Time Out to Write

It’s crucial to save time for writing and tune out distractions, write Carmen Werder and Karen Hoelscher.


October 1, 2010

Isn’t it telling that the first column in our series on supporting faculty in their academic writing efforts came out within three days of Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s most recent piece on the same topic? Clearly, Inside Higher Ed recognizes that this subject strikes a chord with many of you and deserves more dialogue.

And we’re extremely proud of the fact that our institution -- Western Washington University -- is responding to this call, especially in a time of tight resources, to support our junior faculty in achieving both more pleasure and increased productivity in writing for academe. Fortunately, we have found that this support is not costly and mainly relies on sharing some practical tips for building relationships with colleagues and nudging good ideas into print.

After addressing the all-important need to align individual writing projects with departmental expectations (the focus of our first column), the second topic we address in our university-wide Faculty Writing Series, and the subject of the second piece in this series, is how to manage time and minimize distractions. We have developed a list of 10 tips for doing so, and we’re going to focus on two overall strategies in this column: getting time on our side and tuning out patterns of distraction.

Getting Time on Our (Writing) Side

Schedule writing time for real. Faculty writers might start by practicing what we typically preach to our student writers: Schedule in writing time. Seems like a no-brainer, but putting this sage advice into practice is challenging. Sometimes we need more nitty-gritty strategies. For example, we urge faculty writers: make writing appointments with yourself using your Outlook calendar. Actually, this practice is just an updated version of what Dorothea Brande recommended years ago as a way of “harnessing our unconscious” in Becoming a Writer. Turns out that when we have these appointments scheduled for real (on our actual calendars), our unconscious mind often goes about composing even though we might be doing something else in our conscious selves.

Schedule your optimal writing time.. Again, something we may be telling our students – identify the time period that you tend to be most productive and schedule in your writing time for that period. Of course, our optimal writing time might very well, and often sadly does, conflict with other obligations, such as teaching schedules, so we might need to go with our second-best time period. In order to be deliberate, then, we need to know what our best times are. Also, some faculty have reported that once they think about scheduling in their optimal writing times, they begin to find ways to preserve those periods by anticipating the need and requesting other teaching times ahead of time when possible. If we stay in touch with our departmental mentors (as urged in our first column), we can clearly show that such a request comes from an overall plan to align our writing projects (as well as our teaching and service goals), so they all jibe with departmental expectations.

Tuning Out

Identify your personal patterns of distraction and take steps to minimize them. Often minimizing our main distractions requires choosing between two good things. So we need to be aware of our any patterned distractions regardless of their worth. For example, if you are seriously committed to teaching (and we’ve found that all the faculty participating in our writing series are), interactions with students can easily keep you from getting down to writing business. Or do you find yourself wanting to be a really good housekeeper instead of writing? Or are you inclined to gravitate to your department hallways and colleagues’ offices for a little chat instead of writing? These seemingly innocent, and usually valuable activities, can keep you from getting words on the page. Know what your tendencies are and curb them by keeping to your scheduled writing time; schedule in the other activities for other times.

Write first, e-mail second. In conversations with our faculty writing colleagues, we’ve noticed a noteworthy pattern. Many of them say their academic writing often competes with (and loses out to) their virtual correspondences. So during your writing time, we urge you to turn off cell phones. Keep the Internet -- especially e-mail -- closed and leave open only your writing document. Or do what one of the authors of this column does: hop on your bike, head to a park without wireless access, and enjoy an hour or two of deliciously natured low-tech writing. Sounds simple, but we encourage you to resist the impulse to go to e-mail when the writing words dry up. Turns out it takes some courage to avoid this kind of technological procrastination of the risky kind, but well worth the time saved for actual composing.

Continuing the Dialogue

In conclusion, we offer you these two overarching insights that require knowing thy writing self: Schedule optimal personal writing times and minimize personal patterns of distractions. For more detailed tips on enacting these principles, see “Ten Tips for Writers to Manage Time and Minimize Distractions.”

We will continue this conversation in our next column on sustaining writing momentum, and hope you will join the dialogue at any point to respond to our ideas and to share your tips for writing for academe.


Carmen Werder is director of the Teaching-Learning Academy and of Writing Instruction Support at Western Washington University, where she is also on the faculty of the Department of Communication and part of WWU Libraries. Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington University, where she guides teacher education majors into and out of the K-8 certification program in the year-long internship program at Woodring College of Education, and writes about intercultural communication and faculty development.


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