A major outcome of graduate education is the ability to write well in a variety of genres and to different audiences. However, this ability can take time to develop, and can require devoting time to developing writing strategies, learning new writing tools, and reviewing foundational skills in writing mechanics. Although making these efforts will benefit you at any stage in your graduate program, it is recommended that you begin these efforts in your first year of graduate school, building an important foundation for your later academic and professional success.


Steps You Can Take


Develop a Strategy for Effective Writing Habits and Time Management

Many people experience resistance to writing, which can result in procrastinating or completing writing projects at the last minute. While you may feel that you can only get written work done under a tight deadline, or even that your best work is done under this type of pressure, there is now evidence that creating a regular writing schedule is key to producing high quality and quantities of written work. Yet, the most effective writing habits and strategies vary from person to person, and it will likely require trial and error to find out what works best for you.

Effective writing habits typically incorporate aspects of both time management and project management. The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity has developed a Core Curriculum (sign in to access) set of webinars, many of which focus explicitly on writing, to help graduate students and faculty develop these skills. You can access this webinar series by creating an account through Berkeley’s institutional membership. This section elaborates on some of the most widely successful strategies and skills specific to developing effective writing habits that will be of use to you now and in future careers:

Create and follow a schedule or calendar. Setting and following a schedule or calendar is an essential skill for success in most careers and projects. Keeping a regular schedule can help you ensure that you have made time for all of your professional commitments, as well as your personal goals and writing goals. Consider which scheduling format and timescale works best for you. Some prefer to do everything digitally using Google calendar or other scheduling programs, others like to keep everything in a physical calendar or planner. Try choosing one approach and sticking with it; if you opt to use multiple calendaring tools, be sure to have one master schedule or calendar. Many people also find it effective to schedule themselves a regular time to review and update their calendar. Consider putting some time aside at the end of each week to ensure that your calendar for the upcoming week is finalized. If you don’t find that schedules or calendars work for you, consider which other planning tools might, such as to-do lists or phone reminders. 

It is often effective to have both a near-term calendar and long-term plan or calendar. To plan out long-term goals, some students opt to map out the major milestones they plan to complete over their entire graduate education, while others prefer to set a plan every year or semester. Consider using this template to set a one- or multi-year plan alongside your short-term calendaring format of choice. Watch the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity’s webinar “Every Semester Needs a Plan,” which graduate students can access by creating an account through Berkeley’s institutional membership.

Take stock of all of your deadlines and writing goals. Set aside time to make sure that you have all of your deadlines and goals for the upcoming year or semester written down in one place. Make sure that each of these deadlines is also added to your schedule or calendar. 

Set writing goals. Some of the key considerations for creating effective writing goals are setting priorities, breaking goals down into specific subgoals, making sure goals are realistic given your other responsibilities and constraints, and specifying a timeline or deadline. For setting priorities, consider adopting the quadrant system, which is summarized in the article “Time Management Strategies for Graduate Students” (Quinnipiac University). Also consider watching the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity’s webinar “Align Your Time with Your Priorities,” which graduate students can access by creating an account through Berkeley’s institutional membership.

Write every day. A key challenge to writing is overcoming the resistance to sitting down and getting work done. When you have a writing project that you are working towards completing, consider starting each work day with a short writing goal. Choose a goal of writing for a period of time that does not feel too intimidating, whether this is 15 minutes or an hour. The writing process can be uncomfortable for some, and it is a normal reaction to continue putting off this discomfort. By building a habit of writing a little bit each day, you can begin to build the skill of overcoming resistance to writing. You may also find that once you get the document open and start writing, you are able to continue writing beyond the goal you originally set. For more on the importance of daily writing and on how to tackle barriers to writing, read “How to Finish Your Dissertation,” Inside Higher Ed (2016).

Write in timed increments and take breaks. Working for fixed periods of time, and then taking a break, is often an effective way to manage your time. This is the basis of the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in 25-minute increments, followed by 5-minute breaks. You may find that other timed increments work better for your working style or schedule, such as 45-minute writing sessions, followed by 15-minute breaks. Many apps and websites offer timers designed for working in timed increments, including the Tomato Timer website and the Forest app.

Set up an accountability structure. It can be valuable to have external sources of accountability for your writing goals. See the section below on writing workshops, writing groups, and classes for more details on how groups and workshops can provide accountability. Also consider using other accountability tools, such as Focusmate, a website where you can schedule virtual work sessions with others so that you are both accountable for showing up and working for the intended amount of time.

For more on time management in general, the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (for which graduate students have access to Berkeley’s institutional membership) offers a variety of resources, such as the “Every Semester Needs a Plan,” “Mastering Academic Time Management,” and “Align Your Time with Your Priorities” webinars.

 

Learn How to Use Key Writing Tools

Another key part of building successful writing habits is adopting important writing tools early on, giving yourself time to get familiar with current options and figure out what works best for you. Typically, graduate students will choose tools or software for reference management, word processing or writing, and notetaking. Commonly used reference and citation management tools include Zotero, Mendeley, RefWorks, and Endnote. The University Library offers a comparison of these options here. For completing small writing projects, many graduates will stick with Microsoft Word, which students have free access to through Berkeley’s subscription to Microsoft 365. For larger writing projects, consider other writing software options such as LaTex (or a LaTeX interface such as TeXworks or Overleaf) or Scrivener. LaTeX is particularly good for formatting large writing projects and Scrivener has many useful features to simplify working on large writing projects. 

 

Participate in a Writing Workshop, Writing Group, or Course

Start early. From the outset of your graduate program, think strategically about the resources that can help you develop your writing skills. Some departments offer writing courses or workshops, but there are also valuable courses on writing open to graduate students from all departments. For example, the Graduate Writing Center (GWC)  offers offers a 2-unit seminar course (GSPDP 320) on Academic Writing for Graduate Students every spring. This course is particularly useful for beginning graduate students.

Knowing how to connect with communities that can support you in the writing process is a skill that will serve you well as a new faculty member, or in a variety of careers that involve long-term independent projects. There is evidence that writing groups can help graduate students to stay motivated and meet deadlines (see, for example, the 2012 article “Write On! Through to the Ph.D.: Using Writing Groups to Facilitate Doctoral Degree Progress”).

The Graduate Writing Center (GWC) is a key resource on campus for graduate students at all stages of their graduate career. The GWC offers regular workshops such as “How to Write an Academic Grant Proposal” and “Writing the Dissertation: Strategies and Pitfalls.” The Center features workshops on writing proposals for specific grants such as “Applying for a Fulbright-IIE Grant” and prepares students to conduct responsible research by hosting a workshop on “Human Subjects Research: What is it? How Do You Navigate through the IRB Process?” The Center also offers writing groups, writing boot camps, and individual writing consultations that are free to all graduate students. The Graduate Writing Center’s Quick Guides provide helpful resources on various aspects of academic and professional writing.

Consider joining the Graduate Writing Center’s Graduate Writing Community, where graduate students come together to make progress on their writing. As part of the Writing Community, students receive writing prompts, check in with a small group of colleagues, and participate in weekly writing sessions. Having a supportive community to discuss the challenges and accomplishments of writing can be vital to your success as a writer, whether you find that community in these groups or elsewhere. 

There are other writing group and community options as well. Graduate students in the humanities and social sciences can hone their writing skills and receive peer feedback through a weekly writing group hosted by Berkeley’s Humanities and Social Sciences Association geared to early career researchers (including graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars) affiliated with the University.

The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) sponsors writing boot-camps as well as the 14-Day Writing Challenge, both recurring seasonally in the fall, spring, and summer. The NCFDD programs offer structure, accountability, and community support to help you set and accomplish your writing goals, and all Berkeley grad students can activate their free membership here.

For advice on how to start a writing group, see “Starting an Effective Dissertation Writing Group,” Stanford University Hume Writing Center, “Making a Writing Group that Works,” Inside Higher Ed (2016), or “The Writers’ Workshop at Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2011). For tips on establishing and maintaining a regular “writing date,” see “The Writing Date,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2008).

 

Learn How to Give and Receive Feedback on Writing

Both seeking and giving feedback can be harder than we might think. However, receiving and responding to feedback is crucial to developing your skills as a writer in graduate school and beyond. Getting helpful feedback may sometimes require being proactive. Be explicit on the type of feedback that would benefit you most. If you are taking a course with written assignments, go to office hours or schedule a time to meet with the instructor or professor and discuss your written assignment submissions in person. Proactively ask your advisors and peers to review written materials for you, and where appropriate, offer to reciprocate the favor. It is also important to be intentional about how you react to and respond to feedback. Many people experience strong emotional reactions when they receive feedback on their work, which can make it difficult to request feedback in the first place.  For more on the art of giving and receiving feedback, see the article “Your Writing Needs Feedback. This is How to Give and Get it” by Leigh Shulman (2019).