Writing Skills Grants 101

7 Tips for Writing Better, Faster

Oct 26, 2023

How do you find time to write when you have other responsibilities? Someone asked me this after one of my recent workshops. Many of us struggle with this problem. I know this because a Twitter thread I wrote on finding time to write went viral (relatively speaking, for an academic issue). The thread accumulated over 650,000 impressions.

I want to address this question. But it feels terrible to talk about productivity when the world is in crisis. Many people are experiencing deep pain. I hope that each of you has access to support. And if this newsletter is not what you need today, please skip it. If you want a copy in the future, you’ll be able to find it in the newsletter archive.

Regarding the question of finding time to write, many people approach this question by creating extra hours in their day for writing. They go to bed late or wake up early. That worked for me in college. I’m a natural night owl, so I’d stay up late (e.g., my best friend and I often made mac and cheese at 3:00am as a study break).

But I have two young kids now. I cannot stay up late. I have to wake up by 6:30am most days. And I can’t wake up any earlier because I’m a night owl. That would be too painful. So instead of creating more waking hours, I’ve learned to make the most of my existing time. My goal is to write better, faster.

7 Tips for Writing Better, Faster

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Some areas of your life don’t need to be built from scratch. Free up time by recognizing those areas.

Example 1. I chose not to write this post from scratch. I’m building off of my existing thread. This saved me time, and hopefully saves you time so you don’t have to jump to X/Twitter to track down the old post.

Example 2. Teaching. Almost any course you’re building has been taught before. Ask colleagues if they might be willing to share materials (syllabus, slides, readings, exercises). Not everyone will share, but most of us benefit from others helping us. Many people will pay that generosity forward. You can ask colleagues outside of your institution. I once was on a job talk where a kind colleague burned a CD of his teaching materials for me to use in the future. I’ve seen many people ask for help on social media. The time you save can be used for writing (or whatever you choose to use it for).

2. Figure out your tiger time. This is when you’re most productive as a writer. Mine is 9:30 - 10:30am. That was a shock to me, because as you know now, I am a night owl. But turns out I form my best thoughts in the morning. Guard your tiger time by blocking it on your calendar.

Example. Many grant writers I interviewed said they are most productive when they take a writing retreat. They block off 2 - 3 days for intensive writing. They’re able to write full grants in that time, and they find it less stressful than looking for regular pockets of time for writing. [This strategy does not work for me, but I share it as an example of how paying attention to your style can help you be a more productive writer.]

3. Train yourself to write in short bursts. Few of us get large chunks of a day for writing. Learn to use the time you have.

Example. I had an hour this week to work on a paper. I spent it reworking a results outline and tagging my coauthors for the parts I thought we were missing.

4. Expedite. Learn where the bottlenecks are in your writing teams. Get those pieces moving first.

Example 1. For the outline I mentioned above, I’m the bottleneck. My coauthors are waiting for me to say which pieces are missing. They cannot move on their sections until I resolve a few problems. I prioritized that paper over other writing projects, because I know it will move faster once I clear that bottleneck.

Example 2. You have a collaborator who always takes a month to get edits back to you. Get them their sections as soon as possible to speed up the timeline.

5. Treat drafting and editing as separate processes. Allow yourself to draft freely without judgment. It’s much easier to cut down ideas (i.e., edit) after a draft exists.

Example. Because my tiger time is my most productive time, I only use it for drafting new ideas. All other tasks I treat as editing tasks, and I do those during bursts of time I have in the afternoon. For example, I was working on a new op-ed. When generating ideas, I worked on it in the morning. Once I had a draft, I only worked on the op-ed in the afternoons. Other editing task examples include: revising an outline, reading transcripts from interviews for my new book on public scholarship, or giving feedback on a draft.

6. Create a power house. Great collaborators will help you write better papers and grants, faster. Write together.

Example. Early in my career, I teamed up with an urban planner in disasters. We wrote 9 peer reviewed papers and 2 briefs in the 3.5 years we worked together.

7. Be a good communicator. This helps people enjoy working with you. They’ll be more likely to want to work together again. When you don’t communicate clearly, others have to carry the emotional load of wondering if and when you will respond. Concretely:

+Let people know where you stand on a deadline. Will you make it on time?

+Respond to emails.

+Share timelines and plans. E.g., I’ll get this to you in two weeks. At that time, can you draft the abstract?

+Draft sections. Many collaborators get in the habit of pointing out what’s wrong, rather than actually trying to fix a draft. Stand out by drafting sections and creating solutions.

There’s no single strategy that works for everyone all the time. But if you pay attention to what works for you, you can double down on that strategy to make the most of the time you have.

If you know someone who might enjoy today’s newsletter, would you mind forwarding it to them? As always, thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


Stay in touch: The Newsletter, Bluesky, TikTok, and The Grant Writing Guide book.

P.S. If you’re interested in having me lead a grant workshop at your institution, reach out to Katie Stileman at PUP Speaks (email: [email protected]).

P.P.S. Speaking of tigers, did you grow up with Tiger Balm? My grandmother used to slather it on me for bug bites when I went to her house in Taiwan. I feel nostalgic any time I see the gold lid. Surprisingly, CVS sells it! (Not an ad. Just surprised at how easy it is to find).

Tiger Balm.

[Creative Commons licensed image of Tiger Balm.]