A Regular Writing Routine

October 16, 2009

The concept of a regular writing routine is not unique to me — I just happen to love alliteration and so I repackaged the concept into a new term. Robert Boice (author of How Writer’s Journey to Comfort and Fluency) uses the term “brief, daily sessions,” Eviatar Zerubavel (author of The Clockwork Muse) adheres to the concept of being motivated by a “clockwork muse” rather than a “capricious muse.” Rick Reis (editor of Tomorrow’s Professor e-Newsletter) writes “Once you are ready to start doing this kind of writing, you need to commit to it on a regular, if limited, time per day basis. Forget about whether you feel motivated or not.” Feel free to struggle and compete with this concept; unfortunately, in the end you will lose. I can list thousands of authors who write on a regular basis, and swear by it. If you want to finish your dissertation in a timely manner and develop habits of fluent writing, you will have to succumb to establishing and sustaining a regular writing routine.

In this article, I’m starting a four-part series on developing a regular writing routine. In this column, I’ll discuss and debunk two popular myths about writing. In my next column, I’ll review two of my favorite articles, one on expert performance and the other on writing research and apply it to developing a regular writing routine. Then I’ll write a piece on what a regular writing routine looks like in real-time; that is, when you put your bum on the chair on your fingers on the keyboard, what really happens. To wrap up this series, I’ll present my new book, the whole of which is focused on getting you to develop a regular writing routine as you write your dissertation.

Myth #1: Writing can only occur in large blocks of time. I don’t know how many times I have heard this from students and know I have heard it too many times from new faculty members. From where I stand, there are two problems with waiting until you have a large block of time to write. The first is “How long?” Do you need four hours? Six hours? Ten hours? I’d had exchanges with my students that go like this:

Me: So, you need a large chunk of time to write? How long do you need?

Student: Five hours is usually the minimum time I need to get some really good writing done.

Me: OK. So can you write for five hours tomorrow?

Student: No, I only have four hours tomorrow.

Me: How about the day after?

Student: The day after? Let me see. Hum, I have four and a half hours the next day, not quite enough time.

Me: How about the day after that?

Student (who is smiling as she looks up after checking her calendar again): Nope.

And then we laugh as we decide that she’ll try and have a productive writing time within the measly four hours she has available for the next two days.

Very often when I present on developing a regular writing routine, I’ll have someone in the audience defend the practice and say that they can only write when they have large blocks of time and that it works for them. I don’t argue with these remarks. Although we inevitably end up talking about this issue after my presentation is over — they seek me out — and as we talk, they admit to me (really, they admit to themselves) that they are not as productive as they would like. And when they do start writing, they spend a good hour or so on warm-up time, remembering what they had written during the last writing session. If someone can only write in large blocks of time for writing and they have large blocks of time, all is well. Rarely have I found that doctoral students, post-docs, and new faculty members have this much time to write. I wish we all did, but the reality is that we don’t.

And let’s face it, the second problem with relying on large blocks of time to write is that waiting around until you have enough time is just another excuse not to write. If you write one hour a day, you have five hours of focused writing time by the end of the week; 20 hours by the end of the month; and 70 over the course of the semester. If you have two hours, that doubles to 140 hours over the course of the semester. As you are working on your dissertation, you have to put in as much productive writing time as you can. Often, you will be writing for an hour in between the courses you are teaching, while you are waiting for experiments to finish, or while your infant daughter is sleeping. Even if you have a lot of free time as a doctoral student or as a post-doc, chances are in an academic job or a professional job, you won’t have that luxury, so now is as good a time as ever to resurrect what may have been down time (checking Facebook??? Twitter???) and to use it productively. Of course check Facebook and Twitter, just after you have completed your writing.

I also want you to know that most professional writers spend up to four hours a day writing prose and the other part of the day doing research or useful stuff that keeps them healthy like taking walks and eating tofu. Four hours of focused, concentrated time, even across disciplines, seems to be the optimal length of time.

Myth #2: Writing can wait until motivation washes over you. I wish this were not a myth but instead that it was a universal truth. Imagine if we lived in a world where we were motivated to do all those things that are good for us. I need to write for three hours today and I feel inspired and motivated from the very first moment to the 180th minute! Today is my day to do 50 sit-ups after I finish 45 minutes on the treadmill, yahoo! I feel inspired to sort through the piles of papers in my spare room, and by golly, today just happens to be the day that I also planned to clear out the room! Mind you, I try to talk myself into being inspired to do the things I need to do, and sometimes it works. But sometimes, no matter what, doing 50 sit-ups doesn’t inspire or motivate me. Nor does writing for my two hours per day.

Instead of learning how to mix Felix Felicis (it’s liquid luck, a potion from Harry Potter that makes you lucky for a whole day), I wish I could mix a potion that makes me want to do the things that I have to do. Fortunately, there is a potion, at least for writing. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as bringing a flask to your lips and taking a long gulp. Motivation in writing comes from prewriting, prewriting, prewriting. Motivation occurs when you have done the necessary planning steps so that when you sit down to write prose, you have had time to subconsciously play around with the ideas and you only have to retrieve and type down the ideas, not to think them up. Motivation occurs when you have a very detailed long outline, filled in with citeable notes, by your desk that guides your writing. The citeable notes are short phrases (written in your own words) that remind you to insert the appropriate references into a particular section.

Even with all the necessary prewriting completed, there will be times when you just don’t feel like writing. As Rick Reis said in the quote I presented above: “Forget about whether you feel motivated or not.” When this happens, you’ll have to lean on pep talks from writing partners and the negative consequences of showing your blank writing graph to your writing group. Plus, you’ll have to have some tools in your toolbox ready for when perfectionism, procrastination, impatience, or depression/dysphoria threatens to disrupt a potentially productive writing session.

A regular writing routine is just as it sounds. It has to be regular for you to maximize the benefits. The benefits are minimal warm-up times, using that time walking from your car to your office to allow ideas to percolate, more chances to make connections among the other reading and research in which you are engaged (since the ideas are fresh in your mind), and investing more time in writing than if you relied on those large blocks of time to materialize or that motivation muse to flutter down from the heavens. If you are a full-time graduate student, I recommend that you start developing a regular writing routine that you engage in five to six days a week. If you are working full-time while pursuing your doctoral degree, I recommend that you plan on writing four days a week. Chances are your weekends are the time you get to invest in your dissertation writing; if so, I also recommend that you carve out at least 45-minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays in order to keep your momentum going and to minimize your warm-up time for your weekend writing sessions.

Each session can start by being brief, as little as 20 minutes. While I know you won’t get a whole lot done in 20 minutes, these sessions are primarily meant to build habits of fluent writing rather than to churn out the pages. Then increase your 20 minute sessions by 20 minute sessions, until you are writing optimally for you, but please no longer than four hours of focused writing per day (prewriting, OK; revision, OK; writing, not so much). As I’ll present in my next column the research on expert performance and writing research supports that something happens when you engage in a regular writing routine — more than linearly building skills and investing time in writing. Along the way, you develop habits that allow you to see patterns in your writing, patterns where you focus on the meaning and the intent rather than on word recall and word order. The result is that your writing productivity and enjoyment catapult forward. Reaching this point is rewarding and it really does happen when you engage in a regular writing routine over a sustained time.

Please do not fall into the trap of compartmentalizing your writing, as I have seen far too many students do before they enter my class. I have known too many students who write their proposals and then stop writing while running experiments, interviewing participants, or analyzing texts. Then they switch back to writing full-time to complete the dissertation. For effectiveness and efficiency, I recommend that you spend at least some of your time writing while you are in the midst of your research and analysis. You will continue to work on your writing, your writing habits, and capture some of those insights that you have otherwise may have lost.

I am very sympathetic toanyone who believes that they need large blocks of time to write. I too wish that inspiration always aligned with whatever we needed to do. But I also want all of you to meet your goals and to complete a high quality dissertation in a timely manner. So, I hope you will consider letting go of any unhelpful writing myths that you hold dear, if you do hold any dear, and experiment with new techniques for increasing your writing fluency and comfort.

There is much more to write on developing a regular writing routine. As I mentioned above, in my next column I’ll spend time reviewing research on expert performance and writing research that applies directly to developing and sustaining a regular writing routine. As always, if you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

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