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There are very different types of papers, and they are written (at least by me) in very different ways. Some papers - those that focus on a clever argument - can be written in a short time. I would say a matter of weeks once one has an idea. But I also write papers that require significant research. For example, if I am including an analysis of the history of an argument (or problem), I write a draft (usually with an outline), and then do research as I realize the need for it. This can take a very long time. Indeed, it can take a year, but certainly many months.


It usually takes me about a month of working 1-3 hours a day, 5 days a week, to get a paper ready to submit to journals. Sometimes less, when I have a very clear idea of what I'm doing or can build on previous work, and sometimes more, when I have to bone up a lot on the reading or when the paper isn't immediately accepted or R&Red.

When I'm writing something new during the school year, it usually takes longer; I used to spend about half of my commute on public transit each day doing a bit of writing or research reading. Since we went fully remote in March, I try to schedule an hour a day. I give myself a specific, small research goal for the day, and find some time to achieve it. Piecemeal working really adds up quickly, even with a hefty teaching load.

I start by jotting down the sketch of an idea, and maybe a title (I often start the process with a title in mind, then find a paper that fits the title--I don't know that I'd recommend doing this, it's just how I think about the paper). I then have a think about the different sections the paper needs, jot those down, and then I start working on whichever section I think I can hammer out the easiest. That helps me approach the rest of the paper, structure my reading, etc. I sometimes start by copy/pasting quoted material I'll want to discuss and then write the paraphrase and discussion, and build up from that kernel; sometimes, I anchor myself in a couple key texts and copy/paste the important stuff into a separate document, then go through it all at once and highlight the most important bits, and proceed to copy/paste-and-paraphrase-and-discuss in the main document. Most of what I generate that way doesn't survive in any recognizable form, but it's a way of starting if I'm stuck.

And I keep doing this, section by section, until I've built up a draft paper, usually roughly conference-length. Then I really start going back over it, figuring out what needs shoring up and expanding, which sections aren't working, which sections I need to add, how I should reorganize the paper, what other reading I need to do, etc.

I typically start trying to write a conference-length paper, and build up and out from there, rather than aiming for a full article which I can cut down for conferences. That's because I find it easier to start by thinking and writing about a smaller, focused issue than a larger one. The broader issues become clearer as I'm writing, and then it's just a question of adding material. When I start the other way, I'm often much less certain about the value of what I've put together, or whether it even hangs together properly.

Each time I open up the paper and start working on it, I save it as a new draft. A full, publishable paper usually takes around 30 drafts, although it can be a fair bit more if the paper gets rejected a bunch, or if the R&Rs are substantial.


This is more about tools than process, but I'll put in a plug for Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview) which I use to research and write. It lets me compose in chunks, view those sections as notecards, an outline, or a ful draft, as well as to insert PDFs and keep them in folders along with notes for research. I can then export a draft to Word (or other formats) when I'm ready for that.

It also includes word counts & targets if you are aiming to write a certain amount per day.


In terms of length of time, I think it depends upon many factors. Responses pieces normally take less time for me. (I even wrote one in three days once (!), though that was admitted uncommon.) But more positive work takes longer than that. Frequently, my work has "gaps" in it, when I have to stop due to other commitments (e.g. teaching) or have to work on something else. I would imagine the it normally takes me about 3 months for most papers.

Overseas Tenured

I usually write outlines, but I don't think they are a must if (like Marcus) you don't find them helpful.

When I write a first draft, my main focus is to just get text on the paper. I don't care if it's terrible because I know I'll revise it later. I try hard not to write meta-footnotes like "say something about this argument" - instead, I already write something substantive, even if I know it won't work in that format. To be honest I barely even pay attention to grammar at this early stage. Generally, in a first draft I go exclusively for quantity. Once I have something that is roughly paper-length and I'm past the "blank sheet" stage, I find it much easier to just keep revising it. The version I submit usually hardly resembles the one I started with, but I can often use the scrap material for other papers later on.

(In a very helpful guide to grad school, Dan Korman aptly calls this the "puke and stir" method. It's a method that served me well and helped me place several papers in top-5 and top-10 journals.)

As to how much it takes from a first draft to a paper ready for submission: in my case, anywhere between 3 months and 5 years. But lately I've been averaging around a year or so. (I always work on many papers at the same time though.)


Puke and stir! I love it! That's a much more concise way of explaining what I was getting at above.

Importance of Offcuts

Others have covered most of my method, but wanted to explicitly speak to the value of an 'Offcuts' document. I have one associated with all my papers. It is for any parts (even single sentences) that I am deleting from the draft as I write that I think even vaguely might be useful in some way. Those saved little bits of writing are sometimes put back in the paper later, or can be recycled into other work. Having that second word document has saved me so much time over the years rewriting sections after changing my mind (or, often, when trying to respond to reviewer's comments)

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