It’s hard to find time to write. When you do, you want to protect that time and use it as efficiently as possible.
Here are three tips to help you do that. They all implement the general idea that you should defer non-writing tasks for the sake of staying in “writing mode” and avoiding rabbit holes.1
- Use a to-do list to get nagging tasks out of your head.
- Use placeholders to separate research from writing.
- Use tools that separate writing from formatting.
1. Use a To-Do List
Many tasks are easier and more immediately gratifying than writing. When one of those tasks comes to mind during a writing session, it is difficult to muster the willpower to stay on task, particularly when that other task is a worthy one.
My solution to this problem is to keep a piece of paper beside me when I write and to jot down a quick note whenever a non-writing task comes to mind. At the end of a writing session, I either process that list immediately or put it in my inbox for later processing.
The power of this approach comes from the fact that once I have written the task down, I am able to stop thinking about it. As David Allen says, I get it out of my head and into a trusted system. As a result, I’m able to use my head to think about things instead of using it to keep thinking of things.
2. Use Placeholders
Suppose you want to cite something that Anderson wrote, but you can’t remember which of Anderson’s papers it is in. You first inclination would probably be to stop writing and peruse Anderson’s papers until you find the citation you need.
There are three major problems with this approach:
- It requires switching back and forth between “writing mode” and “research mode,” which is very inefficient.
- It exposes you to many possible rabbit trails that could keep you away from writing for a long time.
- If you remove the Anderson citation in later editing, then the time you spent looking it up was completely wasted.
You can avoid all of these problems by using placeholders. Journalists commonly use “TK,” a pseudo-acronym for “to come,” for this purpose. Just insert “TK” where you would normally put the Anderson citation, and keep writing. When (and only when) you are putting the finishing touches on a version of the paper that you intend to share, you can search for the string “TK” and fill in whatever is needed. (“TK” works better for this purpose than “TC” because “TK” is a more unusual letter combination, so a search for the string “TK” yields fewer false positives.)
3. Use Tools That Separate Writing from Formatting
Many word processing tools tend to lead one to worry about formatting one’s text at the same time that one is producing it. Fans of LaTeX often criticize WYSIWIG editors such as Word on these grounds, but I have trouble with it in LaTeX as well. When I write in a LaTeX editor, I have a hard time resisting the urge to compile my text and see what it looks like, which often leads to rabbit trails of fixing errors and tweaking minor details.
My solution to this problem is to write drafts in Markdown using a simple editor with basic Markdown syntax highlight (e.g. MarkdownPad (PC)) and to use Pandoc to convert my file to LaTeX at the end. This approach has two main advantages over simply writing in LaTeX from the beginning: (1) Markdown syntax is simpler and easier to read than LaTeX syntax, which helps with avoiding distractions and with editing, and (2) writing in an editor with LaTeX capabilities eliminates the temptation to compile and check my document as I go along.
Of course, the main disadvantage of this approach compared to simply writing in LaTeX from the beginning is that it requires converting my document from Markdown to LaTeX when I want to produce a polished document to share. Thankfully, Pandoc makes this process relatively painless by automating most of it.
(By the way, Pandoc can also convert a document written in Markdown or LaTeX into HTML or Word, which is a lifesaver for online posting or for submitting to a forum that requires Word.)
This particular workflow may or may not meet your needs. My main suggestion is to find some set of systems for limiting distractions so that you can write when you should be writing.
Question: What tools or techniques do you use to increase the productivity of your writing time?
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