Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writer's Lab: How I Wrote a Draft Paper in 8 hours

As I write this post, I just finished writing a draft paper of the list of papers that I want to publish from my dissertation. And it only took me 8 hours!

Now before I describe how I wrote this draft so quickly, I need to say that my whole plan of writing a good number of journal papers from my dissertation is not rolling as smoothly as I initially thought it would. Here's what I wrote about my original plan:

I'm currently assuming that I can produce a paper per month or 1,5 months' period of time, besides all my other duties and transitioning to my new job. I then give my co-authors a month to send their feedback. Then, I plan another 2 weeks to implement the comments of my co-authors. I plan to start writing the next paper whenever the draft of the previous one is done, so that I create a constant stream of writing, revising, sending to co-authors and submitting.

My original plan did not consider the fact that I would start getting papers back, with reviewers' comments. So far, I have received reviewers' comments on 2 papers, and taking these comments into account took me 2 - 3 weeks per paper. I also didn't take into account that I would start doing additional research to revisit some of the work I did in my dissertation. And above all, I underestimated the time I would spend on teaching, replying e-mails and trying to make sense of admin stuff in a foreign country (let's say that things don't work as smoothly here in Ecuador as they do in The Netherlands).

I started to get off track in October, and I lost count of how far I'm "behind" on my original schedule. But I'm certainly far behind my original plan. Luckily, once I passed the peak moment of the semester, I found some time to start working on my papers again. I have 2 drafts with my co-authors now, and the second one is a draft that I managed to write in 8 hours of time.

Now before you start grumbling that 8 hours is impossible and that I previously gave 40 hours as an estimate, I need to mention that I'm talking about a paper based on material from my dissertation. In fact, I've been able to pull large pieces of text directly from my dissertation for this publication, so that is the main reason for the fast process.

This time I made a planning before starting on writing the paper. Some parts took longer than planned and others went faster. I subdivided my planning into Pomodoro chunks, so that I could work in short blocks of time in between my teaching duties and random admin annoyances.

Here is a breakdown of the time I spent per part of the paper:
- Abstract: 30 minutes
I wrote the abstract using my favorite method.
- Introduction: 30 minutes
I usually fret a lot about how to grasp the attention of the reader. By limiting my time, I just focused on the following question: "What does the reader need to know before I delve deeper into the topic?", and "Why should the reader care about this research?".
- Section 1: 1 hour
- Section 2: 2 hours
- Section 3: 2 hours
These 3 sections contain the research that I want to discuss in this paper. This time included the time needed for figures and tables. I had all figures and tables ready from my dissertation, but the tables needed some formatting to fulfill the requirements of the journal where I want to submit the manuscript.
- Proofread: 1 hour
I waited 2 days to take some distance from the paper, and proofread on a Sunday afternoon.
- List of notations, Conclusions, format references: 1 hour
The last pending tasks were making the list of notations. I marked up all notations on my (printed) copy that I used for proofreading, so I could look at the formulas on the printed paper and type up the notations in my manuscript.
The section of "Conclusions" is the part that I always write last, after rereading the entire manuscript and making sure that all elements of the abstract are touched upon in the manuscript.
Because I use Endnote for my reference management, I use the Endnote MS Word plugin to "cite as you write", but most of the time, the final list of references needs some formatting.

How much time does it take you to write a manuscript based on material from your dissertation? Do you follow a similar process in writing?


  1. Just taking a moment to let you know that I am really enjoying your blog and have found your advice very useful. I use a similar format to the one that you are using but have found your advice on breaking the work down into "Pomodoro chunks" very useful as I am often overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I have to do. Please keep writing... Nicola

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words :)

  2. Thanks eva :)