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I recently gave an online workshop to doctoral students about strategies for keeping up with a writing schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic. The workshop covered strategies for maintaining a regular writing habit, finding a temporary writing space at home and collaborating with co-authors over Zoom.

Over all, we had a productive discussion about the importance of regular writing sessions as a key part of a faculty member’s week. Yet at the conclusion of the workshop, one student asked, “But what do professors actually do during a writing session?”

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve heard several variations of this question over the years, including:

  • How do professors begin a writing session?
  • How do professors know they are actually moving a piece of writing to a finished product instead of just going in circles each time they write?
  • What if they don’t feel like writing during a writing session? How do professors stay motivated/start writing/get something done?

I know why these future faculty members are asking. Teaching, administration and much service labor is visible in the form of instructing classes, producing reports or attending meetings. Yet faculty writing labor is just the opposite; all that is seen is the end publication itself rather than the hours of writing sessions that went into it. Despite a growing and useful body of literature that addresses writing productively as an academic (for example, Paul J. Silva’s How to Write a Lot, Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What and Wendy Belcher’s Writing a Journal Article in 12 Weeks), few texts offer a play-by-play of what professors actually do when they sit down to write for publication.

Instead, most advice focuses on getting the academic writer to sit down in the first place -- to schedule time to write, find a space, make a list of tasks to do when there and so forth. The underlying assumption is that writing will start flowing once you sit down. We’ve all heard variations of this advice: “Just start writing.” “Get your butt in the chair and you’ll write.” “Just write one sentence/750 words/freewrite.” But such pieces of advice don’t answer the question of what professors actually do during writing time, so the question persists.

In addition to offering research on conditions that enable faculty writing, Helen Sword’s recent Air, Light, Time, and Space offers brief interview excerpts from faculty members about their writing processes, including how they use writing sessions. This type of detail is sorely needed in an academic system that continues to reward publication output even as teaching and service loads increase (and will probably keep increasing post-pandemic). Experienced faculty writers must be more explicit with graduate students and new colleagues about how they use writing sessions -- and even if they write during a session at all. (In my discipline, I found evidence of frequent toggling in and out of writing projects between teaching and service tasks versus sitting down to a dedicated writing session.)

For an upcoming research project, I asked 50 faculty members at a variety of institutions about what they specifically do in writing sessions that ranged from 15 minutes to four hours each time. Here’s what I learned.

How do professors begin a writing session? Most faculty blocked out time for writing every day or several times per week. When it was time to write, several commented that they have a specific strategy for shifting gears and getting ready for academic writing. This easing-in period at the start of a writing session was a way to transition from teaching or service to writing.

Easing-in tasks included reviewing notes -- kept on a Post-it, in brackets directly in the draft or on a Trello board or some other writing project management tool -- about what needed to be completed on a project. Another popular method to ease into writing time was to read writing from the previous session and to start adding on where the piece left off.

Some writers highlighted sections that needed more intense work to return to once they were warmed up -- for example, sections that needed reorganization or additional explication. Others noted they started writing time with a quick review of lab notes, editor or reviewer comments, or an email thread between co-authors to reorient themselves to the project. I talk about my own easing-in process here.

For most of us, easing-in strategies typically lead to more complex drafting or revision tasks.

How do experienced faculty writers know they are actually moving a piece of writing to a finished product in each writing session? Most faculty members had a strategy for measuring progress from writing sessions. Some set a traditional word-count goal each day and would not leave the session until the goal was met (frequently 750 words, based on this tool). Others set a goal of writing two pages of new material or revising five pages each session. Time-based goals using the pomodoro technique were also popular, again with the goal that the session is not over until time is up. I set a timer on my phone for two hours, so I don’t have to watch the clock during a writing session.

Writing more words or for a specific amount of time doesn’t necessarily move writing to completion, so prolific faculty writers also set a “forward movement” goal for the writing session. Those goals might include “Rewrite the methodology section” or “add in a paragraph connecting Chapter 3 and Chapter 4.”

Some faculty used writing-specific goal setting tools such as Prolifiko or custom Google Sheets to cross off these forward-movement tasks and list-writing goals for the next session. Many also used built-in deadlines and accountability partners to move forward, for example, participating in a faculty writing group that required weekly pages or a habit of posting new revisions on shared Google Doc with a co-author every Monday.

All of these strategies offered a way for faculty writers to know when they were done with their writing session for the day or the week while also making forward progress.

What if a faculty member doesn’t feel like writing during a writing session? This question is popular among doctoral students who flounder without the structure of classes to complete dissertations. The short answer: faculty writers find a way to get something done, no matter how small.

Many told themselves they would just write for 15 minutes and then they could be finished. Others used rewards including a first look at social media for the day or a chat with a colleague once writing was complete. Still others deliberately saved small tasks for these low-motivation occasions, such as checking in-text citations, formatting the manuscript or looking at troublesome sentences in isolation to try to figure out more effective wording.

Experienced faculty writers often changed something about the writing session to infuse new energy if the problem persisted. Some bought standing or cycling desks to avoid sitting fatigue that makes writing more difficult. One professor noted she writes on whiteboards in a classroom and takes a picture of her writing to type in later. The tactile experience and multicolored markers makes the writing session more interesting for her.

Other faculty solutions to a lack of motivation included not physically writing at all. Some turned writing sessions into thinking sessions by taking a walk around campus and using the last few minutes to write down their thoughts at the end. That solution was particularly useful for resolving writers’ block or thinking about reorganization.

One faculty member I interviewed writes “free pass” on 12 bright-yellow notecards and keeps them in his desk. When he doesn’t want to write, he uses his monthly free pass to not write that day and throws it away. Because he only gets one free pass to skip a writing session per month, he’s careful to see if he can somehow just push through writing that day.

As noted earlier, some faculty members get around the problem all together by not having a formalized writing session. Instead, they leave a document open all day and return to it in short bursts between projects. Before they are bogged down by the feeling that it is time to write, the brief contact with the writing piece is over.

Finally, a growing portion use writing coaches or writing accountability services like those that Defend and Publish or the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity offer to talk through what they will do in writing sessions, get feedback on writing and set new goals.

In sum, when faculty writers didn’t feel like writing, they had a strategy to reset their feelings about writing sessions in order to get something done.

The answers above are by no means exclusive and probably vary by discipline. But they do illustrate that sitting down to write as a faculty member isn’t a process where writing magically shoots out of your fingertips. As this overview illustrates, faculty members do a number of specific tasks when they sit down to write.

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