According to Kerry Ann Rockquemore, academics commit seven common errors that prevent them from accomplishing their writing goals. This is particularly important now as many of us head into our “summer writing season.” And, all of these apply as well to students working on research papers and theses.
Error 1: You haven’t set aside a specific time for your research. Block out 30-60 minutes in your calendar each day, Monday through Friday, and show up at the appointed time. Treat it with the same level of respect you would a meeting with someone else (start on time, end on time, turn your phone off, and only reschedule for an emergency).
Error 2: You’ve set aside the wrong time for writing. Too many people treat their writing as an activity they “hope” to have time for at the end of the day, after everyone else’s needs have been met. If writing is the most important factor to your long-term success as a scholar, it should be given your best time of your day. If you’re just starting to develop a daily writing routine, try writing first thing in the morning (even if you’re not a morning person).
Error 3: You have no idea how long writing tasks take. The most common complaint I hear from academic writers is that everything takes far longer than expected. Keep track of your time, particularly for repetitive tasks. This will not only give you an accurate assessment of how long writing a proposal, constructing a table, or reviewing the literature actually takes, but it will also help you to set realistic expectations for the future.
Error 4: You think you have to do everything yourself. Ask yourself what tasks must be done by you and what tasks can be delegated to other people. Often there are many writing and research related tasks that can be delegated or outsourced to others (checking citations, proof-reading, editing, etc.). Don’t use “I don’t have a research fund or research assistants” as a reason for doing everything yourself. Sites like ODesk.com and Elance.com can provide quick and incredibly inexpensive assistance on a wide variety of writing tasks.
Error 5: The tasks you have set out are too complex. Take a piece of paper and pencil and map out whatever it is you need to do. When I feel overwhelmed by a big task, I write the big-overwhelming-thing on the right side of the paper and a stick figure (me) on the left side. Then I work my way backwards from the overwhelming thing to myself by asking: What are the steps that need to be accomplished to complete this? I keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until I’ve reached the tasks I can do today. It will also help you to uncover if there are aspects of a project that you don’t know how to do, so you can pinpoint areas where you will need to seek assistance.
Error 6: You can’t remember what you have to do. Make a list. Get all of the things you need to do out of your head and onto a piece of paper in one place. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, electronic, or synced with some gadget or gizmo. A note card, post-it note, or your paper planner will do fine to capture all of your to-do tasks. Start the week with a 30 minute planning meeting where you determine what needs to be done for the week and place each of those items in a specific time block in your calendar. If they don’t all fit (and they won’t), then figure it out how to delegate, delete, or renegotiate the deadlines on the least important items.
Error 7: Your space is disorganized. Set aside time to organize your writing space in a simple and easily maintainable manner. I recommend Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out. It’s a quick read and will help you to develop a simple and sustainable way to organize your office. If you find yourself working on multiple computers and can’t keep your electronic files straight, consider ways that you can either access your other computers when you’re away from them (GoToMyPC) or keep all your computers automatically synced (Mobile Me).