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Writing projects have come to a screeching halt for some academics, overwhelmed in this difficult year by the unfamiliar and heavy demands of remote teaching. People are tired, afraid, and traumatized. So it is perfectly understandable if you have not been able, or had the desire, to do scholarly writing. If that’s the case, you can stop reading and save this article for another day. But those of you for whom writing is centering and calming should keep reading.
I am one of those people. While I am sick of being stuck in front of this computer in Zoom meeting after meeting, somehow it feels different to sit down and write. There is joy when I open a clean Word document and excitement when I type the first sentence (which I inevitably delete). At a time when I feel as if I can’t control anything, my words have become one way to assert myself.
I am currently writing my fourth book, and only now do I realize how long it’s taken me to settle into a writing routine. Much of how I structure my writing practice has been informed by my background in educational psychology. The rest is born of experience. But let’s start with what is universally true about brain functioning. This will provide context for many of my suggestions.
- The brain has finite resources. Think of it like a car that is always running. Eventually you have to add fuel, or it will shut down. Adding fuel can happen through naps — but not those 15-minute “power naps” that are more like getting a jump when your battery is dead. They are effective in the short term, but you still need a new battery. You can also add fuel with the right foods (e.g., fish, blueberries, dark chocolate, nuts), or by doing something relaxing that allows your brain to go into low gear. Ideally, you would do all three.
- Information is processed and stored through neuronal networks. These are basically pathways in the brain that, if used a lot, are easily accessed. This is why your brain likes routines.
- Your emotional state has a direct effect on brain functioning. When you are stressed, your brain floods with cortisol and focuses its resources on de-stressing you. This means that all of the resources that were being used for higher-order thinking get redirected to your limbic system (it’s your brain downshifting). It takes a while for your brain to reset from that level of stress, so this will probably mark the end of your intellectual work for the day.
Keeping those three principles in mind, I offer the following tips on how to structure a writing practice that will work for you.
Planning. I tell my students that the most important part of writing happens before you type a single word. You not only need to plan the project itself; you also need to plan to complete the project. That first part is easy for academics because we are full of ideas. The second part is where we struggle because everything seems to be more pressing than writing.
So just as we schedule every other facet of life, we need to schedule our writing process, from planning through submission. Here’s how to start your planning:
- Do the reading. The first step in conceptualizing a new project is to read what already exists on the topic. The last thing you want to do is spend five months writing a book that was published six months ago. Reading will also spark ideas and help you organize your sources for when you do start writing.
- Develop a couple of project ideas and work on them simultaneously (although working on too many different things at once can mean none of them ever is finished, so find a happy medium). Particularly early in your career, when you are building your body of professional work, you want to spread your bets. What if your paper is rejected? What if you don’t get that grant? What if someone publishes on your topic before you do? Always be working on at least two projects at once — ideally, on slightly different topics.
- Review potential publishers, and gauge your options. Where do you envision publishing your writing? What has the press or journal already published in your area of expertise? What are its submission guidelines? Your motivation will be higher if you work with a publishing venue in mind.
- Draft a reasonable writing timeline. In planning a project, I first look at a 12-month calendar and determine in which months I will have the most time to write. For example, I teach every summer, so I collect and analyze data in the summer, plan writing projects in the fall, when I am still teaching, and write in the winter (November through mid-March), when my teaching load tends to be substantially lighter. I submit new articles from April through June, knowing that the peer-review process usually takes about four months. So just when a journal sends me a request to revise and resubmit, I am entering my planning and writing months. That cycle ensures that I always have something under review, something I am actively working on, and something in the pipeline.
- Make a writing schedule. When I am in my writing months and have fewer teaching responsibilities (but still all of my other duties), I schedule myself to write during the time of day when I am most productive, which varies between 8 a.m. to noon and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I schedule all meetings outside of that block of time.
- Make a project-based writing schedule. Once I’ve blocked off time to write, I decide which projects I will work on. Due dates for chapters, grant proposals, and book manuscripts help me backward-design my time. But because journal articles reign supreme in my field, they take priority in my writing schedule.
Writing. Phew. After all of that planning, now all you have to do is write. Here’s what’s worked for me on that front:
- Expand your definition of writing. Much of writing is thinking, and that takes a lot of time. Doing research, drafting outlines, revising drafts — all of those steps count as writing. A broader definition of writing will make you feel more productive on the days when you don’t generate any new words on the screen.
- Don’t set page- or word-count goals. That is a guaranteed way to pressure yourself into writing just for the sake of writing. Instead, I suggest setting time-based goals in which you write, say, one to four hours (after four hours, your brain is likely to be out of resources).
- Listen to yourself, and work on what you feel like working on that day. Forcing yourself to write when you feel unmotivated or indifferent will result in writing that you end up deleting. It will also stress you out and create a negative emotional association with writing. This is why you need multiple projects at once.
- If you don’t feel like writing, don’t. Be flexible with your schedule. If you were supposed to write from 8 to 10 a.m. on Tuesday and just didn’t feel like it, swap time slots with another weekly task (e.g., cleaning, exercising, grading, reviewing a paper, making a meal).
- Keep reading while you write. You should certainly read for pleasure, to give your brain a break, but you should also read — and reread — scholarly texts to inform your work and get ideas for additional content, formatting, or even a new publisher.
- Stay motivated. Especially when my writing stalls, I do small things that make me feel productive. For example, I start each day by rereading passages I already wrote to remind myself that “yes, you can do this.” Then I open a clean document and start afresh. This allows my brain to reboot and stop thinking about yesterday’s content. Also, after I finish a writing block, I copy and paste the results into a larger document, which allows me to see just how much longer it’s grown. And if it didn’t get longer, I still have evidence of prior writing and collective progress.
- Take short breaks. Remember that, even during your writing window, your brain needs some recovery time. Take a 30-minute lunch break, and watch Netflix while you eat. Go for a walk or do a quick workout. Call that friend whose messages you keep forgetting. Just be sure to step away from the computer.
- Edit as you go. This will look different, depending on the project. For books, I write a chapter and then take two to four days away from it (while I work on other writing projects), so I can edit with fresh eyes. My rule of thumb: Take half the amount of time it took to write the section/chapter away from the document.
- When it’s done, it’s done. Writing can always be improved, but at some point, you have to just stop, submit, and celebrate your accomplishment.
The caveat in all of this — and it’s a huge one — is to do what works for you. The internet will have you believe that writing 15 minutes a day is the only way to be productive. That may or may not work for you (it doesn’t for me). Other advice suggests that you “write anything, just write” as a way to get your creative juices flowing.
The best advice I can offer: Try a lot of strategies, and adapt them for your goals, your process, and your life context.