Five benefits of a writing ‘system’

Chris Smith is co-founder of Prolifiko and interested in using behavioural science, neuroscience and positive persuasive technology to unlock human potential.

He’s also a consultant to academic publishers and higher education advising on marketing and digital strategy, design thinking and the future of edtech.

Chris is a former founder of Swarm, a content and digital marketing agency, and a former lecturer in social psychology, continental philosophy and aesthetics.

Prolifiko tweets from @beprolifiko.

Working hands (photo by madamepsychosis on flickr) |
Working hands (photo by madamepsychosis on flickr) |

In July, I wrote about Prolifiko’s survey of scholarly writing practice, and our early objectives for that study. We teamed up with two academics and a data insight expert to design a large-scale study into academic writing practice.

So far, the study has gathered responses from 510 academics from over 40 countries and the interim findings build an intriguing picture of how academics write.

The data reveals the highs and lows of the scholarly writing process across a career: when satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) is at its highest, where the blocks come and when external pressure is experienced most acutely.

So far, the role of writing systems seems key.

According to the interim findings, the academics who have developed some kind of ‘system’ to help them write and publish seem far happier and more productive than those who have not. But what is it about having a ‘system’ that helps you get down to work and keep publishing – and how can you develop one of your own?

Simple systems

For us, a ‘system’ is the combination of tactics and methods that a writer typically uses to get their writing done.

These systems are always very personal and often developed over years of trial and error – they can be formal or informal, they can be complicated or very simple. Some writers just do one thing that helps them write.

We found that the academics who were most at ease with their writing processes (and the least stressed out in general) used one or more of these tactics and had formed them into highly personal ‘systems’ that they used to write.

Here are some of our interim results, expressed as benefits that you can enjoy from developing your own writing system:

  1. You’ll have a more productive, varied output

The data shows academics who are certain of their writing system produce double the number of written publications across a lifetime than the average scholar, and over three times as many as academics who are uncertain of their system. They’re more likely to write a wider range of publications, too.

Academics who struggle to find a system that works – or haven’t really thought about the topic – produce two thirds fewer publications than the average scholar over a lifetime.

  1. Your satisfaction will increase

Our interim findings show that academics with a writing system are also far more likely to be highly satisfied with their writing process overall.

Those who aren’t sure what helps them write or have tried a few things but haven’t discovered anything that’s really stuck are the least satisfied – by a large margin. People who haven’t thought about the issue also reported feeling high levels of dissatisfaction.

  1. Your time management will improve

Those who struggle to find a writing system or routine are also the most likely to express a strong desire to have more time for writing. Those who were more certain seemed happy with the time they had.

This may suggest that having some kind of system assists academics to manage their time better and leaves them with about the right amount of time to get the work done.

  1. You’ll cope with barriers better

While academics who have a writing system are still plagued by daily distractions, interruptions and management responsibilities, they’re better able to cope with their blockers and barriers.

The academics who struggle the most with what we might call ‘psychological’ barriers to writing (like procrastination and feelings of being overwhelmed) are also the people who are least likely to have developed any kind of system.

  1. You’ll feel under less pressure

Our research finds a strong correlation between the people with a writing system of some kind and those who report feeling the least pressure to write and publish, either external or internal pressure.

Pressure to publish, and especially pressure that comes externally from institutional targets and management, is strongly linked to high levels of dissatisfaction. When you have a system of some kind, you appear better able to cope.

Finding your system

These are interim findings but they point to systems and processes being key to scholarly productivity, satisfaction and career success. They also indicate some clear gaps in the academic support infrastructure, particularly for early career researchers.

What’s clear from our own work into writing process and productivity is that there’s no silver bullet. Every academic writer needs to find a system and process that works for them. From our experience, there are a few steps every writer can take to start to find a process that works for them.

Be your own best EDITOR

  • Experiment: Test and experiment with as many tactics as you can.
  • Discard: Never become wedded to any specific system. If it doesn’t work, kill it!
  • Iterate: Combine different tactics and methods. Keep calibrating them until they work.
  • Track: Make a simple note of which of these tactics worked and which didn’t.
  • Optimise: Learn from experimentation and refine further.
  • Reflect: What aspects of your practice work well, and what can you do better next time?

Our short survey is still open as we’d like to grow our dataset further. Tell us what works for you. We’ll keep you updated on the results! Ultimately, our aim is to create a data-visualisation map of scholarly writing practice across a career.


  1. Interesting! But are these relationships really causal or are they correlational? Because I can imagine that someone who has more time to write is more likely to develop a system, will produce more, is more satisfied, will *feel* that they have more time (because they do), etc. I’m not questioning the usefulness of a system – I’m sure it’s very important – but I just wonder whether you can really say that having a system will double your output and have all these other benefits.


    • Thanks for your comment! Our study is at an early stage – I’m sorry if you took away that having a system will double your output that wasn’t the intention. We can’t promise that. Once the survey is closed we plan to open source all the results on Figshare so you can dig into the data and reach your own conclusions. Thanks so much for reading and responding.


  2. I would love to see a version of this article which walks through a few examples of systems that people have found to work for them. If only to show the variety of systems that can bring benefits, and how personal they can be.

    I am outside the academic context, so my ‘systems’ may look more like habits + tools. Things such as recognising my moods are best suited to writing vs editing, or creating visual schedules on the computer versus an A3 writing pad on the desktop.


    • Hi there – thanks so much for reading the article and taking the time to reply.

      What you describe as your ‘habits and tools’ is exactly what we mean by ‘systems’. We further we dig into this topic we find that there are some core behaviours that form the basis of an effective system – such as noticing how you write and reflecting on what you’ve learned. So it looks like you already have some of these core behaviours!

      It’s funny that you should ask for some examples of systems because that’s what we’re doing right now – we’re writing a book! It won’t be an academic text I’m afraid as we want to write something relevant to all writers. However, I hope that you might it interesting once we’ve finished.

      If you’d like to be a beta reader for the book (which is something we’d really value) or be notified once it’s out let me know:

      All the best and thanks again.



  3. Hi Chris, I think you left out a few things here. Talking specifically about academics writing grant applications here.
    1). engage with your research office as early as possible. They read and review more applications in a year than you will write in your lifetime and ‘know’ what works and what doesn’t.
    2). Get lots of people to read it for proofing, sense-checking, clarity, efficiency etc. and then listen to the feedback
    3). Read rejections carefully, they are worth more to you than the congratulatory award notices. There are lessons in there.
    4). Write backwards, start with the end intent and work backwards
    5). remember your reviewers are not all experts so don’t expect them to be.


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