One might mistakenly assume that writing as an academic activity gets easier with more experience. I have not found that to be the case. In fact, with time, I’ve struggled with the tendency to let other responsibilities crowd writing out of my calendar. When the unexpected happens – such as the death of a loved one or family illness – writing has stopped altogether. The longer I’ve worked in the academy, the more I have had to learn about writing, and work at continuing to develop a writing habit. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way….
Writing and composition instructors are well acquainted with the work of Peter Elbow, who has long been an advocate of free-writing as a strategy to start writing. That is: sit down and write for 10 minutes without stopping, without correcting, and get as many thoughts down as possible. Elbow divides the task of writing into two main processes: generation and revision. In the generation process, the goal is to record as many thoughts as possible, without evaluating them. Chaos may ensure, but that is OK. Once a writer has something to work with, then the revision process can begin, and writing can be restructured.
Rowena Murray, a professor at the University of the West of Scotland, talks about the idea of “snack writing” in several of her articles. Murray has examined faculty writing and productivity, and in several studies, has found that writing in small amounts more frequently results in getting more done. Another researcher who has studied faculty writing, Robert Boice, talks about the idea of more frequent writing as a strategy to develop one’s writing. This year, I have worked on developing a daily writing practice, rather than rely on the all-to-common strategy of binge writing, which relies on completing writing tasks in longer periods of times, usually working to short deadlines. I’ve learned that it is possible to squeeze in writing every day, even when my day is crowded with other commitments. I also inventory writing and writing-related tasks, which is a strategy that Patricia Goodson talks about.
Disengaging to engage in writing
It is easy to say, “I don’t have time” for more writing. Students and faculty must manage numerous professional and personal responsibilities. In order to engage with writing, Rowena Murray and her colleagues assert that writers must disengage from other tasks. Disengaging from other responsibilities can be difficult. There are always other obligations to attend to. Family members, friends, colleagues and students all require our attention. Living requires us to take care of personal health, homes, family, gardens, and pets. How can we maintain a commitment to a writing practice?
For me, this has meant identifying a time and place to write, a strategy that Harry Wolcott has recommended. I try to write first thing in the morning. I’ve taken to getting out of bed earlier, making myself a cup of tea, and in the hour before breakfast, I have a quiet time for writing. I try to leave my Internet browser and email closed, and if there is something I feel that needs to be checked online, make a note of that in the text. Before long, I have a page… it may be messy, but I’ve made progress. By writing first thing in the morning, I’ve found a way to prioritize writing. For others, this time might be after children are in bed, late at night. On those days when other responsibilities impinge (or I sleep in!), I slot writing in later in the day. Sometimes this is as little as 10 minutes. Every little bit helps though, and when I revisit what I have done, it is easier to get started and keep going.
These strategies have been documented to work well. All the best with your writing!
Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums.
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil Nimus. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process. (2nd ed.). New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goodson, P. (2012). Becoming an academic writer: 50 Exercises for paced, productive, and powerful writing. Los Angeles: Sage.
Murray, R. (2013). ‘It’s not a hobby’: Reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), 79-91. doi:10.1007/s10734-012-9591-7
Wolcott, H. F. (2009). Writing up qualitative research (3rd Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
2 thoughts on “Working on writing”
This is a bleak outlook… But thanks for sharing! I’m starting to keep a research journal of some sort to integrate the literature I read into a sensible “narrative.” Is this a good idea?
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Thanks so much for your comment… I suspect that scholars have different relationships with writing over the course of their careers. Perhaps ask others? One of my big challenges is managing writing as one of many activities and making it a top priority. Your strategy of using a research journal to track your ideas with respect to the literature is an excellent one. Doing this will (1) keep track of thinking over time, (2) encourage creative thinking about how these ideas might be applied to your work, and (3) support the development of a regular writing practice.
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