From Writer’s Block To Writer’s Rhythm
Publish or perish: this classic adage is an accurate description of the tenure track’s main law of survival. Finishing your dissertation allows you to escape the abyss of the terminal A.B.D. Quickly crafting clear job applications gives you an edge in the job hunt. Getting grants and publishing in peer-review journals are the twin requisites for receiving tenure at prestigious institutions. To succeed as an academic, first and foremost you must get it written.
Work Regularly – learn to work in small, regular units of time rather than exhausting marathons. Research shows that academics who write a few pages each day produce much more than those whose habits are sporadic and who wait until they can devote large blocks of time to writing.
Monitor Output – Keep track of your efforts. Develop systems to monitor your productivity as a way of maintaining motivation. Recording the number of pages or hours a day you are writing will help you avoid procrastination.
Break it Down – Remember the classic adage: “What’s hard by the yard is a cinch by the inch.” Break down large writing projects into component parts and then focus on small increments to keep from becoming overwhelmed.
Aim for Ease – When you are developing new writing habits, focus at first on the process you are developing rather than the outcome. Avoid premature judgments of your work. If you sit down and start at the time you planned to work then you have succeeded.
Set Goals – Create sub-goals and personal deadlines. Then reward yourself for each small step taken. Completing discrete, daily assignments will move you steadily towards larger objectives.
Schedule Time – Plan your days and weeks in advance to facilitate regular work habits and reserve adequate writing time. (See Manage Time & Organize.)
Apply Contingencies – Develop an effective system of rewards and punishments for yourself to ensure reliable follow-through on tasks. (See Overcome Procrastination.)
Write First – Start your day with writing whenever possible. The majority of prolific fiction and nonfiction authors write every morning before doing anything else.
Cultivate Buddies – Seek social support to prop up production. Discussing your plans with a faculty colleague, or fellow student, will help you keep your weekly goals realistic. Sharing your plans and problems will also ease the loneliness associated with solo writing projects.
Go Public – Increase accountability by telling others about your goals and personal deadlines. When you’ve told your advisor, or your co-author, that you will have a draft to her by a certain date, you are more likely to get it done.
Create Rituals – Begin and end your writing sessions with routines to demarcate work time. Writing rituals can range from tidying your desk, to reading inspirational quotes, to listening to a favorite song. Use your imagination to create a personal way to start and finish each day.
Organize Space – Create a pleasant and private work area where all the tools that you need are readily available.
Schedule Stops – Learn to quite while you’re ahead. If you stop while you’re hot, you can avoid burnout and resume work more easily on subsequent days.
Do Less – If you get stuck, or find yourself consistently unable to meet the goals that you set, reduce the amount of time you spend writing. Build up your “writing muscles” slowly and increase your productivity over time.
Avoid Blocks – Most of the time, writer’s block is really “sitting down to write block”. As with any productive activity, the first thing you must do is get started. Tackling your writing project for even 10 minutes will get rid of the blank screen on your computer.
Ban the Editor – The first rule of rough drafting is to keep the critic away from the creator. Allow a loose outpouring of ideas as you place your first words on screen or paper. Go back later to refine and polish. A rough draft should be just that: rough.
Draft Early – Write before you feel reading in order to sidestep your internal critic. If you begin writing while you are still reading and conducting research, you’ll have pages of notes by the time you get ready to begin a formal draft and you’ll never face a completely blank slate.
Flow Freely – For many academics, the most effective way to generate early drafts is focused freewriting. This process involves allowing yourself to write whatever comes to mind about a particular topic. It is the cornerstone of fluid prose and reliable writing habits.
Incubate Ideas – Think in advance about your topic and let you ideas simmer on the back burner. Letting your unconscious mind process concepts before you begin to write helps the ideas flow more smoothly once you begin.
Respond to Reading – Take notes in prose every time you read. Don’t rely solely on underlined passages, or cryptic notes in margins. If you take the time to write a paragraph summarizing the main points of an article, and how it relates to your thesis, you will understand and remember the material better. You’ll also be creating the basic ingredients of a future literature review.
Compose Creatively – When you begin writing your rough draft try working without notes and quotes. You may go back later and fill in the gaps. This will help your sentences flow more smoothly and keep you from getting lost in a maze of unnecessary details.
Mindmap Freely – Before starting a traditional, sequential outline, allow yourself to brainstorm using nonlinear, visually-appealing methods that will help you clarify the complex interactions of your themes.
Simply Summarize – When you are having trouble organizing complex material, it may help to write a succinct abstract of the topics you hope to cover. Summing up your thesis may help you see a natural order for presenting the information.
Outline in Detail – Start with a rough overview, and then create increasingly detailed outlines. Eventually, you may be able to turn outline phrases into full sentences and craft your rough draft without starting from scratch.
Revise to Rev Up – Polish the last page of your previous day’s work in order to start your writing process. However, beware of spending so much time tweaking that you avoid starting new sections. Use a brief period of revising to warm up rather than procrastinate.
Piece Your Quilt – Link previous segments of focused freewriting, quotes and notes. Stitch the segments together, like squares of a quilt, to form an ordered whole.
Wait to Judge – Avoid reading over your rough draft immediately. Remember the all-important edict to keep the critic away from the creator. If you get picky too soon it will be hard to allow the words to flow.
Take Breaks – Get enough distance from your initial efforts to see your words clearly. The longer you wait between the process of rough drafting and revising the more accurate and dispassionate your judgments will be.
Avoid Nausea – Learn when NOT to revise. As writing guru Peter Elbow suggests, if the mere site of your draft makes you ill, then it is time to put the pages away until another day.
Layer Changes – Rework your words gradually and in different stages. When you’re in the first rough draft phases, avoid polishing as you go. Wait until you’ve got a large chunk complete before tweaking specific sentences. Reviewing entire sections, rather than trying to perfect your paragraphs as you go, will keep your style more consistent and flowing.
Apply Blinders – When revising, look at one aspect of your writing at a time. Ignore the forest for the trees and vice versa. For example, start by reading through the manuscript making sure that each paragraph consists of cogent, grammatically correct, complete sentences. Then, step back and review the section for it’s overall meaning, coherence and eloquence. It is difficult to keep macro- and micro- tasks in mind at the same time.
Rest Regularly – Maintain your overall motivation with breaks and vacations from your work. Even a single work-free day can help you gain perspective. Stepping back from your work and letting your unconscious rather than conscious mind mull over issues, is especially useful when you are grappling with scholarly problems.
Seek Feedback – Get recommendations from many sources and at many stages of the writing process. When you are a student, you write for a single audience – the professor. When you are a successful academic, your audience becomes as large as possible. Seek comments and advice from as many people.
Expose Early – Never try to perfect your work before seeking feedback. Show your work at beginning phases, starting with an outline. When authors have slaved over each word before showing their work, they are understandably reluctant to make changes. You will be more open to constructive critiques if you get advice early on. Save your more critical audiences for later drafts (i.e. get feedback from peers before showing dissertation sections to your chair). Start with friends who will be gentle with your early efforts.
Pick Your Critics – Develop a cohort of readers who specialize in different areas. For example, you may exchange drafts with a colleague who is great at spotting conceptual weaknesses, another who is a grammar maven, a third who will zero in on statistical nuances. The more people who read your work, the more sophisticated and well-rounded your product will be.
Request Support – Ask for specific kinds of suggestions. Never be afraid to ask for positive feedback- especially from highly critical mentors. It is valid to ask a reader what they liked about your manuscript. You may say, “Please let me know areas where my argument is clear and well-argued.” It can be unnecessarily discouraging to receive comments only about the flaws in your work. Whenever possible, avoid over-critical reviewers who will discourage rather than motivate you.
Exert Extra Steps – Give yourself the time to fine tune your drafts. Be sure to read over the completed manuscript in its entirety before sending it off. You may pick up previously unnoticed glaring errors when you make that final pass. Writers who procrastinate, and finish work just in time to meet deadlines, deprive themselves of the space to polish their work adequately.
Avoid Over-polishing – On the other hand, avoid perfectionism. When you find yourself changing the same sentence over and over, only to end up with your original version, you are going to far. Learn when to let go and move on. Academics who attempt to produce flawless work rarely publish enough to get tenure.
Contribute Generously – When you write a dissertation, paper or book, remember that you are contributing to an ongoing scholarly dialogue rather than producing the ultimate, definitive conclusion. You don’t have to worry about having your ideas “stolen”, or your work “scooped.” Think of your work as adding an interesting point to a continuing discussion: this attitude will help you avoid grandiosity and perfectionism. There is no single, correct way to approach a topic. We each have a unique voice. Every answer creates new questions. No one ever has the final word.