Making Marginal Gains in Your Research Writing

Other than “when you started” I cannot think of a better time than now to start improving your writing.

And by now – I mean now. As you read this. And I also mean now. As in the time that I write this (mid-2020). With COVID-19 impacting Victoria, Australia and the world in ways that mean we’re often working from home.

So, what does apply marginal gains mean for writing? And how can you apply it?

The advice often given to PhD students is to “write as you go”. And this could be viewed as a marginal gain. For sure. But I don’t think that is practical advice. Particularly given the implication is “write your thesis as you go”. There are two reasons I see this as impractical. One – we all know we only take in advice (i.e. hear it) when we are ready to listen. And, we’re not even thinking about writing when we start our PhD, let alone listening to advice about it. Two – writing your thesis as you go will mean very little writing in the middle years. Year one might be busy with literature review. But after that, how can you write a story when you’re not even sure what the ending is?

So, when you hear “write as you go” from me it is different. It is not intended as write now. And that writing is/will be content in your thesis. The advice, when I give it, is about being a regular writer. So, that means keeping you research notes up-to-date. Keeping accurate records. Maintaining a working knowledge of the literature in your area and documenting short summaries of papers (e.g. a list of key messages you took from the research).

For many people, the start of their PhD or job will involve lots of reading. And, if it is a PhD, it will involve lots of writing; in the form of a literature review. Then beyond that time, it is about writing regularly – Wendy Belcher argues daily, and I agree. The aim is not to write awesome work or words, but to write regularly. As I have written before, there are many studies that demonstrate quality is improved through quantity. That is, the only way to be a good writer is to write often. You cannot just sit and write great words.

We spend so much time

writing – any gain can help

put us in front of the pack

Thus, when it comes to applying the idea of marginal gains to your research, the first area for making marginal gains is in writing. Wendy Belcher (Author of Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks) notes that “writers who write a little, but most days produce more manuscripts than those who alternate extended writing sessions with weeks or months of not writing at all” (p 26). And this can be applied to both publications and grants. And, if COVID-19 means you are unable to collect data, then the marginal gain to make, is to write daily. Combining James’ advice with Wendy’s never miss twice and you’re on your way to a habit. And remember, you’re not trying to write the whole thing, you’re just trying to write something. That is the idea of marginal gains. You’re not binging. You’re not locking yourself up. Instead, you’re writing daily. If your contribution to a journal article is 5,000 words that means:

  • 105 per working week for 1 publication a year.1
  • 415 per working week for a publication every three months.2
  • 250 per workday for a publication in a week.3

A bit of background

Slow progress is still progress.

One percent better is still better.

The story of the tortoise, and the hare.

It took someone ten years to become an overnight success.

Death by 1,000 cuts.

The straw that broke the camel’s back.

These all allude to the same thing. That marginal gains, and losses are important to success and failure. Perhaps even essential.

James Clear talks about marginal gains in his book – Atomic Habits.

And Wendy Belcher doesn’t talk about marginal gains but applies the principle in her advice on Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. She even goes as far as to berate people who don’t adopt this approach. Defining binge writing and the associated stress that causes it and that it causes. A marginal gain is a small improvement to what you currently do. And the opposite, a small decline, is a marginal loss. The process of applying marginal gains is about looking at everything you do and trying to improve – even if it is just a 1% improvement. Because, through the power of compounding, that 1% could be worth 30 times as much in a year (1.01365 = 37.78).


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1From Slow progress… to …that it causes is 109 words

2From And by now… to …that means: is 419 words

3From And by now… to …write great words is 280 words