In many ways, this topic should fit under the umbrella of “Not following instructions”, a common mistake in academic writing that kicked off this series. However, having been on both sides of this issue, it is such an important aspect that I felt it deserved its own spot on the list.
Because I have seen friends squander deadlines six months in the future, always expecting that they would be able to work on the paper “later, when everything else is done” … before suddenly realizing “later” was now and the paper was due the following week.
I have been that person who was frantically trying to finish writing a paper as the conference’s deadline ticked down, squeezing every second out of an eight-hour time difference. The quality of my writing suffered and it wasn’t worth the stress that went along with it.
I have also been on the end of the phone, having to explain to someone that while I know they spent a lot of time on their application, unfortunately they submitted it after the call for proposals closed and no, I’m afraid I cannot open it again.
First of all, please accept that deadlines are there for a reason. A line has to be drawn somewhere to give those on the other end of it the chance to do whatever comes next: send papers out for review, have documents typeset, or begin marking under tight turnaround times. For publications and calls for funding in particular, deadlines are sacrosanct.
A little time pressure can do wonders for focus, but rushed writing is often muddled, and ideas haven’t been given the necessary chance to mature. I know it’s easier said than done, but one way around this is to take the time to plan your writing:
- Pre-work: Think about the structure of your paper and create an outline: are there specific sections you must include? If not, what is the most logical way of telling the story of your research? What references will you need? What are the main points you need to get across? And, of course, who is your audience? If you are submitting to a journal, conference, or funding agency, make sure to look at the assessment criteria before you start writing. If you’re a student, speak with your instructor: they often have a rubric that outlines what is expected at each level (it may also be discussed in the course syllabus).
- First draft: Get your initial ideas down on paper. It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect! Often people run into problems by expecting the first draft to be the same as the final draft, but if you have given yourself enough time, you should be able to polish a paper by going through a few more iterations.
- Second draft: This is where you can start to clean up your initial brain dump. Does the structure you’re using make sense and guide the reader through your argument or research? Do the paragraphs transition neatly from one to another (good), or are there abrupt shifts in subject or tone (bad)? Are the points you wanted to make coming across clearly?
- Solicit feedback from friends, colleagues, and mentors: Depending on what you’re writing, having constructive criticism from others can be an absolutely vital part of the writing process. Building in internal deadlines when people are expecting to receive your paper also helps keep you on track!
- Formatting: This often takes far more time than you expect, but it is an incredibly important part of the process, especially for academic papers. Are all your figures, graphs, and tables captioned consistently? And have you double checked all your data for accuracy? Are formulas formatted correctly? Does the bibliography follow the appropriate style guide? Have you followed all of the necessary instructions regarding fonts, margins, citations, etc.?
- Final draft: After taking feedback into consideration, you should now have a more or less complete version of your paper. Congratulations!
- Proofreading: It is always helpful to have someone look over your paper with fresh eyes to catch any typos, grammatical mistakes, or formatting errors. Some proofreaders can even help with your formatting; just ask! If editing is necessary, then you will want to get someone involved a bit earlier in the process to make sure you’re happy with the suggested changes. And if you’re really squeezed for time, check out my tips for how to proofread your own paper.
Actually schedule these different parts of the writing process into specific time slots in your calendar or diary, and be as realistic as possible regarding the time it will take. Hint: It will always take more time than you think.
In an ideal world, try to give yourself at least a few days away from the document so you can approach it with fresh eyes and give it a final once over before submission: you may be surprised how much your subconscious has been working on it in the interim!
What if you’re running behind? Depending on what you’re submitting, you can ask for an extension, but be prepared for a firm no (and regardless of the answer, please be polite to the person at the other end of the phone or email). If something has genuinely come up that will prevent you from finishing on time—accident, illness, technical problems*—ask before the deadline to see if there is any flexibility. It is often easier for an organization to plan for tardiness than to be surprised by it.
Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Academia is absolutely full of deadlines whooshing by left, right, and center, but with a bit of planning you’ll be able to hit them out of the park.**
* For technical problems when submitting to a publication or funding agency, take screenshots of your computer to show the time and the error that occurred. Likewise, you may want to take a screenshot showing successful submission; this may help if it turns out your document wasn’t received on the other end. If at all possible, try submitting at least an hour before the given deadline to avoid the last-minute rush at the end.
** For British readers, this is a baseball metaphor; for football (US readers: soccer), substitute with “you’ll be able to hit the back of the net.”