Recently I have realised that I miss writing. This is a good thing.
To clarify, what I mean by ‘writing’ is working on my own first-author publications – the ones I have primary responsibility for analysing, drafting, revising…. From looking at my calendar it has been nearly 6 weeks since I have been doing this kind of writing.
Six weeks ago I was desperately trying to get a draft of a paper finished so that I could send it off to my co-authors before I went on holiday. I finished it, sent it off, and, as I haven’t yet received any comments back from my co-authors (if you’re reading this you know who you are!), I have not been doing any proper writing since. Obviously I’ve been working on other stuff – revising other papers where I’m not the first author, programming experiments, analysing data, submitting job applications, writing talks – but over the last few days I’ve realised that I’ve been missing writing.
When I was at Richmond, a common topic of conversation amongst some of my friends, who were (and are still) early career academics like me, was what was the best way to write productively and not keep putting writing off because other tasks are more urgent, like preparing for teaching for example. There are many sources of advice on this topic available, such as here, and here…. But I think my favourite one is here. The main point of discussion being whether you should try and write a little every day or try and set aside big chunks of time for writing. One of my friends at Richmond was a big fan of the writing every day approach and of accountability – keeping a record of when she had/hadn’t written and having to declare that at her writing group – a little like the weigh-in at Weight Watchers! But one of the issues with this approach is what happens when you slip up and miss a day? – do you think “f*** it” and stop trying?
I say go with the flow. Or find a flow and stick with it. I am currently in a postdoc position focused on conducting new research so I have to balance writing-up older research into academic papers while designing and coordinating data collection for new experiments. I was previously in a postdoc position where I also had teaching responsibilities AND was still writing up my PhD thesis. So, I’m still relatively young in the balancing-writing-with-the-other-responsibilities-of-an-academic world, but what I’ve found works best for me so far is trying to write for 1-hour at least 5 days per week when a paper is in its early stages, and then putting more hours in when it’s getting ready to be sent off to a co-author or submitted to a journal. Reasons for this:
- Setting the 1-hr a day for 5-days rule means that I am not kicking myself if I miss a day. I also have a special calendar where I mark off the hours that have been dedicated to writing (see photo below) – this is my form of accountability.
- Meeting smaller deadlines like writing for 1-hr per day helps the task not seem so difficult – today I will work on this little section, tomorrow that one – after a while you’ve written the whole introduction.
- Writing a little bit at a time helps me come back with fresh eyes and edit what I have previously written. Trying to write in bigger chunks I tend to lose perspective.
- I find it easier to put more hours in when I’ve got some momentum going. If I’m starting out with a new paper/project and think “I’ll work on it at the weekend when I have time to put 6 solid hours in” then I feel disheartened and annoyed with myself when I get writers block that weekend or something else (like a fun outing) gets in the way and I don’t get anything done. But when I’ve got some momentum going with a paper it’s much easier to get immersed in it and beneficial to have the time to make sure that the arguments in the paper are coherent and the paper hangs together well as a whole.
The only disadvantage of this system that I have found is that sometimes it can make writing a paper feel tedious – like “wow, I feel like I’ve been writing this for ages!?”, however, a quick glance at the calendar is then reassuring when you realise that there are lots of writing days marked, but really you’ve only been working on that paper for 2 weeks 🙂
So, I was pretty happy that I’d found a system that seemed to work for me, but when thinking about which draft of a paper I would start working on again next, I realised that I actually miss writing when I’m not doing it! (This came as somewhat of a surprise, but then I was also surprised that I hadn’t noticed this earlier?!) I think it helps me to have at least this little routine in my work life, especially in the summer when there are no students/classes; and it energizes me to feel that I’ve ‘produced’ something every day, particularly when perhaps the other tasks I have been working on don’t have such obvious measures of productivity, e.g., matching word stimuli on familiarity/concreteness/semantic category…. ! Anyway, after I realised this I am even more excited to get back to the system, and some writing, next week!
(And I also hope that I can keep this routine, and love of writing, working for me in whatever job I next get – more on jobs soon hopefully!)
Snoopy photo source: http://www.cardiogirl.net/snoopy-is-no-name-for-a-chihuahua/