Tips for Tackling That Big Writing Project

By Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-CJanuary 10, 2018

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If your New Year’s resolution is to bite the bullet and finally put pen to paper, here’s how to rise to the challenge.

Deciding to take on a major writing project is something everyone should do at least once in their career. It could be a dissertation or it might be a research project, a long grant proposal, or even a scientific poster. Yes, it will require significant commitment and discipline, so if you do decide to pursue such an undertaking, here are some pointers and tips:

1. Start with a letter of sorts. Begin by sending something off. Get your idea down on paper and put it into an email to a friend. Then put it into a Word document and share it — send it to two or three people. Writing your plan down in a coherent and short form is an important way to begin. It declares your intention. This allows you to get some immediate feedback while the idea is still tender and small.

2. Sign up for a presentation. Our department has a new proposals work group where ideas can be explored and feedback given. I’ve seen high quality proposals get excellent feedback with everyone rolling up their sleeves and offering useful suggestions. Even if the proposal is still in its infancy, peers can be quite supportive. Of course, if your writing project is your dissertation, you’ll have a short proposal followed by a presentation to faculty for approval. Start with the PowerPoint. You know more about this “big writing project” than you realize.

3. Now start writing. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So start getting words down on paper — any words are okay. This is not even a first draft — in fact, it’s called “draft zero.” This is where you develop your writing habit.  Don’t set yourself up for failure by thinking of yourself as a Guru already. Think of yourself as a Jedi in training. This is where you are allowed to make mistakes and never look back. This is safe writing. Go gentle on yourself.

4. Set goals. But don’t be too strident about your goals. The only goals at this point should be either to write a certain number of pages a day or for a certain amount of time. Again, work on the habit of writing, not the content. Planning is good, but don’t tie yourself up in knots if you don’t reach all of your planning goals.

5. Remove distractions. There is no such thing as multi-tasking — at least not if you want to do something well.

6. Write first. Write early in the morning. Make it the first thing you do every day. Okay, maybe make yourself a cup of coffee first or do some type of exercise. But make it almost the very first thing you do. If you have to write at the office, schedule it first thing in your day. Typically in academic settings, early morning meetings are set for 7:30 a.m. with busy clinicians, so perhaps the safest time is 9:00 a.m. Definitely, don’t wait until the evening. Even if you aren’t a morning person, you’ll be much more productive and just plain smarter in the morning.

7. Get a standing desk. I’m going to be the first to admit I don’t stand very much at my standing desk. You have to be tough to stand all day, but, fortunately, my desk adjusts up and down. Some people have treadmill desks, which are also good for you. I have a coworker who has both a treadmill and a sitting desk. The point is to mix it up. Stick to a dedicated time but not to a dedicated space. You can frequently change your location. Research shows that the brain is more stimulated and productive in a variety of settings. So write at the coffee shop, write at work, write in the basement or the backyard of your house.

8. Be realistic. Don’t set a goal to write 18 pages a day — that is just not realistic. Set a goal to write 750 words or three pages a day. There is actually a website called 750 words, which sends you daily reminders until you write that amount. Approximately three pages a day is a realistic goal. Of course, you can always write more. Decide ahead of time if you will be writing every single day including the weekend. Some people believe in taking the weekend off or at least a spiritual day, either Saturday or Sunday. Taking a day to do something with family or friends, a religious day, or a day in the woods is especially helpful to recharging your batteries.

9. Chunk it. Then deliver. Break everything up into manageable pieces. Write in a sequential way, and set hard goals for finishing each piece. Now that you’ve been writing for a while, it will become highly evident what you need to do. One suggestion for chunking is Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, References. Introduction should match the Discussion; Methods should match the Results. Discussion should include the original literature search, but if enough time has elapsed or your aims have changed, you may wish to re-do the literature search. Use a citation manager. Back everything up. Think about your deliverables.

10. Remember that willpower is overrated. No one has good willpower. People who “do the right thing” have less temptations available to them. They aren’t better at doing what they are supposed to do — they just don’t have as much coming at them. Take that under advisement as you consider saying “yes” to too many things, overloading your plate, and then wondering why you don’t have time for your big writing project. Life is long and there will be other opportunities to advance your career by sitting on committees. If this writing project is worth it in the first place, it is worthy of a top priority slot in your life. That means the only things ahead of it are your job, your family, and your health.

In summary, start with an email to a friend with your idea, write every day, be humble, get a standing desk, begin small with realistic writing goals, take one spiritual day a week to walk in the woods or be with family, plan a presentation, chunk it, and then deliver. You can do it!

Jennifer Coombs
Jennifer Coombs, PhD, MPAS, PA-C

Jennifer is an associate professor at the University of Utah PA program. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Physician Assistant Education, she also sits on the editorial board of JAAPA and received PAEA’s “Research Achievement” award in 2014.