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BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Optimize your MiND: Successful Writing Strategies

AUTHOR: Vidhi Patel

Amidst the pandemic, many graduate students continue to work remotely with an increased focus on writing manuscripts. While it may be impossible for some of us to conduct hands-on research with participants, it is an optimal time to focus on writing up existing findings or to complete a systematic review in your field. However, it isn't easy to stay focused, motivated, and productive while working from home - not to mention the occurrence of inevitable bouts of writer’s block! Here are some strategies and resources that may help motivate you to complete your writing tasks:

  1. Set Long-Term Goals, Deadlines, and Rewards

In my opinion, one of the greatest advantages of graduate school is flexibility. This is particularly true in a thesis-based program where the number of required courses is limited and we have more liberty to plan our projects. However, I'm beginning to realize that the lack of deadlines and goals can lead to procrastination. To stay on track to meet your deadlines for writing assignments, it's useful to start early and set long-term goals. Begin with setting a deadline for yourself, then work your way backward and set goals to meet that deadline. For example, if you want to complete a manuscript in 10 weeks, set a deadline to have the first draft done by seven weeks and plan to submit it to your supervisor or colleagues for feedback by nine weeks. And most importantly, remember to reward yourself after meeting these deadlines to stay motivated. Setting deadlines for your writing assignments will allow you to pace yourself and track your progress throughout the writing process!

2. Make Daily Goals

While it is good to have long-term goals and deadlines for your writing projects, it is also important to specify your daily writing tasks. Instead of planning time to "write manuscript" make clear and specific goals for each day. For example, plan your time to "make figures for experiments X, Y, and Z" or "proofread the introduction”. Specifying what you want to accomplish each day allows you to stay focused and be more productive.

3. Keep an Idea Notebook

This isn't just a tip for scientific writing, it can also be applied to your research in general. Always keep a notebook or use an application dedicated to tracking your ideas. That way, the next time you have an excellent idea for your writing/research, you can quickly record it in your idea notebook and refer to it when needed. An idea notebook is a perfect tool for storing and organizing all your ideas in one spot.

 4.  Find Your Ideal Writing Time

Everyone prefers to work and is more productive at different times of the day. This is understandable given everyone's different work schedules. Plan some writing sessions at different times of the day to determine which time you prefer for your writing and when you're most productive. Try to schedule your writing during these times throughout the week.

  1. Dealing with Writer's Block/Burnout

If you're having trouble finding the motivation to start writing or feel exhausted because you've been writing too much, you should recognize that you're either experiencing writer's block or burnout. While meeting that deadline for a manuscript or assignment may seem very important at the moment, it's more important to prioritize your health. So, take a break from writing and go for a short walk or hike to a waterfall. 

It's important to take mental health breaks during the writing process to increase your productivity. If you're feeling distracted during your writing assignment, attempt a mind dump wherein you write down everything that comes to your mind for 10 or 15 minutes and then refocus your attention on the writing assignment at hand. There are also useful tools that can help guide your focus while writing, such as Pomodoro timers.

6. Resources at McMaster

The Writing Centre

You can book an appointment to have a certified writing advisor look over your writing. The appointments are 50 minutes, and you can book up to 10 per term. Check out their website for more information

McMaster University's Graduate Thesis Toolkit

This guide includes tips on organization, the writing process, and wellness while writing your thesis. You can access the Toolkit at

Virtual Grad Writing Boot Camp

Virtual write-ins can help you connect and concentrate while working remotely or in isolation. McMaster has a week-long boot camp every month to facilitate a supportive environment for writing and reflection. More information is available at