August 12, 2017

Common sense, but unusual, tips for better writing

5 ways for PR pros to sharpen their writing by Megan Krause

I LOVE this article from PR Daily (click on title to read).  The advice is spot on, and it goes beyond the typical advice, such as "use the active voice."

My favorite tip is:  Stop Being Wishy-Washy.  As the author states:
When you're done writing, go back through your copy eyeing timid words and phrases. Strike out any instance of "just"—as in, "I'm just writing to say" or "I just want you to know"—you don't need to qualify what you're saying. It's OK to have an opinion.
I've given the same advice to my academic coaching clients.  And I agree that you should edit later to find the wishy-washy phrases, as opposed to trying to write that way in your first drafts.  See the article for the list of words to look out for.

The wishy-washiness goes beyond words that weaken the sentence.  Writers can be wishy-washy about getting to the point, even hiding their main argument in a pile of words.  I tell my clients:

Come right out and say it!

Don't make the reader search for your main point!   You don't want your reader to be annoyed with you before you even get to the point.  Own it, state it proudly, then explain. 

I've done exactly this myself, when I write newsletter articles and blog post.  Often I've found that the second or third paragraph can become the first, and it then looks perfectly clear.  So play around with the order of your paragraphs, once you've written a few drafts.  You may be surprised at how much better it reads.

November 25, 2016

The Second Holiday Writing Challenge for Academics

academics ready to writeHere's a little boost for those who need a little kickstart to write over the holidays.  I first offered a Holiday Writing Challenge back in 2005, so I'd say it's about time to do it again.

Here's what you do: Post in the comment section:
  • what you'd like to work on (if anything) over the holidays, and
  • the maximum amount of time you'd like to spend on it daily.
Please keep this time limit reasonable and low unless you're under huge deadline pressure -- in which case you don't need this challenge in order to get something done!

Whether you're a professor or a grad student, make sure you get a copy of the Dissertation Toolkit.  These tools will give you more information and tips for productive and creative writing.

 For those of you who have had trouble making yourself write, you may want to start with VERY short writing goals. Even 5 or 10 minutes will be enough to get you jumpstarted.  Don't go more than 25 or 30 minutes without a break.

Using a timer helps. Many subscribe to the Pomodoro technique of scheduling writing sessions.

This article will help you if you tend to aim for too much time and then beat yourself up because you couldn't do it.

After you post what you'd like to work on and your maximum time per day, what's next?  Go back to this post daily, weekly or just at the end of the challenge (shall we say January 15?) to say how you did, to tell us about your problems or to encourage and commiserate with others.

This experience will give you a teeny tiny feel of the Academic Writing Club.

So, to summarize:
  • Post what you're working on
  • Post your daily time commitment
  • Post again periodically to tell us how you're doing -- I'll receive all posts as emails and will comment and encourage you!
If you think you'll need more than a little boost to get you going and/or keep you going, please join the Academic Writing Club. Thousands of academics like you have used the AWC to boost their writing productivity.

If you're already a member, get a friend to join: then you can both use the coupon code REFERME to get $10 off!

Good luck and happy holidays!

October 31, 2015

Effective, Efficient, Effectual, and Efficacious: Attempts to Define

Are there some words that drive you crazy because you're not sure which of many apparent synonyms to choose?

Maeve Maddox, who writes the Daily Writing Tips blog, discusses the various ways that the words "effective," "efficient," "effectual" and efficacious can be used. 

I thought that these words may play a part in your scholarly writing; or maybe, like me, you just enjoy thinking about words and language.

effective stampIf so, then check out her blog.  It will be an efficient use of your time, and may be an effective way to improve your writing.

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January 8, 2015

Poms revisited

Poms, Pomodoros, Tomayto, Tomahto...

I received a reminder today from Ellis Wakefield that this blog hasn't featured Poms for a while.  He wrote me to let me know that he had recently published a short article called "The Pomodoro Technique – The Ultimate Task Ender" in Red Shed, about the use of Poms, or Pomodoros, in getting tasks done.  I thought it was a nice, clear, simple explanation and I refer you there.

We've blogged about Poms before -- see "What on Earth Are Poms?" by Susanne Morgan.

Here is the official Pomodoro Website and the book created by Francesco Cirillo, the originator of the Pomodoro Technique.

Want Your Own Tomato?

Want your own Pomodoro Timer?
Click the tomato -- it's only US $.49
In case you get inspired to have your own actual tomato timer ("pomodoro" is Italian for tomato) ticking away while you write, click on the tomato timer on the right to access one for $.49.  Many Pomodoro technique fanatics feel the ticking is soothing but also reminds you to stay on task.

The Pomodoro Technique has become incredibly popular in the chat rooms in our Academic Writing Club (AWC), our structured, online, accountability-based coaching system that has helped thousands and thousands of academics write more productively and improve their careers.

As a matter of fact, below is a screenshot of a recent Challenge Chat, which is inexplicably beige -- I haven't figured out how to turn it back to a white background!

As you can see, this Challenge Chat is hosted by Coach Debra.

Debra hosts these Challenge Chat at regularly scheduled times, and Academic Writing Club members join her for that extra motivation to write.  It's like meeting a friend in the coffee shop to do some work.  In fact, we call our main chat the Club Café.  There's nothing like companionship when you work.

Debra asks people to say what they're going to work on, and then they switch to Pom language.  I'd like to call it Pomeranian, but some dogs took that name.  After 25 minutes (the first Pom), they reconvene and say how their writing has gone during that Pom.

Then some decide to keep the Poms going, with breaks according to the Pom rules.

A Challenge Chat, which in reality has a WHITE BACKGROUND AND NOT BEIGE.  Sorry to rant.

Consider joining us in the Academic Writing Club!  As you can see people have lots of fun and lots of Poms and support each other, and they get fantastic results.  Can you afford not to write?  

What do you think of this Pomodoro Technique?

September 25, 2014

Are you an editorial hypocrite?

Why do some academics still sniff at the idea of using a professional editor?

Some in academia believe that without rigorous standards the integrity of their rarified product is at risk.  I argue that this is not only untrue, but harmful to the productivity of many academic writers. I’m not the first one to raise these questions, but I have a few pretty good arguments that I hope will convince you to use a professional editor if you feel the need.  Let’s look at the myths that keep academics from using an editor
  • The editor might give you an idea, so it’s not original. I’m tackling the big one first.  Try this on for size:  it’s not where an idea comes from that matters. After all, you get ideas from all kinds of places – colleagues at conferences, from your friends, peers, the guy next door, your professors, in classes. People are noting ideas from each other all the time.  No idea belongs entirely to anyone.

    What matters is the originality of an argument and its precise expression, the persuasiveness of a thesis based on the evidence presented.

  • The best work gets done by one isolated individual. Creative writers in MFA programs expose their work to relentless workshopping, and yet no one questions whether the final draft of a story, poem or novel belongs to that writer alone. In many disciplines, particularly in certain areas of the humanities, personal creativity and originality are at stake, and yet collaboration (which is not what editors do) is understood to be part of the process.

    How is the issue different for a writer because he or she is an academic? If one’s position is that editing is synonymous with collaboration, then why is that argument not universally extended to any kind of writing?

  • We’re so smart that we can do our own editing.  Intelligence and writing ability are not necessarily correlated.  Also, in some circumstances, employing an editor is a necessity: In multi-author works, for example, a disinterested party is essential to smooth out transitions and create a consistent tone. Without that, the paper will feel like a series of chapters by different authors instead of the joint project it was intended to be.

  • I don’t care if English isn’t your first language; that’s no excuse to hire an editor.  So many brilliant and creative academics come to English-speaking countries to enjoy our excellent educational system.  Most English-speaking people are not even fluent in one other language, particularly when it comes to language. After all, people who came to their new country 40 years ago can make small language mistakes.  (I should know; I’m engaged to one!)  

    Even native English speakers get confused about their own language.  For example, prepositions.  People are now starting to say, “I’m excited for…” instead of “I’m excited about.”  In many cases, when English is an academic’s second language, not employing an editor would be a tragic mistake.  

  • Because some people use writing help unethically, we should ban any kind of help with writing.  Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways of using editorial help. It’s never acceptable to hire someone to do the writing for you, or to plagiarize published sources.  But let’s not get carried away because some people do the wrong thing.  Let’s bring an informed understanding of what legitimate editors and writing coaches actually do. 

  • Dissertation advisors or faculty mentors provide enough help, so academics don’t need editors.  No comment needed.
It’s unrealistic to expect academics to be experts at everything, if you value academic excellence, then it’s hypocritical to discourage the use of professional editors.

Is it OK to use a professional editor?  Where do you stand on this?

August 21, 2014

If procrastination is "a common pulse of humanity," then what can we do to stop it?

In "Getting over Procrastination," NY Times writer Maria Konnikova discusses Piers Steel's research The Procrastination Equation, Steel explains that "procrastination leads to lower over-all well-being, worse health, and lower salaries."
on procrastination, reporting Steel's finding that procrastination is "a common pulse of humanity," and that it affects 99% of college students in one way or another and translates to significant monetary losses in the work world.  In his book,

So if procrastination is so bad for us, why do we do it?  According to Konnikova, Steel's research indicates the answer lies on "the flip side of impulsivity."  Those of us who are not good at self-regulating or delaying rewards until after we have engaged in unpleasant tasks will often be the same people who struggle the most with procrastination.

But I wonder -- most academics have been able to delay rewards while they suffered and struggled to achieve their goals.  Most of you were not the kind of child who never did your homework, for example.

Yet academics struggle with procrastination, especially on projects that have no external deadlines.  So, for example, a faculty member may write a report for the dean, but neglect her own manuscript.  After all, that can wait until tomorrow and the dean can't.

In a way, academics have learned to put their needs last.  And writing up your own research is much more unpleasant than whipping up a report.  Besides, you have no choice with the report.

Procrastination is a more insidious problem for those who have seemingly endless time to complete their project.  Unfortunately, however, the time until completion is not endless.  You either finish your dissertation or leave, at some point. You either publish enough (and fulfill other requirements) to get tenure, or you're out.  And there is a specific date for that.  Seemingly very far in the future.  Not.

If you are a chronic procrastinator, Konnikova's entire article is well worth a look, as is Steel's book. The article also includes a link to an online procrastination test and several other tools that may help you assess your tendencies to put off that which is the most important, or, in Stephen Covey terms, those tasks that are "important but not urgent."

Be sure to watch this blog for a follow-up article, where I'll offer some practical suggestions on how you can tame the procrastination beast.

Do you procrastinate, especially on your own important writing that has no specific deadline?  If so, what strategies have worked for you at interrupting procrastination's common but destructive pulse? Is the supposedly non-existent deadline actually creeping up on you?  

November 1, 2013

Participating in Academic Writing Month? Six Cool Tools for Planning and Drafting Your Writing

Did you know that November is National Academic Writing Month? Based on the same concept that has led novelists all over the world to write 1667 words a day for the month of November, Academic Writing month focuses on helping writers meet daily word count or time-based goals.

Don't want to write 1000+ words a day? No problem. Academic Writing month allows you to set your own goals. It's a way to be mindful about what you want to accomplish during the month of November--a month when many of us will be happy just to make it to Thanksgiving.

Many of you know that I prefer time goals to word # goals. But we all need to change it up every once in a while, and you need to experiment to find what works for you. So give word # goals a try and see if it helps you!

Are you intrigued by the concept, but not sure where to start? Or do you already have goals for your writing, but you're still facing the terror of the blank page? You might want to check out these free (or nearly free) websites below, which are designed to get your minds and fingers moving:

1) Freemind

When planning out your academic writing, it's important to let your mind roam, but then to capture some of that roaming on paper. A good tool for managing that process is a brainstorming tool called a mindmap. Rather than arranging an outline in a linear order, mindmapping allows the writer to discover the relationships between ideas and to express them in a more fluid, visual way. Freemind is an open-sourced mind mapping program that you can download to any computer, and while it is one of the older mindmapping tools available, its consistent presence on Internet "best mindmapping" lists makes it a definite tool to consider.


Similar to Freemind, is a simple, free mindmapping program. The virtue of is that you can go to it from anywhere on the Internet and just start working, right there on's site. The downside is that you will need to sign up and log in before you can save your map, so make sure that you do that if you don't want to lose your work. The plus side is that it's easy to use and you can get started without downloading a program.

3) Coggle 

Another useful tool, and perhaps even simpler than, Coggle is google's mindmapping tool. Completely free, it has most of the features of professional mindmapping software, and comes as a web app, so works whether you're a PC or a Mac User.

4) 750

For those times when you generally know what you're going to write, but still just can't seem to get started, 750 words is worth a try. Based on creativity guru Julia Cameron's concept of writing three daily “morning pages,” 750 words counts your words as you type, and whether it takes 15 minutes or two hours, when you reach 750, it awards you points. The more days in a row you write 750 words, the more points you get, until you win a virtual award. The website is cleanly laid out and intuitive, and while there is a $5 monthly fee to participate after the 30 day free trial expires, if you like writing to word count goals, this might be the best site for you.


While some writers may not like the dire name of Dr. Wicked's web app, many swear by it. Like 750 words, the application does count your words, but here there is no set word count goal as the site centers around the concept of timed-based goals and fluid, continuous writing. You can elect from three different writing modes: (1) gentle, where if you stop writing, you'll get a friendly prompt, (2) normal, which plays an unpleasant sound if you aren't writing consistently, and (3) kamikaze, where the screen actually turns red and if you don't continue to type after a certain period of time, the site begins erasing your words.

For those who prefer a gentler approach but don't want to set a goal as high as 750 words, writtenkitten may work for you. Similar to 750 words, writtenkitten provides an online writing space and counts your words as you write them. Unlike 750 words, this site allows you to choose your own word count goal and then displays an adorable animal photo if you reach it. You can choose to have a cute photo displayed after every 100, 200, 500, or 1000 words. If you like cute cat pictures, this may be the site for you. Caveat: Unless you use Google Chrome as a browser, the site won't save your work, so make sure to copy and paste.

Whatever tools you use, remember the important thing is that you're getting the words down. We support whatever you can do to help facilitate that process, including joining the Academic Writing Club, our supportive small group accountability-based program.  It is the original online accountability tool meant for academics only.  Learn more about the Academic Writing Club here.  If you haven't joined, why not give it a try when our next session starts? Remember, there is a new session every 4 weeks, so sign up now!  Click here now and get help you on your Academic Writing Month goals.