Often, we tell ourselves that we need a clear day for writing. Of course, completely clear days are a rarity, so that’s the perfect excuse to avoid it. Making progress is all about quality, rather than quantity. If you can consistently identify and protect some small blocks of time, you’ll reach the finish line.
With short sessions, preparation is key. You can make the most of them by creating the right conditions and not faffing about at the beginning. You can prepare for every writing session by organising citations, reference materials, and your workspace.
Given the number of citations we need to include in academic writing, looking them up as we go along is a reliable way of losing momentum. Here are three ways to avoid this situation:
Use a bibliographic referencing tool such as Zotero. You might already use an alternative such as Mendeley, EndNote, or BibTex. If you’re yet to pick one, Zotero is the easiest, and it’s free. Make sure you’ve saved everything to your Zotero (or equivalent) library in advance, then it’ll take just seconds to insert a perfectly formatted citation. If you’re unfamiliar with Zotero, there’s a link to a training course below.
If you’re not ready to use a dedicated tool, you could instead use placeholders. Unless you’re working with a huge collection of literature or complex archival records, noting down the author, date and page number should be enough for you to identify the source afterwards.
Maybe you’re not using Zotero, but you have your citations in a spreadsheet or Word document. Keep this open on your computer so you can quickly copy and paste them into your writing.
Whatever approach you use, you’re aiming to add those references as quickly as possible without resorting to the internet.
When we hit a knotty part of our writing, the tendency is to go back over the reference material. We look to this for comfort and to feel as though we’re doing something. I’ll just reread this article to help get me going again. The problem is that our head then gets filled with too much information, and we find it impossible to start writing again. It’s the same with data and notes.
Make sure, then, that you only have the material you need for this specific piece of writing. For example, if you’re writing about a particular quote from a journal article, just have that quote open — not the entire article. If you’re analysing one interview, don’t have all the others open.
We want to reduce the clutter in our minds, but also in our physical environment. If you can see lots of unrelated stuff in your writing space, it could be distracting you while you’re trying to focus. Unpaid bills, shopping lists, half-read books — they’ll all be vying for your attention. You want to be wearing blinkers so you can see only what you’re working on right now.
What could you do to optimise your workspace? Perhaps you don’t have a dedicated writing area, but could you at least clear the table temporarily? Even quickly shoving everything in a cardboard box is a good temporary solution. We’re looking to hide potential distractions and stay in the writing zone.