The Tough Love Approach to Writing

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One of my resolutions for 2018 was to get back to the writing desk in earnest. And that meant holding myself accountable for producing something each weekday — no matter what.

In my previous life before academe, I was a journalist and writing coach so I already knew that the only surefire way to produce more words on the page was to schedule inviolate writing times each week. In the absence of any concrete writing deadlines — coupled with taking on new administrative responsibilities at my university last year — work on my next book project had all but stalled.

So to help me with the daily grind, on January 1, I started an agraphia (fear of writing) group on Facebook. The idea — borrowed from Paul J. Silvia’s great advice book on academic writing, How to Write a Lot — is to establish a structured writing group with concrete deadlines. The logic being: If I encouraged a group of other writers to set specific daily writing goals and report back on their progress, I would have to do the same myself.

It was a clear-cut case of the doctor needing a large dose of her own medicine.

It’s March 1, and for the most part, the group has worked wonderfully. The members are actively participating (mostly) and we’re churning out more words. That said, I began to notice that during the scheduled "writing time," people were not necessarily writing. They were "outlining" or "reading articles" or "organizing their notes" — all of which are necessary components of the writing process. But they aren’t the same as writing.

There are other hours in the day to accomplish those supporting tasks. "Writing time" should be devoted to producing new words on a page. That’s it.

What I’ve realized is that many academic writers don’t necessarily make any distinction between the different phases of writing. By my count, there are four:

  • Research (which includes reading and notetaking).
  • Writing (the production of new text).
  • Editing/revising (the rereading and restructuring of old text).
  • And copyediting (the pleasurable task of fixing minor grammatical, spelling, and formatting errors in an otherwise solid final draft).

The four phrases overlap a bit but remain distinct actions with very different purposes. Prep time is for reading and doing research. Revising time is for rewriting, restructuring, and copyediting. And writing time is for new writing. Mix up those distinct actions and you can spend countless hours earmarked for "writing" and yet have no new words on a page to show for it.

For some of you, I know, it’s controversial (and maybe a little needling) to suggest that you need a scheduled time devoted solely to producing new words on the page. But academics who don’t set aside blocks of time for writing often seem to spend countless hours doing things to "prepare to write" and then never getting any actual writing done.

We all know how easy it is to slip into rapturous research instead. Reading is, on the whole, always a more pleasurable thing to do than writing. And that’s just a blanket truth. Writing is many things, but it is rarely "fun." Not to be too Dorothy Parker about it but, while I love having written 800 new words on any particular day, I don’t necessarily adore the act of spending two solid hours with my butt in a chair actually writing those words.

Using your writing time to do research or line editing is a crutch. It is. Trust me on this. Here are some common arguments I’ve heard colleagues and graduate students make about why they can’t possibly write new words during their scheduled writing sessions.

Argument: "I need to read in order to write. That should still count as writing time."

Rebuttal: Technically, that is true. But reading is comparatively easy to do and can be squeezed into much shorter amounts of time. You can — and should — be reading for your writing. But not while you are writing. If you block off a precious three hours to write or revise and then spend 2.5 of those hours reading other people’s words, you are preparing to write, but you are not actually writing. Reading and research is conducive to formulating thoughts, but shouldn’t be done during the time you’ve scheduled to actually write out your own arguments or revise them.

Argument: "But I need to edit as I write. That’s just how I write."

Rebuttal: No, you do not need to edit as you write. Editing is not, in fact, writing. It’s editing. It’s often our pesky internal editor that keeps us from writing at all. If your first drafts take you forever, that is probably because — instead of getting half-formed words out of your brain and onto the page — you have written a single sentence or paragraph and then spent hours allowing yourself to agonize over its word choice or sentence structure. Just don’t do it. I’m not saying that you should never sit down to edit your work; I’m suggesting that isn’t something you should be doing during the initial stages of writing. If you don’t rein in your editor as you craft your first drafts, you will never learn to write faster or more efficiently. And writing quickly is, for better or worse, necessary in this academic climate. (We could debate all day about the merits of "publish or perish" but it’s a fact that most administrators and tenure committees expect you to be churning out a couple of articles per year, at a minimum.)

Argument: "Revision and writing are the same thing! How can I separate them?

Rebuttal: Again, technically, that is correct. Sort of. Revising a first draft often requires you to produce new sections, rewrite paragraphs, and recraft sentences. And revising is writing, of course. But it’s not the type of writing that you should be doing when you set aside an hour just for "writing." Block off different times for revising until you become a writing ninja. Trust me. Just by forcing yourself to think of writing as separate from revising, and scheduling time for both, you will become a more productive and proficient writer. Why? Because this forces you to have multiple writing projects in play at once. Working on several writing projects at once allows you to respark your creativity and thinking as you switch modes and subjects. And it often generates new ideas. Whenever I have 30 minutes left in a writing block and I’m done with my main writing task for that day, I freewrite. You’d be surprised what connections you can make when you’re forced to generate new text every day. (This very essay is a result of a brainstorm I had when I had 15 minutes left on my writing clock a few weeks ago.)

Once you’ve mastered the art of using a block of writing time to produce new words, you can start mixing writing and revising time together. But until then, try to keep those activities separate. Even if you’re dubious, try it for a week or two. My guess: You’ll be shocked at how much writing you can do when you use your writing time to actually write.

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