashed entire sections of papers in the revision process. Before you set out to revise and work on your next draft, however, re-save the file with a different name. You don’t want to lose writing that you’ve done; because even though something may not work in your current paper, it might be paper GOLD next semester. When I re-save versions, I simply “save as” and add a version number to the end of the filename (e.g., “Young Lords Chapter.docx” becomes “Young Lords Chapter v.2.docx”). For any given paper, I’ll have a dozen or more different file versions by the time it’s finally done.

  7. Get Help: Seriously … you need it. You can’t rely on your own eyes to effectively proofread your own writing. You must develop a network of peers who can read your work and provide honest, valuable feedback on content and style (and you must be willing and able to reciprocate). No essay is the sole product of one’s mind. All successful work is collaborative to some degree.

  8. Have Some Style: Style manuals (Chicago, APA, MLA) aren’t frickin’ rocket science. They’re recipes, cookbooks (if even that complicated). Know how to follow the directions of your style and follow them. If the style has changed since you originally learned it, tough. Suck it up and re-learn it. Proper citation and writing style (including spelling, grammar, and punctuation) are assumed at this level. If you don’t own the current style manual for your sub-field, go buy it. Just as you need gas for your car, you need a style guide for your writing.

While the above are all things that work well for my writing process, which I’ve developed over a number of years, I think they’re all general enough that you can find a way to practice/adopt them to your own personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Writing is hard … and good writing is even harder. We all stumble and struggle; but if you keep these basics in mind and make a habit of writing (for example, by religiously using 750 Words), you’ll stumble less and more easily get back on the trail when you do.

6 thoughts on “Grad Students: Tips on Writing”

  1. Thanks for putting this good advice out in public! My PDFs are a disaster, I forgot that endnote will organize them for you.

    The card-cutting strategy also helps me to not allow research to last forever. If I’m typing out quotations, summaries, and ideas at the end of each article or chapter, then I can see in my “notes” document when I’m ready to write that section.

    1. Yeah — Endnote will rock it and make things a bit more manageable. For people on Macs, though, you should *really* give Sente a try. It has fundamentally changed the way I work.

      I’m glad you and others find this stuff helpful, Bethany. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing, Darrel! Your advice is equally useful (and appreciated!) for writing policy position statements and testimony.

  3. Thank you Darrel for this useful entry…

    Another useful tools for Mac based users are Scrivener and DevonthinkPro. Scrivener has a useful interface that allows to take notes as index card as well as shuffle pieces of your writing around as in a corkboard. You can keep a messy folder with all of your notes, as well as a edited one.

    Devonthink pro is essentially a database creator with the ability to create hyperlinks to Sente biobliographies.

    Finally, asy a Sente user, I have found it very useful to create rtf. files that can be linked to a particular bibliogaphic entry primarily, to jot down the entry’s essential: argument, key ideas, concepts, further references, etc. And later, such files have been useful to collect citations to cut and paste to other documents.

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