Research & Writing Best Practices (What Works for Me)

12 July 2011

Wow, this blog has been seriously neglected. I blame my busy schedule! I’ll also admit that I’m still fairly uneasy about posting my ideas online. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty confident person “in real life”, but nonetheless, blogging is intimidating.

Intimidation factor aside, I’d like to take a few minutes now to discuss some research and writing “best practices” that I’ve developed over the last six months since my first (and nearly last!) blog post. I wouldn’t accomplish anything without these tips and techniques and I hope you find them useful as well!

The Pomodoro Technique 
I’m sure you’ve heard of this one by now. The Pomodoro Technique, a.k.a. the Tomato Timer, is one of the most straight-forward strategies for getting sh!t done. Simply set a timer for twenty-five minutes, get to work, and when the timer goes off take a 5 minute break. At the end of your break, reset the timer for 25 minutes and repeat until you’ve reached your productivity goal for that particular work session. I find it’s best to get up and move around during my breaks. I work in a tiny, windowless office in my university’s library (fondly referred to by myself and friends as my “closet on the 8th floor”), which is great if you want to work distraction-free, but walking around the library for a few minutes every once and a while is critical for maintaining my sanity. I find I burn out after 4-5 hours of this cycle, but on especially good days I can sometimes manage a full day of research and writing. Try it and out and see what works best for you.

Forgive me if this idea seems like an obvious one, because for me it was not. At least not at first anyway. I’m one of those lucky people who made it through my undergraduate years without ever reviewing my notes before tests and exams, mainly because I didn’t keep very detailed notes in the first place. In grad school, however, that nonsense just doesn’t sit well, and I had to learn quickly that rigourous note-taking is an absolute must in order for me to succeed. This is my note-taking routine:

– read and highlight/underline key ideas and phrases
– re-read and identify 3-4 key ideas
– summarize these 3-4 key ideas, in full-sentences, in own words  (especially useful when writing lit reviews – you can just plug your notes into your review and modify as necessary)
– re-read your notes to make sure they articulate the most important ideas correctly

Yes, it takes awhile to get the hang of, and sometimes you end up taking detailed notes on something you ultimately won’t end up using in your research project at all, but it certainly helps affirm comprehension. I’ve also found that I’m now accumulating a handy custom cultural theory reader that I’ll likely refer to for years to come.

Manageable Goals & Deadlines
Again, this may sound obvious, but as the sticky note on my computer monitor reminds me, a goal without a deadline is just a dream. I’m an expert planner — I’ve carried a compulsively updated daytimer since the first grade — but deadlines have never been my strong suit given that I’m also an expert procrastinator. The current goal I’m working on is to increase my thesis word count by 3000 words by Monday, July 25th. That may not sound like a difficult task to some, but for me it’s positively daunting. Three thousand words is a mouthful to say, let alone to write, especially when 3000 words constitutes only slightly more than 10% of the overall project (my thesis needs to be around 25,000 words in length). That’s why I can’t stress manageable goals and deadlines enough. For me, a manageable deadline is two weeks from yesterday and every day I’ve committed myself to producing at least 500 words per day, 5 days a week (I take two days off a week — more on this in a minute). This goal should ultimately produce too many words rather than too few and I often find the paring down process easier than the initial writing process.  (Knock on wood!) For some people, 100 words per day may be a more manageable goal, and I may end up modifying my goal as the next two weeks press on. The bottom line is I have a concrete goal in mind (+3000 words), with a deadline (July 25th), and I’ve figured out a manageable way to reach it (500 words/day x 10 work days).

Take Breaks and Reward Yourself
I’ve already stressed the importance of taking short breaks during long periods of concentrated research and writing, but it’s also important to take longer breaks as well. I’ve experimented with what seems like a million different work weeks, starting with the tried and true 40 hour work week. That didn’t last and I found myself less productive and more discouraged in terms of my thesis progress. I’ve found the greatest success (in terms of productivity and mental well-being) working on my thesis for 4-5 hours per day, 5 days a week, taking two days off to relax my brain and enjoy the beautiful summer weather and the company of my friends and a pile of good novels. My two days off aren’t necessarily always consecutive — in fact, I find it really hard to return to work after two days off, so I try to avoid doing this — but they are always completely detached from my thesis. Non-academics may not appreciate how hard writing a thesis is, but trust me, it’s tough and I wouldn’t survive without taking a break now and then.  I’ve found it’s also important to reinforce productivity whenever possible. I’m a poor student, so my personal rewards often take the form of a day trip to Toronto to visit friends, or an afternoon with Netflix, but it works for me. What doesn’t work for me, I’ve found, is rewarding myself prematurely. I’ve had to learn the hard way how to be really, really hard on myself in terms of earning rewards. As of yet, I don’t have any concrete strategies for how to go about doing this, but I’m working on it. Perhaps I’ll have something to report in another blog post.

I’ve found that, in order to feel successful at the end of a work day, I need to do more than log 4-5 hours of research and writing for my thesis, so I usually pair a half-day of thesis work with a half-day of some other kind of productive work. In my case, this usually means TA or RA work. Not only does this kind of work reinforce productivity while giving my brain a break from my own research, but it also constitutes professional training. Assisting more established academics with their research has been invaluable for shaping my own research practices, plus it’s gone a long way to preparing me for what my ultimate career goal (media studies expert — perhaps professor) might look and feel like. It’s often easy to lose sight of one’s long-term aspirations, but I’m fortunate in that my part-time jobs force me to stare my long-term goal in the face every single day, and I think it’s making me a better academic as a result. As I’ve written before, mentorships of any kind are great, but I find they’re especially critical in “solitary” fields like academia. If you’re a grad student and you’re looking for a part-time job to complement your research project, look first for a job within the university. Not only will your employer be far more understanding of the unique conditions of writing a thesis, but your interaction with someone more established in your field of interest will only further your own research.

To conclude, these are just a few strategies I’ve been toying with for the last little while. If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments — I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my productivity. Finally, I’d like to leave you with a very short round-up of excellent blogs that deal with the topic of academic writing. They’ve all really helped me stay focused and I encourage you to check them out for yourself. Enjoy!

The Thesis Whisperer
To Do: Dissertation
Study Hacks 

P.S. This blog post is dedicated to Michael Carens-Nedelsky for chirping me about my lack of blog posts. Thank you. It worked.


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