Degree In Sight

Writing is hell for Paul J. Silvia, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. The only part of writing he likes is the "appalled relief" he feels when a project is finished. And, like most psychology graduate students, he didn't receive any training in writing.

"It's somehow just assumed that people know how to write innately, as part of their graduate student genes," says Silvia. "That's not true. You learn how to write from books, from mentors and from the long process of struggle."

Nonetheless, Silvia's resume lists three dozen journal articles, two scholarly books and a new APA volume called "How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing," which he wrote to help spare others the difficulties he once faced. Now he and other psychologists are eager to share their secrets for getting beyond the blank screen and getting down to writing conference abstracts, dissertations, journal articles, grant proposals and anything else on your to-do list.


A fear of failure--a professor giving a paper a poor grade or a journal editor rejecting a manuscript--causes students and faculty alike to put off writing tasks. But there's a way to beat the resulting perfectionism and procrastination: Schedule time to write. Professional writers sit down during set times to work, says Silvia, and so should students and junior faculty.

"If you schedule writing time and force yourself to do it, over time it becomes a habit," says Silvia, who writes between 8 and 10 in the morning Monday through Friday. "That way you don't have to wait for inspiration or wait until you feel like doing it, which is never." This "mindless routine" approach doesn't just conquer writer's block, says Silvia. It also puts the fun back into leisure time. When it's the weekend, he says, you don't feel guilty about not writing because you know you've got a date with your desk first thing Monday morning.

Grabowski takes a different approach, advising students to apply their training in human behavior to their own writing. Start by analyzing your own behavior: What are the positive outcomes and how can you reinforce each step? Next, analyze the task: What's required and how long will it take? Then, set your sights on a reward for completing the task--coffee with friends, a movie, iPod downloads--and establish reinforcers, such as checking in with fellow students.


Once you're actually writing, say the experts, the most important thing to keep in mind is your readers' needs. When it comes to academic writing one size definitely doesn't fit all. Experienced faculty members offer specific tips on the most common kinds of academic writing:

Theses and dissertations. Master's theses and dissertations can be so daunting--whether from their sheer size or seeming importance--that students become paralyzed by procrastination or perfectionism. It helps to keep things in perspective, says John M. Darley, PhD, the Warren Professor of Psychology at Princeton University and co-editor of the second edition of "The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide" (APA, 2003).

"Stunningly few people are going to read your dissertation," notes Darley. "The dissertation itself is not usually going to be your claim to fame." Just get it done, he urges.

How? Break the project down into smaller tasks and set a deadline for each step. And have mercy on yourself and your readers by writing concisely and resisting the urge to cram everything into the dissertation, says psychology professor Susan K. Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, director of graduate studies in Yale University's psychology department.

"The old days of the 500-page dissertation are gone, at least in psychology, " she says. "We actively discourage students from having very long dissertations and instead tell them to think of it as a somewhat extended journal article."

For more dissertation tips, see the gradPSYCH Web site.

  • Journal articles. Think about possible markets for your work even as you begin your research, says Darley. Consult the journals to see what topics interest editors, what they've covered and how your research might fit in. Your goal is to come up with a list of targets--three or four journals that publish your kind of research.

With these publications in mind, start writing--very economically. Strive for succinct but persuasive, says Nolen-Hoeksema. This is where your adviser can really help.

Most importantly, she says, your adviser has the emotional detachment to suggest text to cut. That means learning to hit delete not only for repetitious or wordy sections, she says, but also for material that may be fascinating but just not appropriate for the current project.

"It's often difficult for students to let go of material they've spent hours and hours generating," she says. "Other people can see where to cut because they're not personally involved in it."

And if you're transforming your dissertation into a journal article, adds Darley, don't think you can just throw out every third sentence. "It may well be that no sentence is preserved," he says.

  • Conference abstracts. With an abstract, says Nolen-Hoeksema, you have to strip things down even more.

"Make a list of the points you absolutely have to get in there," she recommends.

You probably won't have room for anything more than one sentence of introduction, one sentence about methodology and two sentences about results, she says.

"I hate writing abstracts," confesses Nolen-Hoeksema. "You can't really transmit much of anything."

Grant proposals. Psychology students generally don't get as much training as they should in grant writing, says psychiatry professor John Grabowski, PhD.

"The problem most grad students and postdocs have is that they're trained to write dissertations," says Grabowski, who directs the Substance Abuse Research Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. As a result, he says, they tend "to endlessly search the literature and write something like a dissertation" even though the space limitations for grants are typically extreme.

That problem and most of the other ones Grabowski encounters as both a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant reviewer and a teacher of grant writing boil down to the same thing: failing to know and follow the rules. NIH, for example, not only specifies page limits but also font sizes, margin widths and the like.

Be concise, says Grabowski, and don't be afraid to recycle.

"The first grant application you do is really difficult, because everything is new," he says. "Assuming that you're continuing in the same general area of research, there are bits and pieces that can be used in the next iteration. You don't have to treat each application as if it's completely new."


No matter how good a writer you are, you're bound to get some negative feedback on occasion. The trick is to learn from criticism rather than getting defensive or simply giving up.

"The first reaction is often something like, 'How could they say that? They don't know what they're talking about!'" says Grabowski. "Well, typically reviewers aren't wrong."

Use reviewers' comments to strengthen any weak sections. With grant proposals or journal articles, refer to any advances in the field that have occurred since your original submission. If reviewers have misinterpreted a point, make your writing clearer so they won't misunderstand the next time around.

Whatever you do, emphasizes Darley, don't ignore criticism--even if you completely disagree with it. For one thing, editors get grumpy if you resubmit a piece without wholeheartedly addressing concerns. If you don't agree with a particular criticism, respectfully note that you see the merit in the reviewer's viewpoint and then explain why you're going to do something different. But do something no matter what. Don't think you can get away with resubmitting a piece unchanged to a different editor, either.

"It's a small world," says Darley. "Word will get back to the editor that 'Wait a minute! I reviewed this for another journal and none of my helpful comments got addressed.'"

Even more importantly, he says, you can learn from feedback. Draw on reviewers' comments to make your work stronger next time.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

"It's often difficult for students to let go of material they've spent hours and hours generating... Other people can see where to cut because they're not personally involved in it."

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema
Yale University