WRITING IS HARD
Organizational tools for getting it done anyway
This page provides resources that I presented at a Physics department
colloquium on November 21, 2013. These are tools that I've
incorporated in my own writing habits, links to other sources, and
anything else I thought might be useful. When I schedule time, I will
organize the information this page as a "mind map".
Academic writing is necessary, yet many journal articles, grant
proposals, theses and dissertations remain incomplete or unwritten
entirely by authors who struggle to find the right words or the right
time to get them done. Reflecting on my own struggles has helped me
identify specific road blocks in my writing--and ways to overcome
them. The key to writing is organization, but strategies for
organization vary depending on whether you are organizing your
references materials (How was this paper relevant again?), your
thoughts (Where do I start?), or your time (What time?).
In this talk, I will present different tools that I've discovered to
organize materials, thoughts, and time to become a more productive
writer. Though far from comprehensive, they are powerful, and I want
to share them with anyone who finds themselves unable to just sit down
and write. I invite not only students, faculty, or staff who struggle
with writing, but also anyone who advises students or participates in
a writing (support) group; these tools are easy to adopt and pass
along to others.
This includes all the awesome graphics and a map of resources given
Organize electronic and paper files
Have an unambiguous strategy for organizing your paper and electronic files.
For example, I have a directory (electronic folder) entitled "articles".
In this directory, I label subdirectories according to the last name of
the first author of the manuscript. This is unambiguous since there is
only one first author. If an author has a common last name, label
the directory as "LASTNAME-firstname". Put all electronic copies of the
manuscript in the appropriate folder, according to last name of first
author. Make sure to rename the actual file into something that gives you
a hint as to what is in the document. I put the last name of all
authors on the paper, along with the publication date. Sometimes I add
a brief description of the paper in the file name.
In order to find papers written by a particular author, I wrote a
shell script, findpapers.sh,
to search for papers by author last name (and it is case-independent!).
This script should be in the "articles" directory, and it searches all
the subdirectories for a file with a string that matches the authors
last name. This is the reason I include all authors in the
To see a visual of the file heirarchy and a demonstration of
findpapers.sh, take a look at the PDF of the
talk (link above).
I organize my paper files according to content. When I'm preparing a
manuscript, it is much easier for me to locate all of the papers
associated with observations, theory, a modeling strategy, or
a particular phenomenon--hurricanes, climate change, convection--if they
are all in one place.
Organize content of the papers
To do this, I created a latex document which generates a pdf of notes
I take on individual articles:
This document has sections with names according to the last name of
the authors and the publication date (NOTE: This is the same as the
naming convention used for the electronic files, so it makes it easy
to find individual documents.). This also creates an index so
you can find papers by topic. Use the latex template provided or
create your own document. Here are some benefits:
Make sure you include:
- Taking notes engages more of your brain so you can assimilate the
information better. You gain a better understanding and a clearer picture
of how that document is relevant to your work.
- This provides a venue for uninhibited writing. It doesn't matter what
you write or whether it "fits" with the content of your manuscript.
Use this as a place to write without constraints! This document is
for YOU! Nobody else has to see it, so don't worry about finding the
perfect word, or whether the punctuation is correct.
- Great practice for writing!
- Great way to remember content of the paper withouth trying
to find something specific in the paper itself.
- Notes on the paper--the more relevant to you work, the more thorough the
- Make bulleted lists of important points
- Include a subsection with how that document is relevant to your work.
- If you are inspired to perform a new analysis or experiment, create
a subsection that describes what you should do so you have a record.
Organizing your thoughts
The key here is GRAPHICS. Brain Rule #10: VISION TRUMPS ALL OTHER
SENSES (see John Medina's book: Brain rules). Take advantage of
this fact! USE MIND MAPPING! Here are some resources:
Organizing your TIME
It goes without saying that this part extends way beyond disciplining
yourself to write. This section deserves a whole book. Lucky for me,
there are plenty--I'll just direct you to a few resources: