How to start (and finish) a writing project

by | Feb 22, 2018 | academic writing, time management

The two obstacles to writing more that I often hear from hundreds of clients I’ve helped over the years are:

“I don’t know how to start”

And, ironically:

“I have a bunch of projects lying around that I can’t finish.”

Starting and finishing. The good news is, these are two symptoms of one root problem: you haven’t mastered writing project management. That’s OK! Most of us never learn project management, even though SO much of what we do as academics requires it.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through what it means to think about writing as a project manager, and tell you some concrete steps to start implementing project management skills applied to your writing.

You’ve already done project management, you just probably haven’t thought about it as such. When you planned, researched, and wrote your dissertation, you did writing project management. Maybe you got some dissertation tips along the way from your advisor (maybe you didn’t), but you figured it out.

One of the reasons I started Scholar’s Voice is that I truly believe we need to change the culture of “you’ll figure it out” in academia. In other words, I want to teach you how to do things that otherwise you are just expected to learn how to do, baptism-by-fire style. So let’s dig in!


The 3 pillars of academic writing project management

You’ll need 30 minutes to 1 hour to do the work of the three pillars (if you don’t have a writing system in place, it might take a bit more time). You’ll also need whatever system you’re using for your to-do list and calendar.


1) Break down writing projects into tasks

The first project management skill that you need to develop is the ability to break projects up into tasks. Here’s why that skill is important: You can’t put projects on your calendar, nor on your to-do list. If you are putting “write article” or “finish book chapter” on your to do list, that’s your first big mistake. Doing this leaves you wondering what part of the writing project to work on first, messes with your mindset as it seems like you can never check off the project as done, and just generally decreases the chance you’ll actually work on the thing.

Instead, you first need to break down your writing project into management tasks. You want to think of a “task” as something that you can get done in one or two writing sessions—not more. For example, writing the abstract is something that you could probably do in an hour. Writing the results section might have to be broken down further.

Your goal is to get your writing project into bite-sized pieces that you can put on your calendar or to-do list.


2) Schedule out the tasks

Once you’ve broken your project down into tasks, it’s time to schedule them out. There are a few ways to do this, and I encourage you to choose the way that suits your work habits the best.

Both ways require that you have a writing system in place, and that you have that system mapped onto your calendar. I recommend finding your Soaring State™, or your best, most energetic focused time of day to work, and then blocking at least an hour per week during that time (learn more about finding your Soaring State™ here)


Method 1: Map the tasks onto your calendar

Take your writing project task breakdown and map it on to the writing times on your calendar. If you have trouble getting started, I suggest finding your low-hanging fruit (the task that is “easiest” for you to complete—whatever “easy” means for you) and doing that FIRST so that you set yourself up for a quick win.


Method 2: Keep your task list as a “bank,” then pull things on to your to-do list for the day.

Another method of getting your tasks done is to work with a very simple system of getting three things done per day. This helps mitigate overwhelm and gives a sense of accomplishment.

So the way this works is that at the end of each day, you plan out the three essential tasks that need to get done on the following day. So, you keep your writing project task list as a “bank” of tasks that could get pulled onto your “Three Essential Things” list. You can do this in your bullet journal, in a paper planner, have three post-it notes stuck where you can see them, or use an online tool like Trello. Regardless, the idea is to have a “bank” of writing tasks and pull them onto your to-do list one by one.


3) Do the tasks

Yes, this is the hardest part. I love to break things down and make a plan, but then you also have to stick to the plan! Sticking to the plan will be easier if you create a positive feedback loop between you and your writing.

Here are some tips on doing that:

— Write during your Soaring State™ so that you feel like writing flows

— Set up a reward system for when you check something off your task list

— Figure out what your BIG reward will be for finishing your project

In the end, you need to commit to doing the work and revel in the feeling of getting your writing out into the world.


Writing and Publishing Support


If you’d like support for your writing and publishing process, there are a few ways that I can help you:

Check out the Navigate program details and get on the waitlist here! Our 12-week program helps tenure-track womxn and nonbinary professors with a disruptive perspective on their field to publish their backlog of papers so that their voice can have the impact they know is possible.

Listen to my podcast, Academic Writing Amplified, created for womxn and nonbinary professors who want to write and publish more while rejecting the culture of overwork in academia.

Get my book, Making Time to Write: How to Resist the Patriarchy and Take Control of Your Academic Career Through Writing. Learn how to build your career around your writing practice while shattering the myths of writing every day, accountability, and motivation, doing mindset work that’s going to reshape your writing, and changing academic culture one woman and nonbinary professor at a time. Get your print copy today or order it for a friend here!


Episode 89: Why Investing In Yourself Is a Radical Act of Self-Care

Episode 89: Why Investing In Yourself Is a Radical Act of Self-Care

Why is investing in ourselves as womxn and nonbinary academics a radical act? And what should you do if your institution doesn’t want to invest in you? Making your career what you want it to be is up to you. There’s a lot of talk these days about self-care, but what...

Episode 29: Hit the Reset Button

Episode 29: Hit the Reset Button

Is it time to hit the reset button? When we are in unusual circumstances we are forced out of the ‘norm’. And while that can definitely have its downsides, it can also give us an opportunity to reevaluate how we’re doing things.      This moment in time...

How to Handle Stress, Anxiety, and Overwhelm in Academia

How to Handle Stress, Anxiety, and Overwhelm in Academia

How do you feel when you get to work in the morning? When you look at your to-do list, do you feel completely overwhelmed? Have you ever felt the beginnings of a panic attack when you think about the amount of stuff you have to do? For most of us, the answer is “yes.”...

Stay current in Academic Publishing

Subscribe to our newsletter:

In the Pipeline

writing tips, publishing trends, reading recomendations, free workshops

In The Pipeline Newsletter

Send me Writer's Retreat updates by email!

Send me Writer's Retreat updates by email!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Get Your Cheat Sheet!

Get the PDF Cheat Sheet right to your inbox!

Check your email to find your cheat sheet!

Skip to content
We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.