Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo.
Despite our frequent advocacy of peer review and collaboration for our own students, as graduate students, we are often strangely secretive about our own writing practices. I’ve interviewed five current graduate students from the University of Massachusetts, each at different points in their respective programs, in order to offer a comparative view of what writing, drafting, editing, revising and submitting looks like. “GradHacker” offers a variety of writing advice articles, but few offer a broad view of how different graduate students actually work. These interviews provide insight and potential models for any upcoming graduate students who wonder how the work gets done. Part II of this article will be published at the end of March and will include more insights into the writing practices of our interviewees.
What Counts as Writing?
Grad students’ understanding of what constitutes writing progress varies widely. “I define writing broadly,” notes Jeremy, an M.A./Ph.D. student in rhetoric and composition. It doesn’t always have to be “prose words on a page.” Instead, he says, writing can just be “some sort of progress” like “sift[ing] through possible resources” or “brainstorm[ing] new directions.”
John, currently dissertating for his Ph.D. in literature, on the other hand, sets a more specific “word-count goal” or focuses on one particular part of a project -- “a difficult transition or a paragraph” -- to meet his writing quota.
For my own work, writing means any new words on a page (even roughly drafted or soon-to-be-cut thoughts). The longer I dissertate, however, the more I realize that thinking of writing in broader terms can contribute to feeling more productive on days spent on data collection, reading or annotating -- all parts of the writing process that don’t directly produce a higher word count.
How Often Should I Write?
Both Shannon and Thakshala, each working on their literature Ph.D.s, try to write at least “four to five days in a good week,” with Shannon making a distinction between her teaching and writing days. “I have a harder time sitting down and writing on my teaching days, I think because my brain feels a bit scattered and distracted.”
John notices that his writing output varies based on what he’s working on, noting that “when I’m into a project, [I write] every day of the week,” and adds, “I get a little bothered if a few days pass without returning to the writing, even for an hour or two.”
Sean, currently defending his Ph.D. in literature and American studies, admits, “I mean, let’s be honest. Of course, I don’t write every day. And I’m very thankful for the days when I do anything and everything but write … but I do try to write every day … including on weekends.”
Despite his broad definition of writing, Jeremy encourages graduate students to set limits around their work lives and says, “I always try to take one day off, unless a big deadline is looming.” He adds that “on days where I have a lot of work on-campus, if I don’t get to something, I don’t beat myself up.”
How Much Time Should I Spend Writing?
“On days where I’m completely free,” Jeremy says, “probably about fourish hours of concentrated time,” but he admits that this “includes Twitter” and other much-needed breaks. He tracks his time “with albums” that add up to about “fortyish-minute writing sessions,” which help create structure and let him know “when to take breaks.”
Thakshala employs the Pomodoro technique to structure her writing time and notes that depending on the day and the project, “the number of pomodoros vary considerably.”
Shannon notes that she is most productive “when I can sit down for quite a few hours at a time (anywhere from three to seven hours)”, but admits that “it can be challenging to find these larger chunks of time,” so she writes where she can for “at least an hour” in order to “really sit down and hash things out.”
Neither John nor Sean tracks their writing time as such. Instead, John uses word counts and specific goals to determine what needs to be accomplished before he can call his writing done for the day. Sean, meanwhile, estimates that he does his “best writing in bursts of an hour or two, with breaks in between.”
For myself, I follow Joan Bolker’s advice to write for at least 15 minutes a day, which inevitably turns into more. While my days can vary by an hour or two, I usually log at least three hours of annotating sources and writing.
What Does a Writing Day Look Like?
For Jeremy, the process is simple: “Wake up, pants, coffee, journal … put on an album, start writing. Ideally, I’m writing within 20 minutes of waking up, so I’m as undistracted as possible.”
Thakshala agrees with getting an early start, waking up “at 5 and writ[ing] from 5:30 to 7:30.” Then, after a break, she says, “I will start writing again (on campus) around 11 and stop by 1 p.m.,” leaving the evening “for reading or teaching-related tasks.”
Shannon, on the other hand, needs an energy boost to start her writing day, “I’m much more productive after I’ve exercised in the morning … so, I’ll usually start writing after that, around midmorning or early afternoon,” writing “for four to six hours at a time, or until 4 or 5 p.m. rolls around.”
For Sean and myself, early mornings are our most productive times. Sean usually starts around 7:30 and notes, “I feel fresh and creative in the morning, but not in the afternoon. So, even if I turn to more writing in a day, it’s usually at night.” I similarly wake up around 7 a.m. and get straight to brewing coffee and then writing, saving the afternoon for other work like teaching, reading or note taking.
What Helps Get Writing Done?
We all generally agree that early-morning alarms and coffee are the most helpful tools for getting writing done, but Sean adds Google Docs to the list. “It autosaves; you can easily copy documents and rename them as different versions of a draft emerge” plus, “you can send a Google Doc to friends, who can all add comments in the same doc.” Sean also uses Zotero to manage references and citations. Jeremy writes in Scrivener and recommends ToDoist to keep track of tasks and specific goals. Shannon, Thakshala and myself all move back and forth between Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Our approaches to writing vary extensively, and finding a strategy that works for you can be a process of trial and error. Part II of this post will offer a firsthand look at the ins and outs of the writing process itself so that you can find what’s usable for you.