The challenge of writing

The following is a slightly modified version of a column I’ve written for the July 2012 issue of our student newspaper Nekst.

Last time (see here, page 8), I’ve talked about doing a Ph.D. in economics, and that made me realize that there is one challenge students and professors share, namely the challenge of writing. As a student, one “fears the empty page”, one finds it hard to start writing, even though one already knows a lot about the topic, say when it comes to writing a thesis. Or a term paper. Instead, one does some more reading—it never hurts, and if one know what one is talking about, then writing is up is going to be really fast, right ;)—, and one says to oneself that whatever one writes one will have to correct in the future anyways.

Well, that’s all fine, but in the end it’s normally not the case that the last days before some deadline are like all the other ones. Rather, there is a rush of “productivity” to finish up what one has started—well, too late, in the end. I write “productivity” in quotes because if you are honest, then it resembles more finishing a project under a lot of stress, so one could have done better had one only started earlier. Another example of a deadline, by the way, is the date of the next meeting with your thesis advisor. Sounds familiar? It is surely familiar to many people who engage in writing, not only students.

So we’ve identified a problem. There is no easy way out, but actually, there is quite a bit one can do. A couple of years ago, a colleague pointed me to a book by Paul J. Silva called “How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing”. I liked it a lot and would like to strongly recommend it to you. The topic is not only writing, it’s also about organizing your work. And about getting things done. Actually, I’ve already mentioned the book in an earlier post.

The author starts by describing typical patterns, for example the “productivity rushes” I talked about before. Then he says that writing is hard work and motivates the reader to think a little bit about the whole process of writing and organizing one’s work. He does this in a very nice way, describing tactics and actions one can take.

Everybody has his or her own optimal strategy. He himself prefers to have a strict routine that involves getting up and basically going straight to his desk with a cup of coffee. Then he starts working immediately, without internet access, and by lunch time he’s done with the hardest part for the day. Then he does all the other things, like answering emails, participating in meetings, and talking to people. That way, by having 3 to 4 really productive hours early in the morning, he gets a lot of things done, just because he does this every single day. And after some time he could again take his weekends off, and this made him even more productive during the week. Another important advice he gives is that it’s important to prioritize and to do the things first that are most important, and not the ones that are most pleasant (like checking what’s going on on Facebook or in one’s inbox). My dad once told me that he always does the things first that he finds the least pleasant, another good strategy I think.

He also talks about the importance of making realistic plans (than one does not always have to revise) and that a first draft of something is never perfect. But all this is just a little glimpse into what I found an incredibly useful book. I think it’s a great investment to read it. You can easily do that in an afternoon, if you keep you computer shut down.



Silvia, Paul J.: How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing, American Psychological Association. (2007), Washington, DC, US.

About kleintob

Tobias Klein is an Associate Professor at Tilburg University. He is an economist by training and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Mannheim, Germany. Before that he visited the University of California at Berkeley Ph.D. program and the Ph.D. program at University College London, respectively for a year. He is passionate about economics, politics, food, and travelling. See for his professional website.

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