How to write productively over the summer

Summertime can be a great opportunity for your scientific writing: There are no seminars and meetings, and it gets quiet as colleagues leave for holidays. These are the perfect conditions for focused work — if we would only use them and not waste our time with procrastination and unimportant busywork. This article shows you how you can make the best of it and accomplish your scientific writing goals this summer.

Maybe you have attempted it before: a productive writing summer. It sounds perfect in theory, yet it rarely happens to our satisfaction.

That’s because the advantages of the summertime — more time and less distraction from colleagues — are at the same time also hurdles for productive writing:

A lot of unstructured time at our hands creates a feeling that — we have time. So we can surely afford to take it easy, first browse our favorite online site as we sip the morning coffee, then reply to emails… and slowly it’s time for lunch. But that’s not a problem because we still have the whole afternoon, right?

Well… I think you know from your own experience how the story continues.

The issue is not only a sudden big chunk of unstructured time — it’s also a lack of accountability. It’s quiet at the institute with less opportunities to talk about your work and nobody is expecting anything of you. That means: nobody knows that you are not being productive, that you are squandering your time.

Plus add to it nice weather tempting you to go out (“I can read that paper at the lake”), and it’s no wonder our summer writing plans rarely turn into reality.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. You CAN be productive with your scientific writing over the summer if you organize yourself smartly.

Let’s talk here about the two most important factors: schedule and peer support.

1. Schedule your writing sessions

It’s not easy to work consistently on a challenging task without a supporting structure.

Since the work during summertime usually contains less structure than otherwise, scheduling and structuring your writing time is even more important than during the rest of the year.

For your summer writing schedule, you have two basic options that you can adapt to your needs:

A. Binge writing

It’s highly effective to write intensely for 3-6 hours per day, every day, for a week or more. Your project is firmly present in your mind, you settle in a routine and can focus better. You are motivated because the daily progress is clearly visible.

Sustaining an intense writing schedule for a couple of days or a week is great to kick(re)start your writing project, to get motivated and gain momentum for a sustainable progress at a lower pace (see the next point). You can also use it to write up a first draft of a research article manuscript quickly, in a week or two. Or maybe your thesis submission deadline is breathing down your neck, and you still need a chapter or two.

What is important here is to have a fixed daily schedule including enough time for breaks. For inspiration, here is my favorite schedule:

09:00am — 10:30am Writing
10:30am — 11:00am Break
11:00am — 12:30pm Writing
12:30pm — 01:30pm Lunch break
01:30pm — 03:00pm Writing
03:00pm — 03:30pm Break
03:30pm — 05:00pm Writing

The breaks are crucial: without them, you wouldn’t be able to focus effectively for the whole day, day after day.

Even during the 1.5 hour long writing sessions, it’s recommended to take regular short breaks according to the Pomodoro technique (5min break every 30min or 10min break after 40min of work). Get up from your desk, go grab a glass of water, or simply move a bit around to get your blood circulating and restore your focus.

Depending on the length of the paper, it’s possible to finish a first draft within 5-8 days of full-day writing or 10-16 days of half-day writing.

You can write at any place where you aren’t distracted much and can focus well: at home, in the office, in a library or even a cafe.

But it’s especially effective to retreat to a quiet place in nature, ideally an unfamiliar one, where there are no social distractions or obligations so you can fully focus on writing and enjoy quiet relaxation outside the writing sessions.

B. Snack writing

Another option is to integrate shorter chunks of writing into your daily summer schedule and write for 1-2 hours every (work)day. The progress will be slower, of course, but you will be able to continue with your other work (or holiday ;)) activities alongside your writing.

Here it’s even more crucial to block a fixed time window for writing so that you can harness the power of a writing routine. In general it’s recommended to write every day at the same time, ideally early in the morning, before getting into other activities. Ideally even before you check your email and social media for the first time. But if this doesn’t work for you, any other time of the day when you feel alert and energetic is good as well.

To use these short sessions effectively, I recommend to start with 10 minutes of freewriting about what you want to do in this session (how you are going to approach it, what are your worries or doubts, etc.). This helps you quickly settle in and get focused on the task at hand.

Moreover, Pomodoro breaks every 30 or 60 minutes help you refresh and keep your focus in these shorter sessions as well.

And finally, thinking paragraphs helps as well: one paragraph is the smallest unit of text that you can write in one session. As every paragraph should cover only a single idea or point, paragraphs are great in structuring not only your writing but also your thinking.

2. Get external support

I wrote my whole PhD thesis over the months of July and August. Because I had to. An important external deadline is the best motivator 🙂

A regular schedule works wonders once it is established and turned into a writing habit. But until that happens, some kind of external force is typically crucial. Or at least highly beneficial:

  • approaching deadline (natural or artificial)
  • awesome reward upon completion (that you promise yourself)
  • writing in a group of peers (highly motivating and inspiring)
  • accountability partnership (to help you stick to your goal)
  • guidance and support (so the process runs smoothly)

Ideal is all of the above combined, of course. In reality, you have to see what you can get.

The group aspect is especially powerful — yet often neglected. And in the summertime maybe also harder to get. We try and fight alone and wonder why it feels so unmotivating and frustrating.

So if you would like to get serious with your summer writing goals, check in with a couple of colleagues whether they have similar plans as you. You could team up and meet for writing sessions, motivate and support each other when needed and help each other with text feedback.

And if no interested colleagues are around or you simply feel like you could use support and know-how of an experienced trainer as you write up your research article manuscript: join us for the Write Up Your Paper THIS SUMMER program and make it happen 😉

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