Monday, July 18, 2011

The Most Important Thing

Perhaps this should have been the first post on the blog, but then again, what you'll read in this post could be the every post on this blog. From all the various professionalization books, blogs, conferences, and etc. that I've come across I can definitively say that they all say the same basic thing about academic writing:

If you want to be a productive writer who doesn't hate herself/himself most of the time, then you HAVE to develop a writing schedule!

If I were to take the time to link every blog post that makes this argument from the blogs you see in the Blogroll on the right-hand side of this page, Google and Blogger might just crash. So rest assured that I've done all the hunting and gathering for you! I'll use myself as a case study here.

I used to say things like "I'm a night person" or "I need long blocks of time" or "Once I get on a roll..." Basically, all of these sayings were excuses for not being disciplined about my writing. When I realized that I don't make any of the same excuses about the times I have to teach, or go to class, or attend dept. meetings, it was a revelation to me that I was thinking of these things as necessary parts of my professional development - while I was thinking of writing as something I had to do whenever I "found time."

That is the WRONG way to think about writing. If you're planning on becoming a working academic, one who is required to contribute to her field through publishing research,(along with other tasks), you can either write whenever you find the time and continue to be stressed, overworked, minimally productive, frustrated with yourself. OR you can develop a schedule that you stick to and which carves out time for you to write regularly.

You don't need 6 hours at a time, in fact, I would argue that 6 hours is way too long for one sitting. Probably 2-3 hours at a time is a good figure. 1 1/2 hours can be awesome, 3 hours can get too long sometimes. Are you a "night person"? Fine, don't use that as an excuse not to write. Instead, write for 2 hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night!

December 2009 was when the revelation hit me and I actually made concrete changes in my life. 2010 was my first full year living by these principles, and 2011 has been the first year when a daily writing schedule has become second nature. This summer I've been writing every morning from about 8:30am until around 11:30am, and then reading and researching after lunch. Of course, my writing time in the morning often includes reading and responding to what I read.

I follow this schedule every day. If I feel like I've run into a wall and can't write, or that I don't have anything to say, I go back to whatever primary or secondary text I'm dealing with in whatever I'm writing and read and take some informal notes in my notebook. This process almost invariably leads me back to the computer. Writing is now another regular part of my weekly and daily life. Anyone who knows anything about writing will tell you that daily writing will exponentially increase your output.

Use the comment stream here to air all your typical excuses or the excuses you hear from your friends. Let's just get 'em all out there so we can dismiss them and create writing schedules.


  1. Oh, I'm so good with excuses that I can win that competition any time.

    My favorite one is: scheduling writing kills all creativity. How about the divine inspiration we need to write?

    I was just talking to a friend who is not an academic and communicated to him that what we, the academics, do is all about consistency and knowing how to write regularly.

    "Really??" he asked. "I keep hearing you guys can only write when the inspiration hits you."

    The myth of needing an inspiration to do scholarship has reached non-academics, too, it seems. :-)

  2. When I was telling someone that I was starting to take this approach to writing, she dismissed it out of hand, saying, "I just don't think it's a good idea to sit down at the computer when you don't have anything to say. I just write my papers when they're due because that due date makes me do the research."

    A few thoughts: as academics, we will have due dates, but not the same kinds of dates we face(d) as students. The dates will be relatively distant and are at times still quite flexible. So the dates don't carry the same imperative as the due date for, say, a seminar paper.

    Also, if your research is governed by a due date, you are not doing good and ethical research. True research requires deep and sustained immersion. Without that, we are speaking about and from the surface.

    Finally--and most importantly--creating a schedule and keeping it doesn't really allow for the possibility that you won't have anything to say. Keeping a schedule can be a powerfully generative force. Increasingly, I find that I have to jot down notes on what to dedicate later writing time to because I have too much, not too little.

    I'm not criticizing this person. It was just interesting to think through her comments and realize why I so strongly disagreed with her points.

  3. I can relate to and strongly agree with both comments here. The myth of inspiration is pervasive, especially in academia, and maybe even more so specifically amongst grad students who tend to romanticize the profession (maybe because they've never sat in on a dept. committee!)

    But Jacob's point is kind of the thrust of this whole blog project. Namely, going about this whole academic professionalization thing can actually be an outstanding "generative force."

    I ask my students all the time, "Would you be writing a paper on x if I didn't ask you too?" Invariably, they answer "no!" and invariably I respond, "So you wouldn't be learning about x if you weren't writing this paper." They always agree.

    If you don't sit down to work every day, the likelihood of the same ideas you could generate during that time actually just "occurring to you" are slim to none.

    That's why making a schedule and sticking to it is "The Most Important Thing"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    thanks for your comments, Clarissa and Jacob!