Hack your writing with simple discipline strategies

We academics constantly face two competing impulses that threaten our productivity as researchers and writers:

  1. The chronic busyness that fills our days — prepping classes, grading student work, preparing for meetings, attending meetings, recovering from meetings……. that convinces us we have no time to write;
  2. The radical (compared to most other jobs) flexibility of our schedules, with sometimes wide expanses of unstructured time that can paradoxically cripple our ability to use much of it for writing (e.g., “I have all summer… My God, where did the time go?!?!?”).

This post from from Jennifer Ahern-Dodson of Duke University, written for the ProfHacker blog (which you should follow regularly — it’s great!), provide some simple yet valuable tips for keeping your writing productive by keeping it scheduled, limited, accountable to others, and kept in mental perspective with humor.

I just helped start a Writers Group for faculty at my college; the participants all seem to agree that having a sense of human connection for fellowship and accountability makes the process less daunting by making it less isolating. While I didn’t have it when I started this particular group, I am going to share with them the Writing Group Starter Kit from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. It includes worksheets and instructions for making the group experience focused and productive.

depp writes

Now if I could only follow the advice myself!

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ProfHacker

Teaching, tech, and productivity.

September 30, 2014 by

Scholarly Writing Hacks: 5 Lessons I Learned Writing Every Day in June

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[This is a guest post by Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, an assistant professor of the Practice in Writing Studies at Duke University where she teaches digital storytelling and researches learning communities and community-university partnerships. You can follow her on Twitter @jaherndodson.–@JBJ]

On May 31st panic set in. I had agreed to commit to writing every day in the month of June as part of a faculty writing group experiment. Inspired both by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), recent conversations about mini-monographs, and a visionary classics colleague who cooked up this idea, seven of us agreed to set a big scholarly writing project goal for the month (such as writing 30,000 words) and write every day to reach it.

We agreed to post our daily word count and to report our progress (and musings) on a private WordPress site: “(Wee) Little Monograph in a Month.” Despite my enthusiasm for the challenge, I feared I’d fail: Could I keep my writing momentum going for a full 30 days? Could I really write just a little every day and get a rough, raggedy draft by the end of the month?

Here’s what I learned from trying.

1. Use writing to figure out what you think. In the early messy-thinking-on-the-page stage, it’s not the quality of the words, but generating text that matters most. Because I committed to writing every day for a month, I was able to turn off the internal critical voice, that perfectionist voice that many writers struggle with, and just write instead of agonizing over every word and sentence. Sometimes my writing meandered for a while before I discovered what it was I wanted to say, but I finished the month with enough of a draft to see both gaps and possibilities. I had something to revise. One of my favorite posts from a fellow traveler in our June group captures the value of generative writing best:

Is anyone else discovering that they might be writing awkward/problematic/vomitatious words but that they are THINKING, and SEEING their project, as if for the first time?

2. 20-30 minutes a day really does make a difference. I’ll admit I was skeptical, but as I settled into the month, I realized that by writing just a little every day, I was making writing a habit. By “showing up” to write daily (whether I felt inspired or not), I discovered myself thinking about my project even after I’d met my daily writing goal, and so found renewed intellectual energy when I showed up to write the next day. Enforcing upper limits on writing time allowed me to walk away and not lapse into the stressful binge-writing trap, a practice that I sometimes fall back on that perversely just generates more resistance to writing at all.

Experimenting with short daily writing also allowed me to do an end run around the problem of (seemingly) unlimited summer writing time (no teaching, committee, administrative commitments), yet never feeling I had enough time to write the first draft of a book.

3. You gotta have a plan, and having a plan means scheduling time for weekly assessments and revisions of the plan and its goals. I revisited my writing goals at the end of each week to keep my big-picture goals in mind (to get that first draft on paper) and to see if I was working productively toward that goal. Each Friday part of my scheduled writing time included these questions:

(Big picture): What was I trying to think about, to understand, to express with this project? To whom? Why? How did the particular section I was working on fit into the big picture?

(Daily writing): How did it go? Did I need to stop and do more research before the next writing session? Was I distracted at that coffee shop? Bored by chapter 3? More productive in the morning? Did I need to schedule writing around vacation or travel?

By planning weekly assessments, I could celebrate small successes when I hit weekly targets, remind myself what it was I wanted to say, and look honestly at what was happening when I was writing, so I could see where I was getting stuck and whether I needed to revise my writing plans to keep the momentum going. Momentum is crucial.

4. Community matters: Showing up for each other helps you show up for your writing. I often resisted writing in June, especially on the weekends and while on a family beach trip. But when I resisted, when I felt I could not write one more word, I turned to our group WordPress site for motivation. Each of us in the June challenge—an historian, philosopher, rhetorician, classicist, German literature scholar, biologist, and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies scholar—posted the highs and lows we encountered with our writing and our research. Despite the disparate topics (including Medieval dogs, ancient foods from the wild, and fan fiction) and meeting only virtually, I felt connected to other writers, which kept me writing. Our group posted word counts daily, which was a helpful accountability measure, but we also infused a sense of fun by posting snapshots of our writing lives with a format adapted from the tumblr siteAcademic Breakfast. Here’s one from a writer studying foraging cultures:

wineglassWhere am I? On my sun porch

What am I drinking? Glass of Grüner Veltliner (Cheers!)

What am I doing? (5 words) Pre-writing – today’s words till ahead

How am I doing? (10 words) Proving difficult today to tend plants AND write about them.

5. We need to keep a sense of humor about the challenges of writing in the real world.
allthecatsOur writing community posted a wide range of experiences (and distractions) that we faced as we tried to write every day in June. Cats taking over our writing spaces. Power outages. Laptop crashes. Big ideas for other projects popping up and distracting us from our June writing project goals. We wrote in airports while waiting for lost luggage, a Disney World bathroom at 5am while family members slept, and in an outdoor garden that called for attention. Our pictures and musings captured our writing lives as we actually lived them, not as we imagined them. Collectively, we demystified the magical summer-of-productive-writing so many of us long for in April, but rarely see materialize by early August. Life happens. Writing can find a way in if we make the space for it.

In the end, I managed to write every day in the month of June and sketched out a rough draft of a book that I’d been sitting on for years. Draft in hand, I now turn toward the hard work of revising it. To work productively toward that goal, I know I need a faculty writing community, a writing routine (when the specter of “unlimited” writing time gets replaced by the “no time to write” mantra), and a plan for the academic year.

Our June group is resuming for the fall, and new writers are joining us. We will name and post our writing project goals and weekly targets to our new WordPress site “justwrite.” (My weekly goals will include writing Monday-Friday for at least 20 minutes).We will continue to post pictures of our writing spaces and the joys and challenges of scholarly writing. Our pictures may be less glamorous—beach views and sun porches replaced by offices or classroom spaces—but we will write, and use these scholarly writing hacks to face new kinds of writing resistance with good humor and a shared commitment to cultivating a sane and productive scholarly writing life.

Have you had success with online writing groups? What strategies seemed to help get the writing done? Share in comments!

In-post photos are courtesy of J. Clare Woods. Lead photo is “Writing in the Purple Room” by Flickr user Julie Jordan Scott / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

Listen to Ringo! Turn to your friends.

One of the truly irritating things about a career in academia is that it is invariably performed by human beings. Well, perhaps nearly  invariably — we all know that certain bionic colleague who seems to be able to do it all effortlessly, leaving the rest of us breathless and in awe.

No, that’s bunk — even the Six Million Dollar Faculty experience the same occasional crisis moments and more common feelings of fatigue, overwhelm, and panic. The job demands much, sometimes too much, and we’re just regular people with limits and limitations. And these moments of — what? inevitable humanity? — happen at every stage of the academic career, and never at an opportune moment. Usually at the worst moments, right? The days after midterms and finals with a stack of work to assess and students expecting grades. The looming deadline for a manuscript submission. The weeks of preparing for a tenure or promotion review. And then there’s the all-too-mundane yet all-too-human inevitabilities: illness, family concerns, conflicting obligations… you know, life stuff.

Where can we turn for the answer? Of course, you reply: Ringo Starr, and his friends.

Sometimes, the answer to the most complex personal problems can be as simple (and yet as profound) as the simplest pop song lyrics:

What do I do when my love is away
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

No, I get by with a little help from my friends…

Of course, in academia, this approach assumes that the friends are there — that you’ve taken the time and effort to cultivate collegial connections with the folks in your department and elsewhere. When you’re a new faculty member, of course, this requires reaching out for help making these connections: to department chairs, a faculty mentor, other senior faculty, more-senior junior faculty, the faculty development staff at your institution.

Even with the groundwork laid by a network of familiar and dependable colleagues, though, it still takes a certain strength to admit the need to reach out. The life of an academic can feel like a solitary one so much of the time; it can seem presumptuous, even inappropriate, to ask someone to cover your classes, shoulder some of your work, or even just take time from their own frenetic schedule to listen to you vent. But Nate Kreuter from Western Carolina University reminds us in Inside Higher Ed that we need to give ourselves permission to channel our inner Ringo, and seek the help we need.

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October 1, 2014

Sometimes we are overwhelmed. The forces of life converge, place us in a bind, and restrict our ability to do our jobs. We’ve all watched it happen to a friend or colleague. Perhaps many of us have experienced it for ourselves. In these moments, our work life can become secondary, and probably should become secondary in many cases.

We need, during these moments, to ask for help.

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Go ahead… “rush” into networking!

I don’t know about you, but I always feel a bit nervous about situations where making conversations with total strangers is part of the point.  You know, what some folks call “schmoozing.” I have typically felt weird about schmoozing. I think many of us introverts who are drawn to academia feel this way. Part of me is afraid this will happen:

There are a couple of important realities about the schmooze, however. One is that it is usually a lot less like rushing the Omega House than you might imagine. Another is that conversation for networking — be it for a job search, promoting a scholarly project, making inroads for your student advisees with other institutions, or personal development — is a vital professional skill. As I prepare for a number of conferences and off-campus meetings over the next couple of months, I’m finding myself nearing a number of potential networking moments that I don’t want to waste.

Just in time for the conference season, graduate student career consultant Christine Kelly  offers this valuable advice in Inside Higher Ed.  Check it out!  Then, if you’re thinking you’re ready to take your schmoozing game to the next level, check out these power networking tips “for people who hate networking” from Eric Barker in The Week.

Then you won’t need to worry about being stuck in the corner with Kent and Lonny… er, Larry.

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September 29, 2014

I attended a conference recently and stayed at a hotel that required me to take a shuttle to get to my events. On my first shuttle ride back to the hotel I chatted with another hotel guest who was attending a different conference and also not staying at his conference hotel. We chatted about a variety of things before we got to that pivotal point where I was very glad I chose this particular hotel.

It turns out he worked for a company not far from where I work, and when I learned that piece of information my next question was, ”Do you hire graduate students?” I told him I worked with graduate students at the University of California at Irvine and would love to help his company connect with our students. We exchanged business cards and when I got back to work I sent him an email and information about our Career Center and reiterated that I could help his company connect with students. Since then I’ve also been able to introduce students to his company. This happened because I ignored what my mother told me and I talked to a stranger. As we approach conference season I want to encourage graduate students to talk to strangers and I offer this primer to those who hate to network.

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Leave the poop deck unswabbed, matey… just write!

The beginning of the academic year is always a crazybusy time. If you work at a teaching-intensive institution, the start of the year often feels like a time of mournful separation — with the end of summer comes the end of our scholarship productivity for the year. That’s because finding time during the term to get any writing done can feel like Popeye trying to get Poopdeck Pappy to sleep when he’d rather go out and start a bar fight.

The problem with “finding time” to write is that the enterprise is often impossible — there are always other things to fill our time. However, Joli Jensen from the University of Tulsa, a writing columnist for Vitae, reminds us that while the decks will never be sufficiently swabbed, we can still proceed to sail the scholar-ship (see what I did there?) with a little shifting of perspective and the application of a few easily implemented productivity tips (which she writes about in a separate piece that I recommend highly).

So put away the mop and weigh anchor, matey!  Arrrrr!!!

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Image: Richard Dorgan, from ‘Biltmore Oswald’ (Project Gutenberg E-Book)

August 29, 2014

 

One of the most widespread myths in academic writing is that you can, and should, try to “clear the decks”—that is, finish all of your other obligations before you can focus on your scholarship.

In a recent faculty workshop on “stalled projects,” six colleagues committed to try, for two weeks, a few of the writing approaches I’ve been recommending. No pressure, I told them. This wasn’t a permanent commitment. It was just a way to explore why these projects weren’t moving forward.

The day before our second meeting, one colleague emailed to say that she couldn’t start using the techniques because she was overwhelmed. There was just too much going on, it wasn’t an opportune time for writing, and now grading had to take precedence. She couldn’t make the meeting, and she would be out of town the following week, but hoped she could continue with the group once things settled down.

Obviously the “cleared decks” delusion had her in its grip. Even though she said she wanted to reconnect with her project, had been confident she could find 10 minutes a day to write, and had had a week free of teaching, she still hadn’t been able to get started. We had discussed specific ways for her to make better use of her time, such as doing scholarly writing before her grading. In spite of those suggestions, she still felt obligated to put her research project on hold until “things cleared up.”

The other members of the writing group understood, of course, but this time they had been able to make different choices. They, too, felt overwhelmed by other obligations. They, too, felt that this wasn’t the best time to be writing, and were tempted, each day, to put off even their brief 10-minute commitment. But somehow they were still able to try at least some of the techniques. And once they experienced even a little progress, they felt better about the project, and about themselves, and were eager to keep going. They were no longer stalled.

The reality is: Things never clear up. They don’t even reliably settle down. Your in box is always full. The decks are always crowded.  There is always more going on than you want or expect. Nonetheless, you can find ways to put your writing first, and make sure that it gets done. Otherwise, everything but your writing will get done.

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Can professors work 9 to 5? (Clean up the coffee you just spit out.)

Compared to most folks, we work weird jobs. Now, that’s true for lots of reasons, but one of them is the bizarre relationship we have with time. On the one hand, we are usually blessed with a flexibility in our professional schedule that our friends and loved ones who work 9 to 5 would kill for.

On the other hand, we are constantly complaining about being overworked. And that’s not an unreasonable complaint — late-night lesson preps, weekend grading binges, committee meetings that are never scheduled at convenient times… The issue of work/life balance is a constant in academia, it seems, and the goal envisioned in this discussion is one few people seem to achieve… unless, of course, in the estimation of some of us, that lucky sot is obviously letting something slide.

So when I started reading Trish Roberts-Miller’s piece in Inside Higher Ed this morning, I had to clean up the coffee I spit out. Her claim — that yes, we academics can manage the average pace of a 9 to 5 schedule — is at once audacious and uncomfortably on point for those of us who revel in how “busy” we always are.  (Please bear in mind that this article is not being shared by one who has mastered this discipline! I am digesting this food for thought myself, and considering how to implement her advice to tame my own crazy work rhythms.) It might not be a bad idea to try timing our work like lawyers to see where our productivity waxes and wanes, so that one day we can work more like bankers and rest and play like real people.

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August 25, 2014

Recently, I told a group of graduate students that it’s possible to finish a dissertation and have a happy scholarly career while working 9 to 5. I think they were cheered and shocked, and I only later realized there might have been a lot of confusion. It’s hard to talk about working hours and academics partially because we have what others have called a culture (perhaps even cult) of “busyness,” partially because of the collapse of the 40-hour work week, and partially because academic work is a gas that will expand to fill all the time available.

So here is an attempt to clarify.

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A 20 minute writing workout? How about half?

Ah, who can forget the halcyon days of aerobic exercise in the 1980s? (If you are a reader who is too young to remember… shut up.)  Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda… and the infamous 20 Minute Workout videos. I heard rumors some folks actually used these videos for actual workouts…

The philosophy of these large-haired workout regimens was actually rather sensible: It doesn’t take a long time to get fit — rather, it takes a commitment to do a little bit each day, regularly, in order to get results.  Such a productivity philosophy can easily be applied to other tasks requiring discipline… such as academic writing.

Many of us struggle with the prospect of “finding time to write”… we tell ourselves it requires devoting large blocks of open time that we can ill afford with our various other professional and personal obligations.  Granted, finding such time can be a marvelous luxury, as those of us who have benefited from “writing retreats” can attest. However, Gregory Semenza from the University of Connecticut reminds us that doing just a little bit each day — a mere 10 minutes of down time we’d otherwise fritter away (face it, you know you would… I would) — can provide productive results that we’d otherwise miss. Writing for the Chronicle’s Vitae, Semenza reminds us how easy, and beneficial, it can be to keep those workouts brief, frequent, and pain-free.

While his advice is ideal for writing during the academic year, why not start a “10 Minute Workout” regimen this summer? It’s not like there aren’t loads of other distractions… and you won’t even need leg warmers!

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July 18, 2014

 

Write every day. Over the years, this is the single bit of advice I’ve given most regularly to graduate students who aim to become professors. Unfortunately, after grad school, it’s a lot easier said than done. The seminar and ABD stages present young scholars with a misleading sense that an academic schedule leaves relatively large blocks of time for writing.

With the possible exception of the summer research months, it doesn’t. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that writing time shrinks for most of us as our careers advance.

Though I was involved in departmental and university service as a graduate student, I was by no means prepared for the realities of a full-time academic job. In the first two to three years following graduation, university service requirements quadrupled, my teaching load increased, external consulting and reviewing activities proliferated, and so too did undergraduate- and graduate-advising duties. Throw in a house, a yard, maybe even a family, and you’ve got yourself a dilemma: For those of us who are required to write, or simply wish to write, time is not on our side.

During my dissertation phase, I developed a daily writing strategy that served me well for several years, which was to try to write at least two double-spaced pages first thing every morning. This strategy was an adaptation of a system practiced by one of my dissertation advisors, who writes for at least two hours each day. The two systems are a lot alike—especially since, for me, two pages of solid writing very often requires about two hours of work. Whereas some people work better with time limits, others find it more productive to set page goals. I continue to believe that systems such as these are ideal both for establishing a productive writing schedule and ingraining habits that will carry over well into a variety of academic positions after graduate school. (Those interested in learning more about such plans should see Graduate Study for the 21st Century .) But there’s the ideal and then there’s real life. While I continue to dole out this advice on a regular basis, I’m finding it harder and harder to find two hours—or even time for two unspeakably bad pages—in my day.

What I often do have, in between meetings with students, classes, and so forth, is 10 or 15 minutes.

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A productive summer writing plan: It’s not too late!

"AHA! Now I can finally finish that article! Pass me another shandy and ear of sweet corn!"

As the extended July 4th weekend festivities retreat into memory, I know what many of you are thinking… because it’s what I’m thinking:

“Gads, the summer break is nearly halfway over! What happened to the time?!?”

Especially for those of us at teaching-intensive institutions, and/or with hefty service obligations during the academic year, summer is a time we count on to get reconnected with our scholarship, especially our writing. But it’s also a time — and rightfully so — when we reconnect with our families, our hobbies, our capacity to rest and recreate. And so it’s all too easy to let our work slide. That is, if we don’t have a plan.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, wrote this short but useful piece two months ago. Rick Reis of the tomorrows-professor e-mail listserv (have you subscribed yet???) helpfully resent it last week. These tips, incidentally, aren’t just useful for the summer… so you’ve got plenty of time to prepare for your fall writing plan!

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Let’s Get Ready for Summer Writing

Happy end of term! Happy Graduation! and CONGRATULATIONS! You survived another academic year! And you know what that means: the summer writing season is right around the corner. Throughout the spring semester, I kept hearing from beleaguered faculty and graduate students who couldn’t wait for summer so they could “get some serious writing done.” And yet, every August I hear from just as many folks lamenting about how another summer has passed by and, once again, they failed to make progress on their intellectual projects. As we head into the summer break, I’m feeling motivated to help eradicate end-of-summer regret among academic writers! To that end, this summer’s Monday Motivators are designed to be your week-by-week support system for your summer writing and productivity.

Summer Writing Challenges

While we often fantasize about the freedom that summer represents, there are some important challenges to consider during the summer months. The most important challenge is the deception of unstructured time. Freedom from teaching, committee meetings, advising, and the day-to-day drama of campus life can create the illusion that we have lots of time. Imagining that we have infinite time can lead us to procrastinate and/or belabor tasks unnecessarily. Additionally, for those of you who aren’t daily writers during the academic year, you may experience the challenge of heightened expectations. In other words, putting off writing until the summer can create intense pressure (particularly for tenure-track faculty) that you must complete a year’s worth of writing in 12 weeks.

Childcare poses yet another challenge to summer writing. Changed schedules for school-aged children, gaps between the end of school and beginning of summer camps, and the increased expense of additional childcare during the summer months can leave some parents struggling to manage additional childcare and a rigorous writing schedule. Finally, some of you are simply exhausted from the intensity of the academic year and, more than anything else, feel the need to address all the neglected areas of your physical health, social life, and personal relationships during the summer months.

While it’s important to understand the challenges academic writers face during summer breaks, they point to the keys for a productive summer. I believe those are: 1) knowing what you need as a human being and what you need to accomplish as a writer and researcher, 2) creating a realistic plan to meet all of your needs, and 3) connecting with the type of community, support and accountability that will sustain you through the summer months. I think each semester should start with a plan, so for this week I want to encourage you to set aside 30-60 minutes, grab your calendar and a piece of paper, and develop a clear and concrete plan.

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