I was very pleased to see that the admirable @PhD2Published are organising Academic Writing Month for this November. If only such a thing had existed when I was a graduate student. I well remember the blank mornings, tinged with a growing panic, as the huge and shapeless thought of The Thesis that I was supposed to be writing hovered about me, indistinct and somehow just out of reach.
But those days of gloom and displacement activity are long gone, and now I have a different problem. Working full time (and not as an academic, and so without the long summer vacation) I struggled for years to find the time to write, and to write often enough to sustain momentum. Weeks would pass by without a word, and the occasional Saturday morning or Bank Holiday would become so important, and my expectations of what I could achieve in it so great, that the pressure to Get Some Writing Done was suffocating and ultimately self-defeating. And during the working week, the feeling of having not written anything since the previous month was a constant background to the day’s ‘real’ work.
Recently, however, I joined the army of train commuters in the south-east, and finding myself with something like twelve hours each week in transit (I write on the 06.25 from Chichester to London Victoria), I decided to try something else. What if I could do just enough every day ?
I had tried something like this before, of course. A few years ago (helped by light summer mornings, and there then not being any children) I resolved to get up half an hour earlier each day, and Do Things. But it lacked a specific goal, and so after a few attempts at spending thirty sleepy minutes filing or writing two or three footnotes, it went the way of many good ideas. It’s very easy to write nothing at all for thirty minutes, I found; I was good at that.
This time, it’s not minutes, but words: 300 of them a day, five days a week. It can be any kind of writing: proper stuff like articles, or a blog post, or a book review, or a book proposal, just so long as it is no less than 300 words. It has turned writing into an everyday thing, a routine; and I find an immediate fluency as I start each day that I never found before. It usually happens in the morning, and I look forward to it every day.
And no more than 300 words as well. Why so ? If it’s going well, why not make hay while the sun shines ? For me, it’s because I’ve set aside time tomorrow for another 300 words, and so for today I can put the piece aside and get on with all the other things that need doing. And (hopefully) I’ll get through all that stuff such that I’ll come back tomorrow with enough space in my mind to write again.
Finally a word on which kind of words. Matt Houlbrook (@tricksterprince), to whose blog post I owe the stimulus for this, thought that 300 good words could take all day; and were I still my graduate student self, I would have agreed. How many times did I sit down and write a first sentence, only to decide that it wasn’t perfect, and delete it all again ? As Josie McLellan (@josiemclellan) rightly pointed out on Twitter in reply to Matt, quick and dirty is the way to go. Write, write, without deleting or editing; that can come later. The very fact of some words on paper is the motivation I need. Not a word from that day’s session may ever make it into a finished piece, but it matters not. A running coach once wrote that every training run, however mud-spattered and painful, counted for something; one more point on a matrix of meaning from which something may be learned. And there’s a parallel with writing: even the paragraph which gets deleted or re-written counts for something; no act of writing is ever wasted. So, for me, I need to just get on with it.
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This is what I’m trying to do. Sometimes when the kids are sleeping, I feel like my head is turning so I can’t write. On those days I don’t write. Writing must be sustainable.
Anyway, 300 words with whatever quality, that’s great. My best paragraphs come with this mindset. And some garbage comes with this mindset too, but I can delete / edit that later.
This is a great post, Peter! Thank you for sharing. I too have found that my commute time (I take a long train ride in and out of Washington, DC everyday) is the perfect time for me to squeeze some writing into my life. Of course, as I am currently in graduate school, I try to restrict my commute time to creative writing only, knowing my entire evening will be consumed by academic writing as soon as I get home.
I think the ‘and no more than 300 words’ bit sounds really important. Sometimes I set myself a goal to spend an amount of time or to write a number of words and then although I might achieve that goal don’t feel I’ve quite nailed what it is I want to say. Accepting that you’ve made some progress and can come back tomorrow sounds good for building the kind of stamina to deal with long term writing projects like books and theses.
Thanks for this Lyndsay. I certainly find it helpful to have permission to stop writing, although when in the groove it is sometimes difficult.
Thanks for the post Peter. I’ve heard this kind of writing referred to as ‘snack writing’ – it makes a lot of sense.
Peter – I have to write a lot for work and I found that the 750 words site provided a good platform/framework for loosening up my writing muscles – http://750words.com/