Part 1 in our series on writing advice.
By: Jillian Paragg, University of Alberta
I look at what I write so I can see what I think - W.H. Auden
We all engage in writing as part of our academic lives, yet it seems that it is something that is not discussed in the Academy as often as it should be. As I enter the final stages of my graduate program and writing my dissertation I realize that I have learned a lot over the past five years about the writing process. Firstly, I have learned that it is exactly that: a process. And secondly, it is a process for everyone. No one, not even the most seasoned writer, sits down at their computer (or with whatever they use to write) and within the course of a few hours, produces a final draft. Ideas take time to form, and writing itself is one of the best ways to play with, shape and develop them.
This realization has been incredibly liberating for me. In my first few years as a graduate student I was so stuck on the idea that everyone but me always knew exactly what they were trying to say and how they wanted to say it. The writing process feels so hidden, because almost all anyone ever sees are perfected, finalized and published pieces. Maybe some people do approach writing that way, but I have come to realize that I form my ideas through writing, and often times I do not even know what I am trying to say until I have written an entire paper or chapter (which is when I go back and write the introduction!)
I have also started doing something that feels really scary: I try to start writing before I feel ready. So often people procrastinate their writing, because they do not feel that they are ready, because they are waiting for inspiration to strike, or because they think it has to be perfect on the first try. But this is not the case. Once again, writing is a process, and going through countless drafts is the norm. Having to revise a draft does not mean that you are not getting it right, it does not mean that you do not know what you are talking about, that you are a fake, or a fraud and that you will never get to the final draft. It means you are working through your ideas, thinking them through, revisiting and revising them as you unravel what you are trying to say, and how you want to say it. Developing this mindset has been particularly beneficial to me over the past year as I’ve been drafting my dissertation. I’ve reminded myself throughout this process that while it is a long one, the revisions and rewrites are helping me move towards what I really want to say. Howard Becker’s book Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (1986) was really useful for me in shifting to thinking about writing as a process, and I would highly recommend it to others (whether you are in the social sciences or not).
If you wait for the perfect time to write, you’ll never write. There is no time that isn’t flawed somehow – Margaret Atwood
Over my graduate school tenure I have accessed a number of resources that focus on academic writing strategies and have adopted a number of these strategies to my own work process. The key strategy, as advocated by academic and non-academic writers alike, is to write everyday. A resource that I would highly recommend that advocates for this strategy is The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure - Without Losing Your Soul (2008) by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy (although the book is directed towards tenure-track professors who are Black specifically, and tenure-trace professors of colour generally, I found it incredibly useful to read as a graduate student of colour).
The book suggests to write everyday (or every weekday), at the same time of day that you find works for you, and to schedule this in. In other words, develop a daily writing habit. Treat your writing like any other meeting: schedule it in your calendar, and honour it. Show up everyday for yourself, to write. This is important because, again, writing is a process, and at times a very lengthy and draining one at that. Even if you did have the time to write all day everyday for months and months (and I don’t think many of us do have that amount of time due to teaching commitments, other jobs, care work that we perform, and not to mention taking care of our own physical and emotional well-being), it is simply not sustainable to binge write for 12 hour days in order to get your dissertation, journal article, or book manuscript drafted. I’ve found that the key for me is to write for a set amount of time every weekday (taking weekends off). I also tend to write in the morning, before I check my email and get caught up in other work that I have to do. Writing is full of decision making, and I find that I have the energy to make these kinds of writing decisions in the morning, before I engage with other work that uses up my decision making energy. However others may find that different times of day suit them better.
The specificities of my daily writing habit were further formed through a writing strategy workshop that I was very fortunate to attend in the second year of my PhD program, facilitated by Alexis Shotwell, entitled Practical Strategies for Pain-free Academic Writing. Luckily, Shotwell has posted a version of her workshop online, which I would highly recommend checking out (here is the link for part 1 of 5 parts: https://youtu.be/PXlJ2hKqfmA). Adopting the strategies suggested by Shotwell completely changed how I go about my writing and how I organize my work in general. In the workshop, Shotwell suggests adopting a daily writing habit that is organized through 45 minute increments of time, referred to as ‘units’. During a ‘unit’ you set a timer for 45 minutes, you sit, and you write. You don’t check your email, you don’t check social media, and you don’t check your phone. You write for 45 minutes of concentrated time. And once the unit is done, you take a break. I have found that working in 45 minute increments is the perfect amount of time for me – an hour of work often seems too overwhelming, especially when I am feeling anxious about writing, whereas 25 minutes (as suggested by the Pomodoro Technique: http://pomodorotechnique.com/) feels too short, in that just as I am getting into writing the timer goes off. However if the Pomodoro technique works for you, that’s great! The idea is to find some kind of strategy to help you develop a daily writing habit. At the moment I write every weekday morning for three 45 minute increments of time, since I am on a deadline to finish drafting my dissertation. In their book, Rockquemore and Laszloffy encourage faculty write for 30 minutes of uninterrupted time per weekday. Again, the idea is to have a daily set amount of concentrated writing time.
Other strategies that I’ve adopted include writing in-community with graduate student friends who have also adapted Shotwell’s ‘units’ strategy. A few times a week we meet up at the library or a coffee shop and complete our writing units together. During the timed units, we don’t talk, we just write. In between the units we chat, have snacks, and enjoy each others’ company. It makes the writing process a lot less isolating, while still enabling us to get our concentrated daily writing in. Another in-community strategy is to form a writing group. There are four of us in my current writing group. At least once a month one or two of us shares something that we are working on with the group members. A day or two before our meeting the draft piece is circulated and we read it beforehand in order to have our feedback ready for the group session. We then combine our writing feedback session with Saturday morning brunch! A writing group also works to make writing a much less isolating process, and it is also incredibly useful to not only get feedback on your work in progress, but also to read others’ drafts to get an idea of their writing processes, how they structure their argumentation and to hone your own feedback giving skills.
I am also about to start the Dissertation Success Program (http://www.facultydiversity.org/?DSProgramDescription) through the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD). This program involves an online writing community built on peer support and accountability to write everyday. While I’ve developed a good daily writing habit over the past few years, I’m hoping that this program will help keep me motivated in the final stretch of drafting my dissertation. In the fall I participated in the NCFDD’s 14 Day Writing Challenge, which gave me a taste of what the online community is like, and I truly enjoyed it. If a daily check-in and online community support appeals to you, then the various offerings of the NCFDD, including the 14 Day Writing Challenge, the Dissertation Success Program or the Faculty Success Program might be a good fit for you as well.
Jillian is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Alberta. Her research interests include mixed race identity, racialization, multiculturalism, gender and qualitative research.