Academic writing: my habits and rituals
Do you look forward to academic writing or do you avoid (or even fear it)? Do you follow a particular system in order to get your writing done? Do daily writing sessions work for you? Are you of the binge-writing persuasion? Or somewhere in between? I’ve been on sabbatical over the past few months, so my “system” is something I’ve been thinking about (and often discuss with my students). With this in mind I thought that it might be helpful to write about my current approach to daily writing.
I used to write in episodes, dramatic episodes it often felt like, of 8 or 9 hours a day for a number of days (or nights), as deadlines dictated. Three years after completing my PhD I was lucky enough to get a permanent academic post in a Research-Intensive University, where research counts as 1/3 of our posts. It quickly became clear to me that I needed to make writing part of ‘normal life’ as opposed to some activity that I did on an intermittent but intensive basis.
Through trial and error I’ve realised that the most I can write for is 3 hours per day; I’m happy to do this 6 days per week. If I write for more than 3 hours I end up, after a few days of this, getting so tired that I cannot write for a week or two. I should also say that I can’t manage daily writing all year around: during the Winter term I teach two courses (one with 130+ students) and manage the work placement programme for our Digital Humanities MA/MSc. From January to April I never manage to write for more than 5 hours per week. But that is ok as it all balances out over the year, more or less.
Here is my current “system” (for reasons completely beyond me I enjoy reading descriptions of other writer’s working habits and I try out new approaches periodically):
- I make a vat of coffee (strong enough for a spoon to stand unaided in) and go to wherever I’m working that day (which could be my little office at the end of the garden, on the train to the office in UCL and then in the office, or whatever hotel room I’m in that day (at the moment, and for the foreseeable, I give an invited talk in the UK or internationally about every 3 weeks).
- I try very hard to do my writing before any other task. Some days I convince myself that an imagined email is of the utmost importance and cannot possibly spend 3 hours unanswered. This is always a mistake.
- When I turn on my computer my ‘Writing Log’ opens automatically so that I remember to record the number of words I have written that day (if relevant – see 6 below).
- I listen to a particular song, the same song every single day, and then I start writing.
- I aim to write for minimum 4 and maximum 6 pomodoros each day. I learned about this system from Get a Life PhD and thoroughly recommend it. Each pomodoro lasts 25 minutes and at the beginning of each session you commit to concentrate on your task for that amount of time. At the end of each pomodoro you get a 5 minute break and after completing 4 of them you take a 15 minute break. I am especially attached to the ticking sound that my timer app makes and usually have little or no problem concentrating once it starts.
- Under the rubric of ‘writing’ I include planning; drafting; analyzing, processing, encoding (etc) research data; reading relevant literature; writing; revising; editing and correcting proofs. I don’t include general academic reading, even if it’s essential for writing, because that would be just too tempting.
Daily writing will not work for everyone; moreover, I’m privileged to have a job that allows me the flexibility to work in this way. During the three years I spent between the completion of my PhD and my first permanent post I moved country 3 times and held two posts with no personal research time. Back then daily writing sessions of 3 hours would have been impossible. However, regular sessions (if only of 25 minutes and never underestimate how much you can do in 25 minutes) would have been possible.
For me the great benefit of making writing a habit is that it solves the issue that I find most difficult about it – the starting and the stopping. One of the biggest problems I have when my routine is broken is that it takes me a long time to remember what it was that I was writing about as well as to get back in to the ‘zone’. By making writing a habit it means that when I’m up and running I just keep on going (and, in theory, at least, I know when I must stop).