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Jenny Baker
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TIP-TOPics for Students: Writing Is Hard: A Discussion on Writing in Graduate School

Andrew Tenbrink, Mallory Smith, Georgia LaMarre, Laura Pineault, and Tyleen Lopez, Wayne State University

To be successful in graduate school, it is necessary to be able to write effectively and efficiently. Graduate students spend a substantial amount of time on a variety of writing endeavors. We take notes during seminars, compose emails, collaborate on academic manuscripts, submit research proposals, fill out award applications, and create executive reports, just to name a few. Writing is critical to achieving nearly every major milestone as graduate students and is included on O*NET as an important skill necessary for an I-O psychologist. On one hand, writing represents an opportunity to express our unique opinions, ideas, and knowledge to the world. On the other hand, writing can be one of our most demanding tasks as a graduate student, requiring attention to multiple cognitive processes at once (Fitzer, 2003), and, often, evoking counterproductive feelings of self-criticism and doubt. Whether you find yourself embracing or avoiding writing tasks, many of us can probably agree on one simple fact: Writing is hard. For presumably thousands of years, individuals have struggled to accurately capture their ideas in writing; nevertheless, they have come out the other side (relatively) unscathed and better off for having done it. So, the question then becomes “How do we become great at something that is so incredibly difficult?”

Our goal for this article is to engage in a discussion about graduate students’ angst towards writing and to identify strategies and resources that graduate students can use to overcome mild or severe cases of fear of writing. We do this by focusing on four themes that we have identified through reader feedback, popular press, academic literature, and our own experience: (a) productivity, (b) quality, (c) collaboration, and (d) enjoyment. These themes are not meant to be comprehensive but are a great starting point for those wanting to take a more intentional approach to improving their writing. Throughout the article, we have also included direct comments from our authorship team offering our personal opinions on these topics. Together, we hope that the perspectives within this article resonate with other graduate students and that we can provide a set of tools for improving the quality (and quantity) of your written work while also making the writing process more enjoyable.

Productivity

As graduate students, our to-do lists never end—class, schoolwork, research, repeat. With so much to get done, it can be tempting to procrastinate major writing tasks. Here are some tips to stay productive and make progress on your writing.

Make a plan and set SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. SMART goals can help you to stay motivated and accountable for the writing that must be done. As an example, you may set the following SMART goal: “This week I will write 30 minutes a day to complete the introduction of my paper.” Setting goals can help to develop a consistent writing habit. Writing every day for at least 30 minutes will help you to make consistent progress while also improving your writing stamina. If you have trouble focusing, start with 30 minutes and work your way up to 90 minutes, increasing your daily writing time by 15 minutes every week.

There are some days when I can write for hours and other days when I struggle to write for 30 minutes. On my “writing struggle” days, I try not to get too frustrated and instead move on to reading or other class assignments, that way I still feel accomplished and productive. –Tyleen L.

Minimize distractions. After a long day of classes and schoolwork the last thing we want to do is write… so Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are welcome distractions. However, it is important to minimize the distractions in our everyday lives since “you cannot escape the [writing] responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” To limit the impact of these tempting alternatives, track your screen time and impose a daily limit. If you are under a time crunch, consider temporarily deleting these apps altogether. To minimize interruptions from peers or family, find a quiet place where you can focus on your writing. Although minimizing distractions is difficult to do, your future self will thank you for it.

I disconnect from distractions and work on a large computer monitor, rather than my laptop, so that I can have multiple windows open and visible. – Laura P.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. It is impossible to reach perfection. While producing high-quality work is always our goal, getting stuck in perfectionistic loops (e.g., fearing you have not reviewed enough literature to begin writing) can be counterproductive to making progress. Remember that “done is better than perfect”—aim to do your best and keep writing!

Quality

Completing a writing task can be an incredible feeling, but it is also important to focus on the quality of the work that we are putting on the page. Interestingly, many of us have not received formal training in writing or identify as “writers.” As we progressed through school, more and more writing was gradually required of us and then one day, we woke up as graduate students who need to be able to write to survive. With most of our development as writers coming from the comments of instructors and advisors along the way, it is important to take ownership of the quality of what we write and facilitate our own growth as writers.

Good writing is simple. When writing in academia, it can be easy to fall into the trap of creating long sentences and incorporating as much jargon as possible. Formal writing using technical language may be necessary when dealing with complex topics or addressing an expert audience, but the best and most enjoyable writing conveys information with clarity and simplicity. For most of us, this is not easily achieved on the first attempt and requires extra time and effort. One strategy to help facilitate a simple and coherent writing structure is to create an outline. Outlines help to organize our thoughts and ensure that we are telling a cohesive and compelling story. Another way to achieve simplicity is to make time for rewriting (and more rewriting). It’s unfair to expect that we get it right on the first try. Once we have words on the page, rewriting is an opportunity to clarify our thoughts and get rid of unnecessary clutter. Reading through your work and making revisions ensures that your writing is error free (free of, e.g., typos, missing words) and that your arguments are communicated clearly to your intended audience.

One strategy that I like to use is to take time to read my writing out loud. I like a conversational style of writing, so this exercise helps me to make sure my writing sounds clear and is written in a way that is easily understood. – Andrew T.

Practice makes progress. Just like with anything else in life, you get better at writing with experience. For most of us, writing isn’t something that we are naturally gifted at but a skill that has to be honed and developed throughout our academic careers. It is important to remember that developing your skills and finding your voice as a writer is an iterative process and improving the quality of your writing happens gradually over time. The nice thing is that writing skills can be developed in a variety of ways. Taking the time to write for different purposes or outlets (e.g., peer-reviewed journals, popular press, technical reports) can help you to learn how to write for different audiences and become more confident as a writer.

Read, read, and read some more. A simple way to be become a better writer is to read. It might seem counterintuitive or maybe just extremely obvious, but reading is absolutely essential if one wishes to become a great writer. This is even more important for graduate students in a technical field, such as I-O psychology, because of the vast amount of empirical information that we incorporate into our writing. Through becoming familiar with the works of other accomplished writers, you can improve your own writing by modeling your work after theirs. An added bonus is that reading is also the best way to come up with new research ideas!

​When preparing a manuscript, I especially read material from the journal that I am targeting. This allows me to better understand the journal’s audience and imposes structure on what may seem to be an ambiguous task. – Laura P.

Collaboration

Writing is a team sport. Much of the writing that we do in academia extends beyond the influence of just one individual, as evidenced by solo-authored manuscripts being the exception, not the rule. Research is founded on collaboration and this also applies to the writing process. Working with collaborators allows new perspectives to be integrated and the overall quality of the work to be improved. Getting fresh eyes on something can be an extremely helpful way to combat writer’s block while also generating new ideas and motivation for writing.

Feedback is fundamental. One of the benefits of collaboration is receiving feedback from other writers. For many of us, advisors and instructors represent our most common source of writing feedback. Although their input is unquestionably valuable, peers and other colleagues can also be useful sources of feedback. In fact, research has shown that peer feedback may be just as beneficial as instructor feedback (Huisman et al., 2019). A willingness to seek out feedback not only establishes a desire for improvement but may also enhance other outcomes like satisfaction and networking (Anseel et al., 2015). However, it is critical to remember what feedback is: an opportunity to improve, not an attack on your work. Receiving consistent feedback can and should become a foundational part of your writing process.

My advisor and I have recently started planning short meetings to discuss my thesis progress in person. Explaining my ideas and getting in-person feedback has been a useful supplement to the feedback I get on my thesis drafts and has also helped re-energize me about projects or ideas I feel bored with. – Georgia L.

Integrating ideas. Collaborating with other authors can improve quality and productivity, but it can also be challenging to integrate ideas and perspectives from various authors. It is important to remember that collaboration is a balancing act of being open to new ideas and advocating for your own well-informed opinions. Don’t be afraid to give critical feedback to others and encourage others to be critical of you. In fact, moderate levels of task-focused conflict can be beneficial for the quality of teams’ creative output (Farh et al., 2010). This not only applies to peer collaboration but also when you are working with advisors or other faculty members. You always have important thoughts to share; being willing to do so can be extremely beneficial.

One strategy I have employed is encouraging each group member to write as much as they can on a topic, without rigidly defining the boundaries of assigned sections. When we come together, we have a lot of information that can then be winnowed down, connected, and organized around our key message. – Mallory S.

Establish expectations. One downside of collaboration is that it can make what should be a simple process more complicated. Scheduling difficulties and conflicting priorities can make coordinating with others difficult. When working with collaborators, it can be helpful to first establish expectations (Mathieu & Rapp, 2009). These expectations could be about what each person will contribute, the timeline in which work should be completed, the order of authorship, or even the intended outlet for the project (e.g., poster, symposium, manuscript). Having these conversations prior to beginning work can save you a lot of headaches down the road. Additionally, being intentional about creating accountability can help to ensure that expectations are met.

Enjoyment

Writing can often be an isolating experience, especially when it comes to the daunting task of writing your thesis or dissertation. But maybe writing doesn’t have to be daunting and isolating… maybe it can be, dare we say it, fun.

Join a writing group. Reach out to others in your cohort or maybe even create a Facebook group with graduate students at other universities. Once you find peers to join your group, set common goals. If all members of your group agree to meeting four times a week for 90 minutes a day, you have multiple people to hold you accountable to write and make progress. Further, when you surround yourself with people who have a common goal, you’ll feel more energized and motivated. Working with other students may also help when you have writer’s block: Speaking your ideas out loud to others helps to ensure that your ideas are coherent, and you may get useful feedback. The opportunity to gain lifelong friends and networking connections through a writing group is valuable because having support in graduate school is key for success.

Our graduate student organization started organizing monthly writing retreats. These sessions are a great opportunity to get a lot of writing done. Being around your peers is both inspiring and motivating! – Andrew T.

Ditch your desk at home. Writing in the same place every day can become tiring. You may not feel motivated by your workspace anymore, and that’s normal! When you get sick of doing work at home or at school, venture out to a new café or another quiet location. Finding new surroundings buzzing with people can help stave off writing-induced loneliness. If you prefer to work at home, decorate your desk area to be more motivating. Put up inspiring artwork, pictures with friends and family, or motivational quotes. Now when you get tired of writing, you can look up and remember good moments and positive thoughts to keep you motivated.

When I get tired of working at home, I like to go to Starbucks and treat myself to a latte and a pastry; it’s a small treat that puts me in positive mindset to tackle my writing and schoolwork for the day. – Tyleen L.

Stay positive. Above all, having a good attitude towards the writing process is important. Maintaining a positive mindset can be difficult though—especially if writing is not your strong suit. However, if you associate writing with miserable feelings, you will never want to do it. When you’re having trouble staying positive, you can try reaching out to loved ones for a pep talk or creating a writing-themed mantra to recite. By turning negative thoughts into positive statements, you will reduce anxiety and bolster your confidence to complete your writing. As impossible as it may seem at times to stay positive, know that we can and should find joy in both our writing and our everyday lives as students.

Resources

Beyond this article, there are many resources available for students who are interested in becoming better, more productive writers. These resources cover a variety of writing-related topics, offer unique perspectives outside of I-O, and help to facilitate an efficient writing process. Below you will find a list of resources that have been helpful to us and we think may be helpful to you too.

 

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser: Writer William Zinsser offers his thoughts on how to write good nonfiction with a chapter focused on the sciences.
  • How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia: Psychology Professor Paul J. Silvia provides his best tips and tricks for being a productive writer.
  • National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD): Over 200 universities are institutional members of the NCFDD, which offers full resources to graduate students including a weekly motivational email.
  • Campus Writing Centers: Most campuses have academic writing services available where students can receive one-on-one coaching from trained writers.
  • Google Docs & Dropbox Paper: Cloud-based tools are extremely helpful for collaborating with other authors and making edits to documents in real time.
  • Focus Keeper & Grid Diary: Mobile apps are beneficial for tracking progress toward writing goals or facilitating a more productive and distraction-free writing session.
  • EndNote, Zotero, & Mendeley: Utilizing reference management software is a great way to keep relevant literature organized and make the citation process more efficient.

 

Team Biographies

Andrew Tenbrink is a 4th-year PhD student in I-O psychology. He received his BS in Psychology from Kansas State University. His research interests include selection, assessment, and performance management, with a specific focus on factors affecting the performance appraisal process. Currently, Andrew has a 1-year internship working as a research, development, and analytics associate at Denison Consulting in Ann Arbor, MI. Andrew is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. After earning his PhD, he would like to pursue a career in academia. andrewtenbrink@wayne.edu | @AndrewPTenbrink

 

Mallory Smith is pursuing a Master of Arts in I-O Psychology. She earned her BA in Psychology and German from Wayne State University in 2017. Her interests include factors influencing employee attitudes, efficacy, and perceptions of justice during organizational change. Following graduation, she is interested in an applied career in the private sector—ideally in a role where she can help employees and businesses anticipate, prepare for, and navigate periods of uncertainty. smithy@wayne.edu | @mallorycsmith

 

 

Georgia LaMarre is a 3rd-year PhD student in I-O psychology. Originally from Canada, she completed her undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo before moving over the border to live in Michigan. Georgia is currently working with an interdisciplinary grant-funded team to study the workplace correlates of police officer stress in addition to pursuing interests in team decision making, workplace identity, and paramilitary organizational culture. After graduate school, she hopes to apply her I-O knowledge to help solve problems in public-sector organizations. georgia.lamarre@wayne.edu

 

Laura Pineault is a 4th-year PhD candidate in I-O psychology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of leadership and work–life organizational culture, with emphasis on the impact of work–life organizational practices on the leadership success of women. Laura graduated with Distinction from the Honours Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program at the University of Windsor in June 2016. Currently, she serves as a quantitative methods consultant for the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit. Laura is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. After graduate school, she hopes to pursue a career in academia. laura.pineault@wayne.edu | @LPineault

 

Tyleen Lopez is a 2nd-year PhD student in I-O psychology. She received her BA in Psychology from St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Her research interests include diversity, inclusion, and leadership—particularly regarding ethnic minority women in the workplace. Tyleen is currently a graduate research assistant and lab manager for Dr. Lars Johnson’s Leadership, Productivity and Wellbeing Lab at Wayne State. Tyleen is expected to graduate in the spring of 2023. After earning her PhD, she would like to pursue a career in academia. tyleen.lopez@wayne.edu

 

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