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10 Tips on getting writing started

Many academics find sitting down at the computer and starting to write to be one of the most difficult challenges facing them. One reason for this, as one of my students put it so well, “if I never start, then I never fail.” Other reasons include getting out of the habit of writing—or never having a writing habit at all.

While tough to overcome, these obstacles do have some straightforward solutions. Here I share ten tips on getting your writing project started and moving it toward completion.

1) Make other tasks contingent on writing

An excellent way of dealing with the difficulty of getting started is to make a preferred task contingent on a nonpreferred task, as the behavior management experts put it (Boice 1983).

In this case, writing is the nonpreferred task you must complete before you get to something you prefer. For instance, do not allow yourself to read the morning newspaper or check your e-mail before you write for thirty minutes. Tell yourself that you will call a friend or watch a favorite television program after writing for an hour. Some academics have this flipped, telling themselves “I’ll watch TV for an hour and then write.” But it is better to make the pleasurable activity a reward. Turn your procrastination tactics into productivity tools.

2) Make writing low stakes

Someone told me that she tricked herself into writing by promising herself, “I’ll tweak a few lines while the tea kettle boils.” That sentence, she said, was “the gateway drug to at least fifteen minutes of scribbling.”

3) Start by revising

Start writing by looking back over what we wrote the day before. Anthony Grafton says, “I always start by rapidly revising what I wrote the day before” (Grafton and Charney 2013). The word “rapidly” is essential here. It’s easy to get bogged down in revising.

4) Plan your next session

Plan the agenda for your next writing session at the end of the last one. That way you will know what to do when you sit down to write. This will also help you stay focused on your article as a series of small tasks.

Some authors even recommend that you always stop in the middle of a sentence, so that you have somewhere to pick up. “Deliberate interruption” can spur your motivation to return: “an almost done project lingers in memory far longer than one that is completed” (Carey 2014).

5) Start with ancillary writing

Start by writing something else. Some academics begin by typing a quote from their reading. Others write a plan for what they would like to do in that writing session.

6) Start by writing badly

If you can’t get started because your first sentence has to be perfect, this method can be useful.

For fifteen minutes, write down every thought you have about your article without stopping to edit. Just let it all hang out. Celebrated writing guru Anne Lamott coined a famous term for this: “a shitty first draft” (Lamott 2007), which may sound offensive, but gets at the real feelings of shame and revulsion many have about writing. If you set out deliberately to write something horrible, this roadblock is erased. Again, eventually you write a sentence or have an idea that, despite your best efforts at producing ghastly work, sounds pretty good. And then you are on your way.

7) Get social support

Arrange with another prospective author to agree to write at the same time. Start up your video call when you are supposed to start, encourage each other, and then get started writing with the video call still on, so that you can hear them typing and they can hear you typing. It helps knowing that someone else is going through the same horrible suffering, I mean, wonderful process that you are. It’s more helpful than meeting at someone’s house to write together, which often ends up being a talking session rather than a writing session.

8) Keep your writing file open

If you are in an extremely busy period, open your article every day and do one thing to it.

Sometimes people find that the idea of even just fifteen minutes a day shuts them down. Instead, you can decide to develop this practice of opening your article every morning and doing whatever occurs to you when you glance through it—changing a word, adding a citation, or cutting a sentence. You should find that at least a few times a week one thing develops into fifteen minutes of writing, but the main aim is to be sure to at least look at your article every day.

9) Connect to the pleasure of writing

One of the academic writing gurus, Helen Sword (2017), argues that if you want to become a productive author, you need to take greater pleasure in writing. Her evidence is empirical, interviews with one hundred successful scholarly authors, whom she identifies as having four characteristics, including “emotional habits of positivity and pleasure.”

It’s easy to give ourselves lots of negative messages about writing. Because some aspects of academia are dreadful, we get in the habit of complaining about writing as well. However, productive scholarly authors are often those who look forward to writing and see it as a privilege.

10) Use WYJA

Finally, many scholars have developed better writing habits by using my Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, which provides daily writing guidance. The book breaks writing down into manageable step-by-step tasks for each of five days a week—you simply open it up and do what it says. Hundreds have written to tell me the book got them into the habit of starting writing every day.

Wendy Laura Belcher is associate professor of African literature in Princeton University’s departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies. She worked as a freelance copyeditor for many years, then served for eleven years as the managing editor of a peer-reviewed journal in ethnic studies at UCLA, and has personally taught hundreds of graduate students and faculty about writing for publication. She is the author of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, which came out in its second edition this month.