How to Write about Your Research More Productively with the Buddy System

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Learn how the Buddy System can help you be more productive in writing about your research.

Updated on April 28, 2017

Colleagues using the buddy system by video conferencing while writing about research

If, like many researchers, you struggle to be productive, consistent, and disciplined with your writing, it may be time to tap into a secret weapon: your friends!

There are many reasons that we fail to complete writing projects (or to complete them in a timely manner): graduate students often have such flexible schedules that it becomes difficult to create a writing routine, while early-career researchers have schedules packed with obligations, which makes it difficult to carve out writing time. And wherever you are in your career, procrastination and perfectionism are perennial obstacles to productive writing.

The good news is that these problems are so common that you are bound to find a friend or colleague who is also struggling, and the two of you can work together. Here is some advice from one of AJE's Academic Editors on how to use the Buddy System to achieve your writing goals:

When I was a graduate student, a friend and I were both struggling to make progress with our dissertations, so we created our own solution that we both now credit with getting us through our PhDs! We called it the Buddy System, in reference to something I had experienced at summer camp as a kid.

The Buddy System is a strategy for safe swimming: imagine a hundred kids all going swimming in a big lake. There is simply no way for the camp counselors to keep close watch on all of them.

So, they are paired up and have to look out for each other. Periodically, a counselor blows a whistle for “buddy check,” at which point you check to make sure that your buddy is still safe. It is a simple system that works remarkably well, and it turns out that it transfers very well to the “dangers” of writing alone.

In short, you and a friend will form a professional partnership in which you set goals and provide regular updates on your progress. This system works because you are accountable to each other, and each of you will ensure that the other doesn't “drown” in her work.

The requirements of a productive Buddy System are outlined below.

First, you need to find a buddy. Your buddy need not be your best friend, but they should be someone you will feel comfortable communicating with frequently, someone you can be honest with, and someone whose opinion you respect and value.

Your buddy need not be in your exact field of research. In fact, it may be an advantage if the two of you are in different fields, as you won't have to worry about feeling competitive with each other: the purpose of the buddy system is support, not competition.

You and your buddy might be working on the same type of project – such as a dissertation – or you could be working on different types of projects (one of you could be working on a grant proposal while the other is writing an article). Different projects are fine, as long as you are both seriously committed to making progress.

You don't even need to live in the same city as your buddy. When my friend and I implemented our Buddy System, we lived on opposite coasts of the United States, at least 2,000 miles away from each other. We communicated entirely by email.

While in-person writers' groups are a popular way for some scholars to connect and share their work, they aren't always the most productive: some people aren't comfortable sharing unpolished work with an audience, and if your group is made up of friends, there is the danger that you will spend your meeting time socializing and not actually get anything done. My friend and I both found that our Buddy System was much more useful than any of the in-person writers' groups at our university.

Once you have found someone who is just as committed to this system as you are, it's time to establish the parameters of your work together.

1. Accountability

two researchers using the buddy system

Because your buddy will be someone whose work you respect and whose opinion you value, you won't want to disappoint them. How will you feel if your buddy sends you an update about the productive day she had, and you have to confess “I didn't get anything done.” This is why the system works! You should be invested in your buddy's success, and she is invested in yours.

You should begin by deciding on a regular schedule for your updates. At the beginning of the system, you need to establish good habits, so I suggest checking in every day.

Because this is a professional relationship, albeit one with a friend, you need to be clear with each other about the rules of your system. My buddy and I actually began by creating a contract, which stated that we would send email updates to each other at the end our respective workdays.

We continued to use contracts throughout our dissertations when necessary, particularly if we were really struggling with something (for example, “I, Mariel, will complete a rough draft of my introduction by Friday” or “I will outline Chapter 2 by the end of the day today”).

Simply putting your goal in writing and sharing it with your buddy will make you feel accountable. Before you know it, updating your buddy at the end of the day – and receiving an update from your buddy – will become so routine that you won't feel right without it – like brushing your teeth.

2. Commitment

two research buddies shaking hands

Each of you is entering into this professional partnership because you need to make progress with your own work and because you care about your friend and her work.

The duration of your partnership will depend on the time frames of your respective projects. My buddy system lasted at least one year, because we were both writing dissertations. However, you could also use the buddy system for shorter, intense periods of work, such as the time it takes to revise an article or prepare a lecture.

It's up to the two of you (see “Flexibility” below), but whatever you decide, you and your buddy should be equally committed to the success of the System and of your respective projects. Take pride in the fact that you are using a creative solution to be more productive in your writing.

3. Flexibility

a cellphone with an incoming call from BUDDY

Although accountability and commitment are the foundations of the Buddy System, flexibility is equally important. It is only natural for the system to evolve as you both progress and the demands of your work change. It is also reasonable to make adjustments depending on the circumstances of your and your buddy's lives. This is why you want to have a buddy with whom you feel comfortable being honest.

In a world of academic pressure and deadlines, it can be really valuable to have someone who understands both your professional and personal challenges – someone to whom you can say “I just wasn't feeling very well or very motivated today, and I didn't get a lot done.” Everyone has bad days, and as long as you don't use this as an excuse to shirk your responsibilities to your work or your buddy, you can both be forgiving of each other.

My buddy and I both tried our best to treat our dissertation-writing like a job: showing up for work every day whether we felt like it or not. That said, every humane person should understand that illness and unexpected emergencies do happen!

Also, my buddy and I found ways to be productive even when we weren't writing. Some days, we'd set easier goals of contacting people we needed to interview, or booking plane reservations for a research trip. These things need to get done, too, so make them part of your buddy contracts and updates.

Just as it is well recognized that writing leads to thinking, an added perk of the buddy system is that it forces you to write about the content of your work. Particularly, you should use your email updates (or phone or Skype conversations) with your buddy to work through problems (“I just can't figure out how X and Y are related” or “I just don't know how to end this paper.”)

Through this process, it is inevitable that new ideas will emerge. If you have the right buddy, she will be interested in your work and will be excited about helping you work through problems.

Even though my buddy and I were working on different topics, we found that our email updates on our work sometimes evolved/expanded into ruminations on some of the research problems we were working on, and we were able to help each other by providing new perspectives on an idea, suggesting a relevant piece of literature, etc. Writing can be isolating, and this type of communication is likely to improve your work.

The bottom line is that a good friend who is also a colleague is a powerful secret weapon in your research and writing. Once you have a good buddy and you both agree to the principles of accountability, commitment, and flexibility, the system should evolve naturally.

If you try out the Buddy System and it works for you, please share your story with us!

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