While it might be easy to base your writing schedule off of the academic calendar (i.e. the flurry of writing seminar papers that happens in the last two to three weeks of the semester in a haze of caffeine and all-nighters), you’re probably also familiar with the burnt-out feeling you get after pushing through a period of intense writing. Especially if you're starting to embark on longer writing projects, like your first journal article, your quals, or your dissertation, you're probably finding that binge-writing might help you over some hurdles, but can also risk wiping you out for weeks (or months) after. Hey, if that works for you, great, but as a person who has struggled with staying motivated to write and meet deadlines, I’ve found that practicing sustainable writing habits has helped me make regular progress toward my goals and feel a lot better while I’m doing it. This is also something supported by research as well: writers who write on a more regular basis tend to write more, be more successful in their writing, and are less depressed than people who binge-write.
In this post, I’ll point to some ways you can try to approach your writing process more holistically including the time you have in your schedule, your systems of support, and ideas for keeping track of your progress. A realistic writing plan, the right kind of help, and staying honest and accountable to yourself about your writing productivity can help you make incremental steps toward major milestones. Remember, as with changing any habit, it’s not a matter of perfection, but practice.
Make time to write and write every day:
Finding time to fit writing into my schedule can be a real challenge. Between office hours, teaching, committee meetings, responding to emails, and time with my friends and family, there always seems to be something more important that needs my attention. The problem is once other things start to encroach on my scheduled writing time, any time I had set aside can quickly evaporate.
A good place to start is to identify when you’re able to do your best work. For me, I know that once I start responding to emails in the morning, my focus will be on work, time will quickly fly by, and suddenly I find myself heading out to my next appointment without accomplishing any writing. Instead, if I can commit myself to write for a set amount of time, say an hour or even thirty minutes at the start of my work day, I can do something that feels productive and also chips away at my larger writing goals. It doesn’t have to be the first thing you do (maybe it’s those two hours you have between teaching and seminar, or that block of time right after you drop your kiddo off at daycare), but if it’s time you need to set aside to write, then you need to defend it instead of assuming you’ll get to it later.
When you actually sit down to write, it can be helpful to set up a routine to get yourself focused. For me, I try to start every writing session with a short warm-up where I just write whatever is on my mind (it could be reminders for later, how I’m feeling that particular morning, a snarky critique of that article I read last night that I’ll temper into something more presentable, anything). I like having a warm-up because it’s just five or ten minutes where I can get my fingers moving and my head into more of a writing mode. From there, I set a realistic goal for time that I will spend writing that day (I personally need to move onto something else after about two hours). Whatever block of time you’re able to set aside, consider breaking it down into more manageable pieces to give yourself time to take a short break. For example, I like using a Pomodoro timer where I will work non-stop for about thirty minutes, and then when my timer goes off I give myself a couple minutes to stand up, grab a drink of water, and look at something other than my computer screen. After my break I’ll go back to writing and do the same thing two or three more times as I finish my writing session.
The last piece of advice for time is to touch your writing every day. By this I mean make a point of opening the file for whatever project you’re working on every day and doing something to change the word count. This will help you stay fresh with your material, get you used to working on it regularly (even if it’s only a little), and avoid the time it takes to reinitiate a project after a long gap between writing sessions.
Establish what things support your writing:
Even if you have a flexible schedule, your writing habits depend a lot on the people around you and the space where you do your work. Similar to knowing when you work best, you should know where you work best (which may not be at home). Maybe you need to be alone in a quiet place in order to write (like your dining table or your office). If you’re like me, you might actually find it helpful to have a little background noise such as in a coffee shop or at a table in a public library. Regardless, if you have some flexibility to choose where you do your work, be strategic in choosing the places that are least likely to pull you away from your writing, and where you can go on a routine basis. For example, if you like to work in your office, close your door while you’re writing so the people know you’re busy; if you like working in public, maybe avoid places where you’re likely to run into people you know so you don’t get pulled into a conversation.
Another helpful way to account for your environment is to figure out the things that typically distract you when you’re sitting down to write. For example, I really like having my email at inbox zero, but incoming emails are a major distraction for me when I’m trying to write. One step I take is to silence my phone and put my laptop into airplane mode so that I’m not tempted to check messages until after my writing session is over. Sometimes I have even gone to places without wifi just so I don’t even worry about going online when I should be writing.
There are also some great programs and websites that can help with providing a distraction free space to do some writing. For example, Scrivener is a great option for composing, collecting and organizing multiple parts of a project. I’ve also really enjoyed a site called 750 Words which will encourage you to write at least 750 words a day. Hey, remember paper journals? Those can be great too! The point here is just find the thing that works best for you and work it into a routine.
The last kind of support is the people around you. Writing takes a lot of time, and inevitably the time you need to write will conflict with the people in your life. Navigating this might mean that you need to practice saying no more in your professional life (I struggle with this on a daily basis). The pressure to present yourself as being confident and successful can also end up blocking your writing. Rather than struggling alone and waiting for someone to notice, you can try asking for help as a way of alleviating this anxiety. I won’t speak for every academic, but pretty much every scholar I’ve met struggles with some aspect of their writing process. That said, if you’re uncertain about being more open about your writing process with your advisors, you can also just try having more social accountability and support through organizing a writing group with your peers.
Track your progress:
At the end of the day, if you want to write more sustainably, you should establish ways to keep yourself accountable, have a clear idea of your pace of writing, and set realistic goals. While you might be able to crank out a 5,000 word conference paper in a single weekend, it probably won’t be your best work, and you’ll probably need another weekend just to recover. In the past, GradHackers have written about some great productivity apps, especially if you want to work on time management. Something I’ve really grown to appreciate is recording the amount of writing I do in a spreadsheet. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, it just has to be enough to give you information about how you’re doing. I personally find it helpful to measure things like how long I’m able to sit down for a writing session, and how much I actually write (I prefer word count, but tracking pages can work too), and look at these things from week to week. If you want more of a low-tech option, you can do something as simple as putting a check-mark in your calendar each time you have a day where meet your writing session goal. For better or worse, if you track this information honestly, then you’ll get an honest look at your process (rather than what you wish you could do or feel you ought to be doing). This will help you have a better idea of how long things actually take you, and can help you evaluate whether there’s anything about your habits that need to change so you can write more.
In this post, I wanted to offer some strategies to make your writing process more sustainable, but I have to be completely honest in saying changing habits can be a difficult and slow process. They’re habits for a reason, and changing them involves not only your time, and other people’s as well. If changing things seem intimidating, start with something small like a quick warm-up writing session and then add more time as you develop your new routine. You won’t always be perfect (I’m definitely not), but hopefully you’ll find it gets a little better with practice.
What are things that you like to do to help you write? Have you found helpful tools to be more productive or keep track of your progress? Share your ideas in the comments!
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