You’ve all heard the advice that it’s good to write regularly. Perhaps it was phrased this way – productive writers write a lot because they write regularly. You’ve been told that you can get a lot done if you just write every day. That it’s no good hanging around waiting for the next big gap in your diary to magically appear because that may never happen.
But hang on. Perhaps you’ve also heard that not everyone who publishes a lot does regular writing and they manage to carve out big slabs of time when they write all the things at once. Some productive writers don’t follow the maxim, yet they seem to organise themselves to write a lot anyway.
And I dare say you’ve probably heard that many people vary the amount of time they spend writing, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, depending on how much time they actually have available. Regular writers they might be, but they write for varying times, regularly.
But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that none of this is you. Yet. You think you want to write regularly and are not quite sure what to do other than sort out the time in your life – each morning or night you’ll set aside time to write something. Anything.
Well not quite anything. And here’s the thing. A little -or a lot – of writing time can be highly productive. But that productivity depends on you knowing how to use whatever time you actually have wisely. You can get a lot done – or not much at all – in little bits of time, or in lots. You can waste regular time just as much as you can use it to be productive.
The thing is that you have to do a bit more than simply set aside time, sit down at the keyboard and write. You really don’t want to spend a lot of precious time, in big or little chunks – however much time you have, a little or a lot – getting nowhere. Trying to sort out what to do, making several false starts and generally not going anywhere fast. You have to make the most of whatever time is available.
You need to match the task to the time.
Matching task and time requires a little bit of thinking ahead. It means a little bit of thinking about ALL of the tasks that go into a particular piece of writing, Writing is not simply sitting down and tapping away. Writing is also thinking, making notes, reading, sorting out references, selecting data, working out who to cite and not cite… there’s a lot of different types of work that add up to academic writing
And of course you can make that thinking ahead the first writing task that you do.
The easiest way to explain what I mean is to give you a hypothetical example.
Let’s say I want to write a paper about the ways in which a writing task can be organised. So there are a range of tasks that I have to do in order to make the paper happen.
I start a paper master file.
An early task which can be done in bite sized pieces – search the literatures. I can easily search and then store the results in one short sitting, then proceed in small steps to check out promising papers and flag them. I can read the title abstract introduction and conclusion as a way of building a short list. I don’t have to do that all in one sitting. As I find useful texts, I can capture them and their bibliographic details using my bibliographic software.
I can also amass empirical data that I need. Again this can be done in smaller bursts or in one larger block of time. I store cut and paste selections of data in a separate doc in the master file.
I might then want to develop my ideas. I might first of all want to use some prompts and do some speed writing. For example I can finish these sentences…
My paper is about… the reason I am writing is to influence/inform/challenge/etc … who/what ….. so that… . The paper is needed because…
In order for the paper to work I need to argue… I need to provide evidence that…
But I could also brain storm or write some chunks of stuff.
I could then write a tiny text abstract for the paper. And at the same time, before or after I could sort out a title which sums up the major message that the paper is going to give – the point I want to make.
Once I have a tiny text, it acts as a kind of road map for the first draft of the paper. I can then write it piece by piece, in big and larger gobbets and slabs of time.
By having matched time and task I can keep in touch with my paper no matter how little or much time I happen to have available. The paper is not left sitting until I have a day to do the literature search or three days to write the first draft. I can manage a little something or a larger something or a very substantive something and keep at it.
I can chip away at essential bits of the paper and keep the momentum going as long as I am working at a task that is useful to the writing.
Regular writing is good if you know how to use your time to advantage. If you have thought through all of the various things that you have to do as part of writing. If you recognise that actually putting hand to mouse is dependent on associated tasks of reading, noting, brainstorming, organising.
Matching time and task is an important part of making a regular writing habit work for you.
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash
Dear Pat: Although I can manage writing with a modicum of regularity, I can’t cope with interruptions. This is not a recipe for maintaining marriages / family relations / friendships, but the work rules. Intent on not allowing my day to be sabotaged by Persons from Porlock, whether actual, electronic or telephonic, I switch off email and phones, and don’t answer the door.
As It’s the long summer vac, A Plan was organised – a road map for decimating the text of a (too lengthy) thesis, aiming to have half of it in a master file, finished and polished, come the new semester. You’d think it would be simple: start at the beginning and carry on till you reach the end? Nope. It turned out I had three separate, and marginally different, scripts to integrate, in three different places. My own fault; keeping meticulous track over five years hasn’t been 100%.
I do attempt to end on a positive note, and not at a problematic juncture, and now write brief notes at the end of the working day: where I’ve got to, where the outtakes are stored, and what the plan is for tomorrow, (~ ish). *And try to stick to it.*
Easier said than done!
PS: Unfortunately, no one can ignore, or organise, a cat, but at least she regularly reminds me about eating!
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Yes, the end of day list for the next is a really helpful strategy. Saves all that where was I..
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Again, such wise advice. As a mom with young children starting out on a PhD it was only through matching task to time that I managed to get anywhere. I always kept a file of readings in the car to review while waiting at school. An hour while the kids watched TV meant a review coukd be done. Public Holiday? A chapter drafted…and so on.
Another writer said to me: “keep a list…and just keep chipping away”.
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Yes. The snatched moments task list is very important particularly with children..
Thanks for helping us examine the different ways to think about time. A while back you wrote a longer post about your master file system – how you categorise papers according to themes. I really enjoy hearing about your ways of categorising and synthesising. Can’t seem to find the post now. Do you remember it?
Thank you for yet another insightful and engaging
article. I regularly send them to my children who are now in the post graduate phase.
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Great article with some really good advice!
Sadly I’m a bit of a diva when it comes to academic work. I can only sit and focus on my reading or writing if I’m sat, stewing at a library desk. With this in mind, I’d like to offer my personal take on this:
“You really don’t want to spend a lot of precious time, in big or little chunks – however much time you have, a little or a lot – getting nowhere. Trying to sort out what to do, making several false starts and generally not going anywhere fast. You have to make the most of whatever time is available.”
In the essay ‘Was ist Aufklärung, Kant argues that an enlightened absolutist state, in which civil freedom was heavily curtailed, was the perfect ‘harten Hülle’ (hard shell) in which the germ of enlightenment could begin to grow, eventually sprouting forth, allowing people within to free themselves from their self-inflicted immaturity.
I think there’s a parallel to be drawn with academic work.
It is sat at a library desk, my academic ‘harten Hülle’, where the germ of an idea begins to grow, eventually sprouting out of my brain, or pencil-laden wrist, and freeing me from my self-inflicted boredom.
I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone… but…
I MUST subject myself to the boredom, the dead ends, the false starts, the slow and arduous struggle. It’s from this utter desperation that good ideas seem to come!
Zak (Carrie’s son)
Yes absolutely waiting and false starts are academic writing too!
I’ve been out of the writing loop for a few years, but finally started writing again. You’re right planning time to write is essential. thanks for the post it was just what I needed.
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