From Dread to Productivity: Transforming Your Writing Habits for Research Success

Sheila Cherry, PhDcareer success, research success, scientific writingLeave a Comment

In my many years of working with academic STEM PIs, I’ve yet to encounter one who said they got into their career because they just love writing. Even among those who enjoy writing (and they do exist), that part wasn’t the major driver of their decision. Yet, for PIs, writing is central to advancing curiosity-driven pursuits, for example, by preparing grant proposals to fund future work or manuscripts to disseminate completed work. And let’s not forget that these written products serve as markers for career advancement.

So, what happens when a PI (or an early-stage researcher planning to be a PI) finds writing to be a daunting task? This occurrence may be more common than you think. [Note: my perspective could be a bit biased given that some proportion of clients seek to work with me because writing is a challenge for them.] Do you ever find yourself thinking or saying one or more of the following:

– “I never know how to begin.”
– “Ugh. I’ll just start writing this proposal tomorrow.”
– “If I get just one more data set, I’ll be ready to write the manuscript.”
– “Writing is so hard, I wish I didn’t have to do it.”
– “My colleagues are so much better at writing.”
– “Other people seem to do this so effortlessly, why do I struggle?”
– “It’s going to take me so much time, and I don’t know how I’m going to get it done.”

If these sound familiar, you’re not alone. Many researchers share this sentiment, often leading to procrastination, stress, and even a sense of inadequacy. But here’s the good news: you can change this mindset and become more comfortable with writing. It might not become your favorite task, but it can become manageable and even rewarding. Here’s how:

1. Reframe Your Mindset About Writing

If you dread writing, every attempt will be an uphill battle. Instead, try to reframe how you view this task. Writing isn’t just a chore; it’s a means to achieve your professional goals. Every manuscript, and every proposal is a step towards advancing your career, sharing your findings with the world, and opening up new opportunities.

Ask yourself: What can my writing accomplish? Can it help me secure funding, get my research published, or set the stage for future projects? By focusing on these possibilities, you might find writing to be less of a burden and more of a stepping stone.

That said, try not to put too much pressure on yourself. You may have little to no control over the immediate outcomes (i.e., whether the manuscript is accepted or the grant application is funded), so approaching your writing from a standpoint of “this has to work out” will likely create physical and mental tension that makes writing more challenging. Instead, focus on the process and the parts that you can control (when, where, why, how, and what) to craft a favorable environment for that process to flourish.

2. Create a Writing Schedule

Just like you schedule meetings and classes, schedule your writing time. Whether it’s 30 minutes a day, an hour three times a week, or one full day a month, make writing a regular part of your routine. Like any other skill, writing improves and becomes easier with practice.

Setting aside specific times for writing helps in two ways: it makes writing a regular habit rather than an occasional thing to avoid at all costs, and it reduces the stress of looming deadlines. Protect this time and treat it as non-negotiable. Soon, you’ll find it easier to get into the writing flow.

Need accountability? Create your own group where you all meet virtually for focused writing time, or try “body doubling” to help you stick to your task.

3. Start Small and Be Consistent

Getting started is often the hardest part, so start small. Write anything—an outline, bullet points, or even random thoughts related to your topic. The key is to get words on the page. If you’re not sure where or how to begin, just go to your keyboard, set a timer for 2 minutes, and write whatever thoughts come to you. It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you “prime the pump.”

Consistency is also key. Regular writing, even in small amounts, leads to progress and builds confidence.

4. Let Go of Perfectionism

Have you ever had a writing session that felt demoralizing because you spent a lot of time making very little progress? Often this looks something like: think, write a little, delete a bit, think some more, write a little, delete again, and so on. Spending an hour to make two perfect sentences is a recipe for frustration because progress will be incredibly slow.

Remind yourself that the first draft is just a starting point and is for your eyes only. Most of writing is actually editing, and that’s where you get to refine and polish into something you’re willing to share with others. Allow your first (and maybe even second and third) attempt to be messy, knowing that you’ll be able to clean it up later.

5. Experiment with Your Writing Environment, But Minimize Interruptions

Your environment can significantly impact your productivity. Find out what works best for you. Some people prefer a quiet room, while others thrive in a bustling cafe. Pay attention to lighting, seating, and noise levels. Also, consider your tools—some may prefer typing on a laptop, while others might find longhand writing more effective for initial drafts. Once you identify what works for you, try to stick to it.

No matter your environment, be sure to minimize interruptions. Turn off notifications, shut your door, put in earplugs—whatever helps you to maintain focus for that session. If you feel like you’re stuck and therefore tempted to distract yourself, either change your environment or perform a brief “free-writing” exercise (see #3) to get you back into the flow.

One common self-imposed interruption is to pause writing to go look up references. This not only breaks the flow but can end up taking much longer than anticipated, thereby reducing overall progress. To keep your reference search time separate from your writing time, make notes in your margins about references you need to find and hold a separate literature search time where you tackle those notes in bulk.

6. Use Writing as a Learning Tool

Writing isn’t just about documenting your research; it’s a learning process. As you write, you organize your thoughts, identify gaps in your knowledge, and gain new insights into your work. Use writing as a tool to clarify your thinking and improve your work.

Sometimes, starting with a literature review or a summary of your research progress can help you get into the writing mindset and make the process less intimidating.

7. Seek Feedback and Support

Don’t hesitate to seek feedback from colleagues, mentors, or professional editors. It doesn’t benefit you in any way if self-consciousness holds you back from allowing others to guide you. Constructive criticism can improve your writing and boost your confidence.

Join writing groups or workshops where you can share your work and receive support from others who understand your struggles.

8. Celebrate Small Wins

Finally, celebrate your progress. Every completed paragraph and every polished draft is an achievement. Recognize your efforts and reward yourself. These small celebrations can motivate you to keep going and make the writing process more enjoyable.


By adopting these strategies, you can transform your approach to writing. It might never become your favorite activity, but it can become a manageable and even rewarding part of your research career. Happy writing!

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