I met a faculty member several years ago at a conference (I’ll call her Claire) who wanted advice about writing. Our conversation began like many I’ve had recently, with tears in response to a negative and critical annual review. Claire is a brilliant social scientist, incredibly hard-working, and passionately committed to her scholarship, her institution, and her students. While Claire is an award-winning teacher, and far exceeded her college’s service expectations, her publication record was significantly below her department’s standards. Her chair was clear that her lack of publications was problematic and she left the meeting feeling an almost desperate sense of urgency to move several manuscripts forward this summer.
Of course, I suggested she make a summer plan and join a writing group that would motivate and support her throughout the summer. Last week, when I was writing about resistance to writing I couldn’t help but think of Claire, so I reached out to see how she was progressing. Unfortunately, she had done very little writing. When I asked Claire what was holding her back, she had difficulty identifying anything specific. She readily acknowledged having more free time and fewer responsibilities than she did during the academic year. But despite knowing that this was an important summer for her to be productive and having a general sense that she should try to write every day, somehow her days kept flying by without any progress on her manuscripts.
I think there are lots of Claires out there. For me, she typifies both the most common and the most basic type of resistance: when you have a vague sense that you SHOULD be writing and you NEED to write (in order to finish your dissertation, get a job, win tenure, be promoted to Full Professor, etc.) but you’re not putting conscious, direct, and intense energy into the actual act of writing. As a result, lots of other work gets completed and other people’s needs get met, but at the end of the day your manuscript is left untouched. This type of resistance is grounded in relatively simple technical errors that academic writers frequently make. The good news is that this type of resistance is the easiest to resolve because a few simple tips and tricks will get your fingers to your keyboard (or pen to page).
What’s Holding You Back?
If Claire’s story sounds familiar, then I want to encourage you to reflect on your writing habits and gently ask yourself: What’s holding me back from developing a daily writing routine? I like to start with people’s writing habits first, and then move down into the psychological blocks (I’ll be tackling those one by one for the rest of the summer). For this week, I want you to focus on your writing behaviors. Maybe you haven’t set aside a specific time for your research and writing, or you’ve set aside the wrong time to write, or maybe you just have no clue how much time particular writing tasks take so you consistently underestimate the amount of time that writing requires. Maybe you imagine you have to do everything yourself and therefore very little gets done. Maybe the tasks you’ve set out for your writing time are too complex, so when you sit down to write you’re spending all your energy trying to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to be doing (instead of actually doing it). Maybe you don’t know what you need to do, or you knew but you forgot because you think planning and list-making are for anal retentive people and you’re more of a creative type. Or maybe your space is just so disorganized that you keep spending your writing time looking for things you need on your hard drive, in your files, or in your office.
Claire was committing all of these technical errors! Like Claire, many early-career academic writers remain steeped in writing habits that were formed when they were undergraduates. Because student writing is largely driven by external deadlines, few of us developed consistent writing practices, and instead, we end up waiting until shortly before a deadline, engaging in multi-day writing binges, and then avoiding writing again until we face another external deadline. This week, I want to encourage you to observe your current writing behaviors for these common technical errors. If you identify one of them, consider trying one of the following strategies:
Error 1: You haven’t set aside a specific time for your research.
Block out at least 30 minutes in your calendar each day, Monday through Friday, and show up at the appointed time. Treat it with the same level of respect you would a meeting with someone else (start on time, end on time, turn your phone off, and only reschedule for an emergency).
Error 2: You’ve set aside the wrong time for writing.
Too many people treat their writing as an activity they "hope" to have time for at the end of the day, after everyone else's needs have been met. If writing is the most important factor to your long-term success as a scholar, it should be given your best time of your day. If you’re just starting to develop a daily writing routine, try writing first thing in the morning (even if you’re not a morning person).
Error 3: You have no idea how long writing tasks take.
The most common complaint I hear from academic writers is that everything takes far longer than expected. Keep track of your time, particularly for repetitive tasks. This will not only give you an accurate assessment of how long writing a proposal, constructing a table, or reviewing the literature actually takes, but it will also help you to set realistic expectations for the future.
Error 4: You think you have to do everything yourself.
Ask yourself what tasks must be done by you and what tasks can be delegated to other people. Often there are many writing and research related tasks that can be delegated or outsourced to others (checking citations, proof-reading, editing, etc.). Don’t use "I don’t have a research fund or research assistants" as a reason for doing everything yourself. Sites likeUpWork.com and Elance.com can provide quick and incredibly inexpensive assistance on a wide variety of tasks.
Error 5: The tasks you have set out are too complex.
Take a piece of paper and pencil and map out whatever it is you need to do. When I feel overwhelmed by a big task, I write the big-overwhelming-thing on the right side of the paper and a stick figure (me) on the left side. Then I work my way backwards from the overwhelming thing to myself by asking: What are the steps that need to be accomplished to complete this?I keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller steps until I’ve reached the tasks I can do today. It will also help you to uncover if there are aspects of a project that you don’t know how to do, so you can pinpoint areas where you will need to seek assistance.
Error 6: You can’t remember what you have to do.
Make a list. Get all of the things you need to do out of your head and onto a piece of paper in one place. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, electronic, or synced with some gadget or gizmo. A note card, post-it note, or your paper planner will do fine to capture all of your to-do tasks. Start the week with a 30 minute planning meeting where you determine what needs to be done for the week and place each of those items in a specific time block in your calendar. If they don’t all fit (and they won’t), then figure it out how to delegate, delete, or renegotiate the deadlines on the least important items.
Error 7: Your space is disorganized.
Set aside time to organize your writing space in a simple and easily maintainable manner. I recommend Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out. It’s a quick read and will help you to develop a simple and sustainable way to organize your office. If you find yourself working on multiple computers and can’t keep your electronic files straight, consider ways that you can either access your other computers when you’re away from them (GoToMyPC) or keep all your computers automatically synced (www.dropbox.com).
Each of the strategies will be super-charged by attaching support and accountability. For example, daily writing is easier when you have a writing buddy or accountability partner. Organizing your office doesn’t have to be drudgery or a solitary task: partner up with another disorganized colleague and help each other. Or better yet, find a highly organized person (they often love to organize others) and offer to exchange their organizing skills with some skill that you have in abundance. And as always, there are tons of professionals who are happy to nag,coach, edit and/or organize you if you have more money than time. Once you learn and implement a few new writing strategies, you will either be off to the races with your writing, or your resistance will resurface in new and more frightening ways (more on that next week).
The Weekly Challenge
This week, I challenge you to:
- Write every day for at least 30 minutes
- Identify what (if any) technical errors are holding you back from writing each day
- Experiment by trying one new strategy this week
- If you feel reactive to trying new strategies to increase your writing time, ask yourself: what beliefs are keeping you from experimentation?
- If additional resistance emerges, welcome it with curiosity, engage it in conversation, and identify the behaviors and the feelings associated with it (you may even want to keep a resistance log).
I hope this week brings you a spirit of curiosity about your writing habits, a willingness to try new techniques, and the increased engagement that comes with spending time each day with your summer writing project.