Paper- and thesis-writing advice

My writing zone
I’m at the stage of my PhD where I’m finishing research for and writing up my last two chapters (and then putting together a broad intro and conclusion for everything), and writing two fellowship applications, and sometimes I have trouble focusing on what I’m working on. I asked my wonderful friends on Twitter and Facebook who’ve written theses and papers for their advice, and it’s all so good! So I’m sharing it with you! It has been lightly edited for flow.

(And yes, I know I’ve written two theses and two first-author papers before. Apparently I’ve blocked it out.)

Make a plan

“Maybe make an outline with just the section, subsections, etc first, and then fill in. It’s actually a good idea to do that as soon as you are pretty sure the results will turn into a paper.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook

“Lay out a timetable with achievable goals for each day/week and stick to it. Also vary what you’re doing, one paper one week another the next.” – Lucy Heil via Facebook

Make an outline to keep it organized and keep you on track. I also don’t write in order. I’ll start at the end and jump around based on how I’m feeling. What also works for me is a change of setting or writing in a notebook instead of staring at a computer screen.” – Desi Paynter-Plivac via Facebook

“When I have a big deadline, I find it helpful to really use a daily planner and write in everything, especially those things that always seem to distract me (social media, email, housework, etc). I give myself a set time of the day to check email or Facebook. When I’m tempted to go there, I remind myself, ‘no, you get to check Facebook at 4, not now.’ I actually need to do this more.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

“For myself, I know I can’t get myself to write papers that don’t tell (compelling!) stories. So I’m very selective about what I take on.” – Richard Scalzo via Twitter

Break it into bite-sized chunks

“Don’t make the thesis a goal. Make a small piece the goal, and then move on to the next goal.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook

“DO NOT sit down with ‘write the whole thing’ in your head. Focus on a small part, e.g. spectral calibration with Blobbo spectrograph.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter

“Break it down to many small components (more than 10) and establish rewards for each (a walk, baking, TV)… Good luck!” – Anne Pasek via Twitter

“Break it down into small chunks and have lots of treats to keep you going. Stu usually had a chocolate bar in the car for me when he picked me up from the office. Also, it’s hard but take a small break either when you can or get someone to make you take one. So don’t eat at the desk, grab lunch or a coffee elsewhere. Gives you a chance to come back fresh. Evens if it’s only 5 mins, it can make a huge difference. I know it’s hard to take them but it’s better for you in the long run.” – Jeanette Gladstone via Facebook

Just start writing

Try a free write. For me, this works best with pen and paper in longhand. It works like this, just set a goal. It can be time (e.g. 10 minutes) or a number of pages (e.g. 3, longhand) and write whatever comes to mind. Write all the distracting thoughts. Write your dream from last night. Write how much you hate writing. Write what you wish you could write in your thesis. I find this gets all those distracting thoughts out of my head. Most of that I write in my free writes is crap. But occasionally something good comes up. And when that does, I just copy to my computer. But I don’t expect anything there to be good.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

“I like starting with writing the results section, or even just the captions of my figures, because the results are the exciting bits. 🙂 Basically, just start anywhere that feels manageable to you, and make sure you give yourself plenty of rewards. Writing papers is hard!” – Daniela Huppenkothen via Twitter

Try distraction free writer, say ommwriter or google for free one. Pomodoro it. 29 minute timer, shut off all other windows. Just write. Then get out of your chair and stare outside.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter

“Often writing gets me in the flow, and at least it avoids spending hours/days staring at a screen. I’ve always found ‘just write’ to be solid advice. Forcing yourself to write something, even if it’s not perfect / needs to be rewritten.” – Vincent van Eylen via Twitter

“Don’t write it in order, write the bit you have the idea for. Also don’t force yourself to write if you have no inspiration, sort figures etc. until you do and then write whilst you have the thought. Don’t try to edit as you go along, get all ideas down then go back and reorganise. That’s what worked for me.” – Charlie Feldman via Facebook

“I forced myself in a harsh way to sit every day and write. No calculations, no data, no anything else, but writing only, and I forces myself to write at least 2 news pages every damn single day even if I rewrote previous pages, the manuscript has to increase by 2 text pages no matter what (I do remember how some days were very long…, that period took about 3 months) and then another 3 months went into polishing it.” – Natasha Ivanova via Facebook

“I managed by hitting up a coffee shop everyday for 3 hours. In those three hours, at least three paragraphs must be written. Why only three as my limit? Realistic expectations. Better off with few solid paragraphs than pages of BS that have to be rewritten!” – Hoang Pham via Facebook

Take frequent breaks

“On big projects, I set a timer for 20 minutes, write as many words as I can in 20 minutes, & edit it later. Easier to edit than from scratch.” – Diana Crow via Twitter

“Something like the Be Focused mac app where you only focus on a specific task during each, say, 25 minute slot and don’t do anything else. Then take a break when the time is up. This helps me so much when I’m really struggling to focus.” – Emily Petroff via Facebook

“I don’t use it myself, but I know a lot of people who use the Pomodoro timer. It makes you work for 25 minute blocks of time and then take a break. Good to use if you feel like you don’t know where to start or the project feels too big.” – Emma Gonzalez-Lesser via Facebook

“I use timers all the time. For everything. Any task that seems overwhelming isn’t so bad if you tell yourself, ‘I’m only going to work for 10/15/25 minutes, then take a break and do something else.'” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

Save the rest for when you’re feeling out of it

“When you can’t write, make figures and tables. Better yet, always make them first.” – Maria Womack via Twitter

You can always put together what you have. Plots, method..previous work. Even outlook. Just get writing. Don’t expect to be super-motivated before writing. It’s ok when it feels like a drag. Start anyway. For me motivation comes with writing.” – Ludmila Carone via Twitter

“Inserting the references, figure/section/equation links, etc… is another such thing. I prefer just to have placeholders when writing to not disturb the flow. Then do the ‘dumb’ things when I’m tired.” – Remco de Kok via Twitter

Mix it up!

Switch locations where you’re doing the writing, for me it’s easy to burn out a place and get into an unproductive rut. When I was writing my thesis I’d rotate between the office, the Library, home, and a coffee shop as I burned each place out. If you have multiple papers on the go, procrastinate on one, by working on the other.” – David Tsang via Facebook

“Have a token or clothing item that you only wear while you’re working on your thesis. I had a thesis scarf that when the scarf went on it was time to work. Also then other people can see you’re wearing your thesis scarf and they leave you alone (a friend had a thesis tiara which was arguably better).” – Emily Petroff via Facebook

“Steve Reich and standing desks. Music for 18 Musicians and Electric Counterpoint – makes you feel like everything you are writing will change the world.” – Brian Barth via Facebook

“Okay this may sound crazy but I was once in a class where we did yoga for focus and it was really helpful. You do like 2-3 minutes of sun salutations while focusing on a small goal, then immediately sit down and do it. You slow your breathing and heart rate down and clear your mind and then it becomes a lot easier to focus. Repeat as needed.” – Anna Lenti via Facebook

Take care of yourself

“Be kind to yourself and know that some days you won’t write very much and that’s ok.” – Benjamin Pope via Twitter

“I’ve found that having a ‘thesis buddy’ really helps me. She and I chat about how much progress we’ve made (a positive conversation) and sometimes meet up and write together in the library to stay motivated. I’ve also found that working somewhere with natural light helps me stay focused.” – Mackenzie Jones via Facebook

“Making your work environment as pleasant as possible is important. Whatever makes you feel good…a nice flower on your desk, scented candles, pictures of your loved ones, a hot cup of coffee… Whatever it is, but put it on your desk and make your work place your favorite place to go to. Also when I lacked inspiration, I would just take a break, walk through the woods and get back to work later. If you’re into essential oils….lemon and peppermint help with focus and mood! You can do it!!!” – Silvie Solana via Facebook


Writing this up as a blog post was one of my treats to myself for fixing some giant tables and making a big detailed combo-plot! As you can see in the top photo, I took Silvie’s advice and turned the spare room into a writing corner — so far it’s working! Good luck hugs to everyone else who’s writing up 💖💖

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