A Writing Routine

November 16, 2009

Recently I was talking with a group of master’s and doctoral students about writing. A colleague asked me to talk with his students and I gladly agreed. We were sitting in a round circle in a nice tan-colored classroom with lots of windows on the west side. There were about 30 of us in the room. After I spoke about writing and read excerpts from my book, I fielded a bunch of questions that came in quick succession. Then after a pause in the question and answer session, one student across from and to the right of me asked a question. From his voice, I could tell that he had been hesitating. He said he really appreciated my presentation on prewriting and on developing a regular writing routine. Then he admitted that he struggles with writing and that my experience with procrastination resonated with him. But this was his dilemma. He had a deadline for his master’s thesis in a few months and how does he go about trying to employ these new writing techniques while also getting a thesis written? Isn’t that too much to take on?

Oh boy, it brought me back to when I was a doctoral student, who was struggling with writing to the extent that I was at risk for being ABD. I too had to learn habits of fluent writing while working on my dissertation. For this reason, I readily talk with any group about developing a regular writing routine, I wrote my book, and I am writing this column. If I can prevent one person from experiencing the struggles I had with writing, I would consider it worth it.

To his question, I replied: "You will eventually have to complete your master's thesis, and you will. You could probably gut it out without trying anything new, and it would be miserable, but you could do it." He nodded in agreement. Then I added, "But, why not try these techniques? Yes, it will take additional effort as you will be changing habits and writing a thesis at the same time. But your deadline is going to arrive whether you try new techniques or not. So why not work on some of these techniques and see how it goes." After talking a little more I concluded by saying: "I did it, and so can you."

At that presentation I talked about what a regular writing routine looks like in practice, the topic I am addressing in this piece. This is the third of a four-part series on developing a regular writing routine. In the first installment I wrote about busting the myths of requiring large blocks of time in which to write and waiting for inspiration. In the second installation, I reviewed two of my favorite articles related to writing and highlighted how engaging in regular writing allows you to step back and focus on the meaning of the whole piece and not struggle over the perfect word or introductory paragraph. In this piece, I present some aspects of what a regular writing routing looks like in practice. Admittedly, I am discussing a very big topic briefly and each of the points I address below could serve as a topic for a whole column, which perhaps will happen in the future. So as you read these, focus on the underlying concept, please try what I present at least once and then change it to suit your particular writing schedule and goals.

Schedule Writing Times: Writing doesn't just happen, at least not for me and the vast majority of my students. We have to schedule it in. So, review your schedule and look for times throughout the week when you will be able to write. After you have identified these times, block them out on your schedule and also transfer them to your writing graph. If you were able to identify two hours on Monday, one hour on Tuesday, three hours on Wednesday, and so forth, then place a mark on your graph identifying the length of time you have available to write. When you are first trying out new writing techniques and habits, remember that this is an experiment. I can guarantee you that your initial plans will not be your final plans, as they will change over time as your habits, skills, and writing projects change. Create a plan and be ready to review and revise your plan regularly so that you learn more about your writing habits, what works for you, and what doesn't.

Decide on a Time-Based or Task-Based Approach: Based on my schedule, I rely on a time-based approach, which is why I was glad when I received an e-mail from Mark Scheid, an English professor and former administrator at Rice University, who's now helping to develop a U.S.-style university in Vietnam. In an e-mail exchange, he wrote “I always used David Westheimer's [Hollywood and novel writer] advice for myself and my students.... The difference in his advice — as opposed to writing for a set amount of time each day — was to set an easily achievable goal (pages or words) for any given day's work — always the same, every day — and to work until you've hit your goal." Yes, good advice. So if you want to take a task-based approach, you may consider writing a paragraph, a page or a section for each writing session.

If you are using a time-based approach, then set an amount of time. If you are struggling to get started, and the thought of having to write for one hour is enough to make you check the weather in Moscow or read about the latest electric car, then choose a shorter block of time. You can be productive in 15- or 20-minute blocks of time. As a reader posted in response to my last column: "As a fiction writer with two young children, 20 minutes a day in the morning and 30 minutes over lunch break during the week is a triumph." It sure is. And it adds up to five hours per week of writing that otherwise might not happen (and over 250 hours in a year!). Whether using a time-based or a task-based approach, an important aspect of developing a regular writing routine is finishing each session with a feeling of accomplishment, which makes it easier to get the bum in the chair and the fingers on the keyboard the next day. So if you choose a task-based approach, make sure that you choose an easily achievable goal for each session. If a time-based, make sure the times you choose are realistic and doable.

Backup, Backup, Backup: When I am working on a long-term project, I back up every day and rename the document. When I was working on my book, I would open up yesterday’s document, named something like DDW_20091022, and save it as today’s date, DDW_20091023. I would always put the year first so that the titles sorted chronologically, even across years. By creating a new version daily I could ensure that if a disaster ensued, I would lose only one day's worth of writing. I also backup on an external drive at the end of every session and about once a week I backup onto a server.

Begin at the Beginning and Go to the End, Then Revise: I have taught my share of perfectionists and I certainly share many of those tendencies. So earlier in my writing career, I would work on a document by beginning at the beginning for every session. You can guess what happened. The first few paragraphs were filled with perfectly crafted prose. And my conclusions? Well, they stunk. For how silly this practice seems, whenever I have shared it with students, far too many have nodded their heads in agreement. Ah, I am very glad that I am in good company.

So, I have created some techniques to make sure that I complete a full draft of a long writing assignment before I start revising. At the end of my writing session, I type “***”. The next day, after first backing up, I search on “***” and this is the point from which I start that writing session. I have found, and I am not alone, that the first draft is the hardest draft and the time when I am most at risk for not completing the project. After the first draft is completed, I still have lots of work to do and revision can take more time than writing the first draft. But by that time, the danger of not completing the project is mostly over. When I am revising, I use the same technique of typing three asterisks as placeholders so that I revise evenly. And as you can imagine, since I have been using this technique, my intros aren’t quite as well-crafted but my conclusions are a whole lot better.

When working with students, I always have them bring in a long outline of their dissertation as an agenda for our meetings. I ask them to estimate the percentage completed and to write it next to each chapter. If a student has completed 80 percent of his first, second, third and fifth chapters and 20 percent of his fourth chapter, I can usually guess that some type of writer’s block or avoidance is going on with that topic. So we spend some time discussing what is going on. I emphasize the importance of writing the whole dissertation first and then revising next. Yes, some chapters will be more polished than others since they were part of their dissertation proposals, but I want my students to think of their dissertations as a whole. I remind them that a good dissertation is a done dissertation. I also remind them that their dissertation committees will be signing off on their whole dissertation; not on a wonderfully written chapter or two.

Turn off Your Internal Critic: I have a very skilled internal critic. I have learned that I am better off making sure my internal critic stays snoozing rather than trying to quiet him down once he starts. Toward the end of this year I’ll be writing a four-part series on writer’s block and on techniques for lulling your internal critic to complacency. As part of this series I’ll provide specific techniques for warding off perfectionism, procrastination, depression/dysphoria, and impatience.

As you develop and then sustain a regular writing routine, you will find that your internal critic doesn’t seem to notice that you are sitting down to write. It just thinks that you are going about your regular routine, which you are, and his services are not needed, which they are not. Nonetheless, there will be times when he will start chiming in and the volume can get pretty loud. When this happens, try different techniques to get you back on track. Pick up a pen and a piece of paper and write down your internal critic’s message. Write it down twice. And then dispute it. Write “I can do this” and say out loud “I can do this.” Then change the topic and start writing down what you are trying to accomplish and then write about the topic you are addressing in that particular part of your dissertation or writing project. Or, call a friend, not to procrastinate but as a way to get back on track. Send a text message. Working with a writing partner or a writing group is one of the best ways I know of sharing techniques for overcoming the chatter of our internal critics.

Stop and Prepare for Your Next Writing Session: Whenever I tell my students that stopping is as important, if not more important, than starting, they look at me like I am nuts. Until they try it. When changing from writing at irregular times and durations to being guided by a regular writing routine, keeping the sessions moderate is vital. If you write for too long, then your other responsibilities won’t get accomplished and in the future you’ll have to forego writing to meet other deadlines. Even if you are on a roll, and I know it is very tempting to keep on writing when all the stars align, nonetheless stop after you have accomplished your task-based or time-based goal. By doing so, you will increase the likelihood that you will write tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

But don't stop abruptly. Before closing down your document, write a few notes to yourself, notes that will jog your memory at the beginning of your next writing session and will help to get those creative juices flowing. Also make sure to type in your placeholder, such as the three asterisks I mentioned earlier, so you know where to start at your next writing session.

Track Your Progress: When I was offering my first writing workshop for new faculty members, one of the members said that the most valuable part of the workshop was when we shared our graphs at the beginning of each session. This practice made him accountable, yes to us, but mostly to himself. Likewise, I would like you to graph your progress and recruit a writing partner or a writing group and share your progress. You can download a graph by going to www.pegboylesingle.com and clicking on “Download Writing Graphs.” At the beginning of your writing session, write down the time that you started. Then at the end of each session, write what you accomplished during that session.

When I introduce the writing graph to my seminar students, they often ask what they should graph and what they should leave off. When they are first beginning to monitor their progress, I suggest that they, and you, keep track of every aspect of your dissertation. Since the dissertation is such a long-term project, it can be very difficult to recognize the progress you are making when you are reading, taking notes, developing outlines, meeting with advisers, and conducting research. So I have my students graph all these times on their graphs. As they progress in their dissertation and develop a stronger regular writing routine, they inevitably start to graph only the time they spend writing and revising. The point of keeping a writing graph is to provide accountability for yourself; you’ll find that as you put in the time, you make progress.

Pat Yourself on the Back: Absolutely. Do this after every writing session. Writing a dissertation is as much about persistence as anything else. To keep yourself motivated, you will have to find ways to celebrate during the process, not just upon completion. One of my students puts a gold start on her graph after each successful writing session (she has a background in being an elementary school teacher). Whatever works for you, works for me. So … Good job! Keep it up!

In my next column, I'll introduce my book, Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Approach from Choice of Topic to Final Text. But if you can’t wait, please use this code (DDWEM9) to get a 20% discount when ordering through the Stylus Web site. As always, if you have questions or comments on this articles or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

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