A manuscript sprint harnesses the power of peer accountability and review to get a manuscript from zero to out the door in 6-8 weeks. We all have competing demands that keep manuscripts on the back burner.  This method forces you to make progress on your paper every week.

Ingredients

You will need…

  • 3-5 people, each with a manuscript they need to finish
  • A place to meet (conference rooms, coffee shops and classrooms all work well, as does a big office)
  • A standing time of 60-90 minutes each week for 6-8 weeks
  • Some way to exchanges drafts and comments, such as email or Dropbox
  • A commitment from all members to complete written comments or electronic mark-up each week before the meeting
  • Agreement to limit meeting time to comments and critique

Directions

Collect your writing peers.  You don’t all need to be in the same research area. In fact, it’s good when you aren’t. This better mimics journal review processes where reviewers may study the same disease, say, but have nothing in common with you methodologically.

Agree on a time each week that you will meet. Keep this time sacred.

A week prior to the first meeting, exchange the introductions to your papers.  (Start with intros so that you each get oriented to the others’ topics.) Use the week to comment on everyone’s introductions. Use Track Changes in MS Word or write a separate critique.

At the meeting, discuss each person’s introduction. Divide your time meticulously equally between all participants and appoint a timekeeper/use a timer. (This ensures those at the end don’t get shortchanged.)

At the beginning of their time, the author whose paper is being discussed can take not more than 1-2 minutes to ask for specific advice or call attention to particular things. After that, the author is silent. Don’t fritter away the limited time you have to hear others’ critiques by explaining and defending.  You won’t get to do that for journal reviewers, so don’t do it here.

Repeat as follows:

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Methods (+ responses to comments on the Introduction or revised version of the Introduction as needed)

Week 3: Results (Figures and Tables optional)

Week 4: Figures and Tables

Week 5: Discussion

Week 6: References

Week 7: Review of the manuscript as a whole

The order is fungible, so if you want to do results in the second week, go for it. Each week, authors submit a revised version of the manuscript portion incorporating ideas for the previous week’s review. In Week 3, you might be giving your peers both your results and a revised methods section, for example. The manuscripts with rolling, continuous revisions accrue each week.

Here’s an example schedule using real dates:

Why to Do This and Things to Remember

First, do this because you’ll finally get the paper with null findings out the door. But beyond accountability, your peers can also serve as an early warning system.

Are you changing terminology too often? Are you trying to be creative when you really need to be boring because no one’s ever seen this before and they need to see the same thing every single time to get traction? Or if this part and this other part of our hypothesis are two separate things, and someone in the group is saying, “I don’t see how these relate,” that’s a problem, and you can fix it now rather than as part of co-author review or after a reject-and-submit-somewhere-else. And no amount of peer reviewers who say, “I didn’t see that” are defeated by you crying, “It’s in there!” If you find yourself saying that to your sprinting peers, chances are you need edits.

It’s vital to commit to each other to be in every session. When people miss sessions, the wheels start coming off.  You get fewer eyes on your paper, people start extending deadlines to send the next piece, and it all leads to the dark side the group gradually petering out until no one’s left to review the last sections of your paper, which you probably didn’t write anyway because no one was there to keep you accountable.  I’ve seen too many groups fail to finish because their members couldn’t commit to being in the meetings every week.

So don’t do that. Do find your group, set your schedule, and get writing!

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