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Managing a long-term writing project can be daunting, but incorporating the following strategies can help you to have a successful writing experience.
1. Set realistic expectations regarding the scope and length of the work
Are you writing an article? A major research project? A thesis? A dissertation? Every document type has its own requirements, so please make sure you know what is expected of your work and stay within those parameters. For example, trying to address the scope of a doctoral dissertation within a master’s thesis will result in frustration for you and requests for changes from your supervisor. Even though the topic may be of passionate interest to you, make sure you’re not expanding the project beyond the deliverables so that you can complete the document on time and within scope.
2. Determine a reasonable schedule that has sufficient flexibility to allow for the unexpected
Life won’t stop while you’re writing, and it’s inevitable that unexpected complications will arise before the project is done. Setting yourself a reasonable schedule that allows time for positive opportunities and challenging complications means your project won’t be derailed by surprises.
3. Plan the work and work the plan
If you’re the only person who knows what your deadlines are, it’s easy for those deadlines to pass you by without consequences – that is, until the deadlines catch up with you and cause a panic. Sharing your writing schedule and your significant deadlines with someone else, such as your supervisor, makes you accountable for those deadlines. If a deadline passes and you haven’t met it, that’s a good indication that things aren’t going as you expected. It’s important to know when the process isn’t working so you can bring it back on track. It’s much easier to make small corrections when the process is slightly off-balance versus trying to rescue the entire project when everything is in crisis. For suggestions of how to manage your time while writing, see I Never Have Enough Time in the Anxiety About Academic Writing guide.
4. Set small, achievable goals and celebrate reaching those goals
If the only motivation to keep writing is completing the entire project, it’s likely your writing will stall at some point. It’s difficult to stay motivated when a major goal is months away. Instead, set small, achievable goals, and then celebrate reaching those goals. For example, setting a baseline word count to reach every day, even if the quality of the writing isn’t exceptional, is a small but motivating goal (P. Hendy, personal communication, May 25, 2018). When you accomplish the goal, make sure to celebrate it in a way that is meaningful to you. Success is motivating, so keep track of when you’ve accomplished the small goals so you can see your progress.
5. Develop and maintain a regular writing schedule
You likely know what times of day are most creative and productive for you, and if at all possible, try to write during those times in a regular schedule. For example, are you a morning person? Do you do your best thinking at night? Similarly, where are you most creative? Do you need a quiet space at home? Do you prefer a quiet space outside of your home, such as a library? Do you prefer to work in your office? Are you someone who likes to work alone but with noise around you, such as in a coffee shop? Try to take advantage of your natural strengths to set yourself up for a predictable and successful writing schedule. Eventually, that routine will become a motivating habit because you’ll be able to see the benefits of incorporating regular writing time into your daily life.
6. Plan the document so you can stop thinking about it
It’s exhausting to worry about forgetting something if you’re not thinking about your work at all times. Constantly thinking about a project requires a tremendous amount of energy, and you may end up feeling resentful of the time and energy you could have otherwise dedicated to family, work, friends, and other important aspects of your life. If you have a detailed, concrete plan that exists outside of your brain (e.g., an outline), you can be confident that you’re not forgetting anything when you need to focus on one specific section of the document or when you need to think about other things. Taking time away is necessary to have any objectivity about your work, as well as to make sure that you feel excited and proud of the project when it’s done. For more information about developing document plans, please see Planning the Paper.
7. Talk with your colleagues to help you stay motivated, but avoid comparing yourself to other people
Gaining motivation without comparing yourself to other people is a tricky balance, but it’s an important one as everyone’s writing process is different. For example, if you’re a Royal Roads student who is used to the cohort model, moving into the more solitary process of completing a major research project may feel isolating. Reaching out to colleagues who are also working on their major research projects can help to reduce those feelings of being alone and normalize the experience. When talking with others about their writing process, remember that your writing process is yours alone, and comparing it with how other people describe their accomplishments may not be helpful. For example, learning that a colleague has already written the fifth chapter of a thesis when you’re still working on your first chapter could cause anxiety, but if that’s all the information you have, you don’t know if the fifth chapter is where they started writing or if the work is any good. Sharing your successes and commiserating about challenges is an important step to staying motivated, but please avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others.
8. Ask for help
If you’re a Royal Roads student, you have a huge community of people whom you can ask for help. For example, if you have questions about setting yourself up for a successful long-term writing process, please contact the Writing Centre. If you would like help with time management or the stresses related to completing major projects, please contact Counselling Services. You can also connect with other members of the Royal Roads’ community, such as the librarians, your supervisor, your program head, instructors, program staff, and cohort colleagues. Your circle of support also extends to family, friends, professional colleagues, and other scholars in your field of study. Please ask for help and give us an opportunity to assist you, versus assume we can’t.
For more suggestions, please visit “But I’m Not Ready!” Common Barriers to Writing and How to Overcome Them by Hugh Kearns and Dr. Maria Gardiner.