The Research Process: It’s Us Against the Blinking Cursors of the World

This summer I’m writing a series of posts about the curriculum of the research process, from the initial idea to the development of a complete draft. This week I’m focusing on how to tackle writing, including writer’s block, taking us from the development of the raw material to the first draft.

There is some room for optimism as we begin. First, if you’re producing a scholarly article, there is no need to reinvent the wheel on organizing your paper. Second, everyone’s first draft is rough compared to the final draft, even if you’re the kind of writer who edits as they write. Don’t hold yourself to the standard of the first draft being perfect, or even great. Before anything, it has to exist.

Regardless, the blinking cursor of doom can feel like the perfect signal to get up for another drink of water, or to check your email, or to finally text your friend back. However, there are also ways to get around that impulse. Here are a few techniques for kick-starting your writing motor:

  1. Set a productivity clock: I use a little tomato kitchen timer to signal to my brain that it’s writing time. I work in 25-minute blocks, with 5-minute breaks, and I do three productivity blocks in sequence.
  2. Use the buddy system: I host a weekly writing club for women in economics where we all jump on a Zoom call together and do writing sprints. It’s easier to avoid your writing when you’re alone in your office; it’s easier to commit to writing if you know other people around you are also writing at the same time.
  3. Protect your writing space: This can involve protecting your physical writing space, but it also means protecting your writing time. Some people dedicate an hour in the morning to writing; some commit to writing a certain number of words a day. As long as you make space for writing on a regular basis each week, you’re writing more than nothing.
  4. Start anywhere: Starting with the first sentence of the introduction is so last year. Did you just finish your results tables? A cool map? Those need to be written up now. Did you just finish your notes on new literature? That’s definitely the priority. The introduction is a map to the rest of the paper and it should realistically be drafted after you know what the map is a picture of in the first place.
  5. Lose the backspace key: The temptation to edit as we write is strong, but editing interrupts the writing process. You can dedicate a productivity session to editing, but writing time is for writing.
  6. Take a break! If you stop writing when things are going well, you’ll feel good about where you left off and come back to it (this also applies to work in general). Make a note of what you were going to do next before you stop and it’ll be easier to start again.

It does seem that the best feeling about being a writer is having just written something; the worst feeling is the process of having to write. You’re not the only one who feels like an imposter when you’re writing; you’ve just got to get the words on the page. Once you do, the editing begins. Editing can easily become a trap; eventually the revision process has to stop so you can send the paper out. We’ll close out on that note next time!

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