During my first PhD anthropology theory course, it was suggested to us that we should start writing every single day. Our professor told us that we needed to sit down for an hour every single day, or most days of the week, and just write. We shouldn't focus on a specific topic, or try to answer a question, but rather we should just write whatever is on our mind. Honestly, I've been a fairly good writer since high school, and I wrote a lot in undergrad, so I wasn't concerned with it. I had to do half a dozen 25 page papers during my masters, and I had just finished writing my thesis. Practicing writing was the least of my worries.
However, writing was a slow process for me. I wrote out detailed outlines, took weeks to fill them in with perfect sentences and dozens of citations. For a final paper I had to begin the process of writing at least a month or two in advance so that I could carefully make my way through it. My thesis only took two months to write, but I spent nearly 8 months planning out every single detail.
Then I started writing my blog. It was literally a way for me to keep up to date with journal articles. I figured that twice a week I would read a journal article that had nothing to do with my own personal interests, but something broadly from archaeology. I would then writeup a summary of the article, add some of my own critiques and publish them online. Honestly, I didn't even think that people would read it.
My first post was August 2010, and I've written almost two posts per week since then, coming to a grand total of 180 posts to date. The posts are about 600 to 800 words long depending on the length of the journal article or my opinion. It used to take me about two hours two write that many words. Now it's about an hour, and the posts always range on the longer end of the spectrum. I honestly didn't realize until recently the writing benefits that I had been getting from an activity I consider to be a hobby. I now have the power to sit down at my computer and pound out 800 words with little difficulty.
Since writing is a major part of graduate school, its important that we start developing this skill. That way when we get to the dissertation we're not paralyzed by the writing. Here are some tips:
1. Write almost every day: My suggestion is not that everyone start writing a blog, but try writing more often. Try sitting down every other day and just writing for an hour or even a half hour. Emails and facebook messages don't count. Writing isn't a big deal if you're doing it all the time.
2. Break it down: Writing a ten page paper isn't daunting, but writing a 200 page dissertation is. Don't think about the ultimate goal, think about the proximate ones. Instead of listing 'finish thesis' on your to do list, write down each chapter, or even sections within the chapter. If you're practice writing a thousand words a week, getting out a section won't seem so scary.
3. Strive for progress, not perfection: The writing doesn't have to be perfect. We've got computers so we can write really rough drafts and edit them later. Don't worry about getting it right the first time, just get it out! I think of it as doing a 'mind vomit'. Just get the ideas down on the screen and make them pretty later.
4. Take a break: After you've finished your brain dump at the computer, and the words are roughly strewn across your screen, walk away. Take a breather, go for a run, maybe even close the document down for a few days. When you come back to it you'll be refreshed and ready to make those rough ideas into a document you'll be happy with.
So just do it. Sit down. And Write, Damnit! I promise it'll hurt less the more you do it.
What are your methods for writing? How do you tackle a big paper and avoid writer's block? Do you write for practice?
[Image from Flickr user Sarabbit and used under Creative Commons license]