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.

PDF of the talk

This includes all the awesome graphics and a map of resources given below.

PDF of shortened talk for Boot Camp

Organizing Materials

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 file name.
  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:

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: