Writing habits

I read Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space: How successful academics write earlier this year, and a few months later, I find myself going back to it again and again. It now sits on the shelf next to Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and On Writing by Stephen King – a book about the hardships and pleasures of writing.

One of the first posts on this blog was about my plan to finish my dissertation – “Writing Goals”. I had recently read How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva, which is basically a kick in the pants to write every day, without fail. I took it to heart, and tried. But I rarely actually wrote every single day. I did not stick to a regular schedule of, say, a 2 hour block of time every morning devoted to writing. I certainly wrote most days! I got the dissertation done, but didn’t ever get in the habit of sticking to a specific, daily routine like Silva advocated. And I definitely never started writing on the blog with any regularity, like I thought I would.

Over the years, I’ve tried other strategies. Some people get a lot of writing done in half-hour chunks – it takes me twenty minutes just to remind myself where I left off! Others binge-write, like a student pulling an all-nighter to turn in a paper. Been there, done that, too exhausting to be a long-term solution. Writing “retreats” where you escape to the wilderness for a few days, sequester yourself away from normal life – I wanted to hike and stare at the birds, not write.

Air and Light and Time and Space surveys successful academics and workshop attendees, and comes to a conclusion: there is no One True Way ™ to be a productive writer. Given that many of the strategies that people swear by didn’t work for me, I find this immensely comforting. The book provides a deep look at what people actually do and then celebrates the diversity of those practices. Sword herself was surprised – she adopted the daily writing practice long ago, and thought it would be common. Some academics certainly benefit from it, but many take other approaches. The main commonality – you have to write on a regular basis. What counts as a “regular” basis varies, but successful academics make writing a habit. Sword focuses on the practice, the process of writing. Writerly habits. She analyses data from surveys, and provides excerpts from interviews, and encourages us to find joy and satisfaction from the process of writing.

What has worked best for me? A consistent writing group. I joined a writing group at my last postdoc in Minnesota, and that was often the most productive chunk of time during the week. We met two times a week, for three hours in the morning, laid out our goals for the session, and wrote. At the end, we’d check in on how far we’d gotten. There were three of us at the core of writing group, and several others who cycled in and out, or would come once a week. That group has evolved – Amy left for a faculty job at University of Kansas, Peter is on leave for his new kiddo, I started a new postdoc at UVA. But we’re evangelists for writing group – Amy has one at KU, I’m getting it going here in Virginia, and others have taken up the mantle for the UMN writing group.

Writing group works for me – and all of us, I think – on a couple levels. First, habit and practice. Writing will never be easy for me, though it can be rewarding. But practice makes it more doable, and much easier to get started. Getting started has always been the hardest part for me, at least. Once I get going, I often enjoy writing quite a bit! A time and place reserved for it establish cues – the library is for writing. Or conference room, or friend’s office, or wherever. Rituals can help with this too. I make a cup of tea, then I write. I listen to this music, then I write. I open my notebook and get out my favorite pen, then I write.

Making writing social helps, too. As previously established, I am very introverted, so was quite surprised by how effective it was to turn writing into a group activity. But, it is! For one, if I didn’t show up for writing group, I was letting down a friend. Guilt can be powerful (for better or worse). Stating intentions – and knowing that I had to state them – got me to plan more in advance, and prioritize what I was doing. Over the course of a few months, stating my goals and seeing whether I met them also gave me a better sense of what I could (or could not) accomplish in a set time. Prior to writing group, I didn’t really know how many paragraphs I could write in three hours, or how time it would take to revise a section of a paper. I do now, more or less. And, by voicing goals for a session, there was immediate accountability. Telling your friend that you just futzed around for half the time would be embarrassing. And you can’t procrastinate on it – tasks, even with deadlines, can be put off for later. But knowing you have to say what you did for a three-hour chunk? You have to actually do something during that time, to have something to report. Finally, just having another person physically present reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing. They’re writing, I should be writing, so I’m gonna start writing. Attention starts to wander? Oh, wait, my friend is here – they’re writing, I need to do that too.

Writing group ensures I have the time to devote to bigger projects and support to actually start on those tasks. It’s what works for me. I’ve had a little, lingering guilt that I wasn’t necessarily writing every day, like I thought academics were “supposed” to. Air and Light and Time and Space reassures that there’s no one way to do approach writing, and gave me some ideas for other strategies to experiment with. This is not the book to read if you’re learning how to structure a paper or advice on wordsmithing – I still love The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and Writing Science for those. I think Sword’s book will be a source of inspiration, though, and a push to think creatively, analytically, and without judgement about how to foster effective writing habits.