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Matt DeStefano

Good stuff again, Marcus. I'd be curious to hear a bit more about (6). Is there a good rule of thumb to follow when seeking feedback on work? During graduate courses, it's relatively easy to get feedback from faculty on papers for seminars. Should we (graduate students) be looking for feedback elsewhere?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Matt: I've found that conferences and journal referees are the best places for me to get feedback. I basically write up papers and send them out. But this is mostly because I don't have any colleagues who can read my stuff. I'm not sure it's the best way for most people to go -- especially grad students -- but it seems to work well for me (I've gotten many of my most useful comments from journal reviewers).

When I was a grad student, we set up a working paper group with my dissertation advisor. We meet every week or two to read someone's paper, and it worked really well. You can also email people whose work you admire (and your work is related to) out of the blue and see if they're willing to give your paper a read. I've done this a few times, with pretty good results.

Finally, I'd like to mention our Working Paper Group here at the Cocoon. I started the group in large part because of how difficult it is to get feedback. I do wish more people would avail themselves of the opportunity. I think it's a great way to get quick feedback, though I'd like to see more people participate in the comments section as well.

Mark Alfano

I agree with all of these points, especially #2.

Mark Alfano

Oops, I meant to say: I agree with all of these, especially #3.

Jon Herington

I heartily endorse #3 as well. I very rarely solve problems I am encountering with an argument at the computer screen, but I will often formulate a 'solution' very quickly if I simply go jogging/walk/swim.

Sometimes these 'solutions' evaporate once you put them to the page - but that's often just nuance appearing that I previously hadn't encountered.

Dan Dennis

Thanks very much to you and the others for these very useful posts.

I have to exercise each day otherwise I can’t sleep well, so go for a walk, cycle or jog each day. (I don’t listen to music though: I find that I can’t jog and listen to music and get new ideas – I end up getting engrossed in the music…).

This reminds me of a recommendation – try to get enough sleep. I realise that people vary but I find I get better ideas, am more productive and feel more positive (see #1 above) if I am not feeling tired. 8 hours is ideal; and a short afternoon nap can be very refreshing too. I always wear earplugs when sleeping, and aim to have blackout material or shutters at the windows so early morning sunlight, or streetlighting, do not disturb me…

Eating healthily is good for your brain and for your long term health.

I would also like to particularly endorse something like #2. I find the most important thing is to think first thing, strive to deepen my understanding of the issues I am working on, further develop my ideas and so on. I usually make notes at the same time. I find it vital to do that before being distracted, and having my brain cluttered, by communicating with anyone – whether via email or face to face or reading papers etc.

As I am only making notes there is no prospect of revising what I write, and I don’t set myself a time limit – if the ideas are coming then I carry on thinking, if they are not then I will turn to working on an essay, preparing teaching or whatever.

Generally postponing going on the internet for as long as possible I find a good strategy. And when I have to go on the internet during the day, only doing absolutely essential things (no getting distracted by reading news, philosophy blogs etc.).

Chad Kidd

Question of clarification: Much of my writing is re-writing/editing/cleaning. Do you impost a 3-5 page limit on this activity as well?

Marcus Arvan

Chad: my rule is 3-5 pages of new stuff. The point of the rule is to enable you to look in the mirror every day knowing you've gotten something new down on paper. As far as I'm concerned, once I have the 3-5 pages out of the way, I feel free to do other stuff (revise, read, etc.) to my Geary's content. This way, even if you have a terrible day revising (who doesn't!), you can still clean up shop for the day knowing you've done something productive.

I might also add some further advice that seems to have worked from me. The book that I got the 3-5 page daily drafting rule defended the following metaphor for writing effectively: "Throw up, then clean up." In other words, get 3-5 pages of unedited junk out of your head daily, then go back and revise, delete, etc. later. I've found this works like a charm. I used to do what I think lots of others do: outline in advance, write carefully the first time through, etc. -- but I've found the throw-up/clean-up strategy works better.

Katie Padgett Walsh

Great suggestions! I've been working to improve my productivity for the last year, and I've experimented with a lot of strategies as well. I think all of your suggestions are great, but #2 needs to be tailored to individuals.

I tried the page count strategy, and I really just found it oppressive. I'm much better with a time limit. So I set myself down to write for 2 hours (minimum) every weekday. I turn out 1-2 pages each session. I'm really happy with that rate of progress. What's most important at the end of the day is just to make writing so habitual that it is like taking a shower or brushing your teeth: just something you do, without agonizing over it every day.

One thing I like about the time limit strategy is that I count any writing activity on the article. So if I'm revising, that counts. If I'm writing in my journal about difficulties with a section, that counts. Outlining counts. But...reading background literature does not count. I have to be actively composing the paper in some way for it to be part of the 2 hours. And internet gets turned off for the 2 hours.

The other thing I do is that I keep a chart up on my wall where I log in my hours writing each day and how much I wrote. And I keep another chart, where I have scheduled all of my planned writing sessions per semester, and at the end of each session, I pencil in the task for the next session.

Katie Padgett Walsh

Two helpful books for those looking to develop habits and strategies to improve their productivity:

Professors as Writers
How to Write a Lot

David Morrow

I agree with Katie on this one, as I've said before: The time-focused strategy works better for me than the page-count-focused strategy, but you should do whatever works for you.

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