Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ten ways you can write every day

If you've been following the posts this semester on how to have a productive semester, you have already made a plan for the Fall Semester, and blocked out time in your calendar for writing every day.

If you have been writing every day this semester, congratulations! If you haven't, ask yourself "why not?" If you need some ideas on how to actually write every day, then this post is for you!


Write every day” is fabulous advice. But, how do you actually do it? That was my question for a long time before I finally convinced myself to give it a try. Now that I have been writing every day for four years, I can share with you a few ways to make that possible, and explain to you why I do it.

Lettres de Lou

Why you need to write every day

I decided I needed to try to write every day when I found out that scholars who write daily and hold themselves accountable write nearly ten times as much as others! In Robert Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty Members, he explains the virtues of writing every day. Boice describes a study where new faculty were divided into three groups:

  • The first group did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in one year they wrote an average of 17 pages
  • The second group wrote daily and kept a record of their writing; they averaged 64 pages
  • The third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group's average was 157 pages (Boice 1989:609). 

Once I read that, it was clear which group I wanted to be in. I was convinced I should at least try daily writing.

How to write every day

Once I decided I needed to be writing every day, my greatest challenge was to figure out what it meant to write every day. I asked myself, "What counts as daily writing?"

Over time, I came to realize that writing means a lot of things and that there are lots of ways to write every day.

Here are ten ways you can write every day:

  1. Write on a blank page
  2. Line-edit something you have already written
  3. Restructure a paper that you have been working on
  4. Pull together pieces of older documents you have written into a new paper
  5. Check references and footnotes for accuracy
  6. Outline or mind-map a new project
  7. Summarize or take notes on something you have read recently that might be relevant to present or future research projects
  8. Make a revision plan for a rejected article or a “revise and resubmit”
  9. Make tables, figures, graphs, or images to represent visually concepts or trends in a paper
  10. Create an After-the-fact or Reverse Outline
If you think of writing as only #1): Write on a blank page, it will be hard to do that every single day. However, it you are open to other kinds of writing, it will be possible to do at least one of these kinds of writing every day.

I try to do at least two kinds of writing each day, starting with the blank page in the morning. I am at my best early in the morning. I use those early, fresh moments of the day to free-write and to create new material. Once I run out of steam, I might turn to editing something I have written or to checking references. If I get stuck, I will pull out a mind map and brainstorm ideas.

My routine each weekday, then, is to begin the day with writing or writing-related tasks. On a good day, I can concentrate for two hours. Usually, however, my mind drifts after an hour, so I take a break to check email or have some coffee, and put in another hour after my break. I keep track of the time I have spent working on writing so that I can be proud of my accomplishments, and so that I know when I need to stop.

I know that many academics reject as ridiculous the idea that one could or should write every day. To them, I would gently ask if they have ever tried it. And, I would add that it is not only important to try writing every day, but to commit to trying it for at least a month to see if it works for you. It is also important to have others to whom you are accountable and with whom you can share your struggles.

If you do try writing every day, let me know how it goes! If you are a seasoned daily writer, let me know why you keep it up!

44 comments:

  1. One thing that I love about daily writing is that it helps me keep track of my literature better. Instead of reading a bunch of articles and THEN integrating them together (forgetting a few in the process), I write the relevant sentences about the article immediately after I read it. It seems like a small thing but it is a big timesaver.

    I love your blog.

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  2. I agree! It is so much less time-consuming to write about other research just after reading it than trying to pull it all together later. The best scenario is when I know exactly what I need and can put citations directly into the paper I am working on. But, of course, I am not always sure what I am looking for.

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  3. This is helpful advice BUT how do you manage it during teaching semesters? Writing every day works OK during the summer, or during sabbaticals, but I don't understand how people manage it when they are teaching. Those hours in the morning are when I have to be in my office either teaching or getting ready to teach.

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  4. Anonymous: Honestly, I think what has helped me most during the semester is that I teach in the afternoons. That way, it is easier to cut out 30 to 120 minutes each day to write. If you teach in the mornings, you might have to be more creative. One idea is to take a break to eat lunch or exercise after teaching, and then carve out 30 minutes before attending to other tasks.

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    1. iCal works wonders. I keep an appointment with myself.

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    2. What a lot of productive academics do is get up early. Really early. As early as it takes to have that hour or two first thing in the morning, even if you teach at 8am. (This might mean you have to go to bed earlier, but it is worth it.) I'm finishing my third book with a major press: I get up at 5am every day to write.

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    3. Yes. Early morning writing is my best. My preference is to write from 8 to 10. But, if I have to get up earlier to do it. I do.

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  5. Thanks for responding. I often feel like I have no time at all--but when I look back at my schedule I can see that partly that's because I am prioritizing admin and teaching prep. (Of course, they do need to be done ...) My problem is I haven't really learned how to do those 'small blocks' of writing--it takes me ages to get started, then if I do get going I don't want to stop, then I end up spending the whole morning on 'writing' (only a small bit of which is really on writing, the rest is on warming up to write and procrastinating), and then I end up having to do admin and prep in the evening, which I hate. I have bought Boice's book, maybe that will be my salvation. Thanks for the blog!

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    1. You are speaking from my heart!

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  6. Just came across your blog.
    You have some very helpful tips here....Thanks for sharing.

    My problem with the blank page approach and a major reason why I fail to do it each day is that it often loses direction...quickly. Mostly these pieces of mine end up being a complete unusable mess. Hopefully some of your other stratergies will help get my ideas in order.

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  7. My (belated) advice to the person who teaches (and preps for teaching) in the morning is to wake up earlier. This may sound silly - or perhaps the poster already wakes up early - but I've found that it makes a big difference to just adjust your calendar even by an hour. I teach at 10 and generally wake up at 5 AM. I need that early time in order to work out and write. I prioritize working out and quiet time before my work, and I prioritize writing before any other kind of work (including teaching prep and admin). Also, if you find yourself prepping right before you teach, you may want to find creative ways to get the prep work done far ahead of schedule in little bits, so that it doesn't pile up on your teaching days.

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  8. OK let me fantasize: my ideal schedule.

    Get up 9, start writing immediately until 12; break until 2; teach and/or admin 2-5; work out and have dinner 5-8; teaching preparation 8-11; go out and hear the first set of live music 11-12; home reading 12-1, asleep 1 AM.

    What I would need to be able to do that: no lower division courses, good administrative support. I wish I were the early rising type: don't like to get up when it is still dark.

    Hm. What I used to do: morning read news, commute, teach; early afternoons research/writing; later afternoons teach or admin; evenings work out, go out, read.

    What I do now: mornings pull self together to face workplace drama, prepare, teach, teach, teach, eat lunch and prepare, teach; then manage workplace conflict; then teach again; then go home drained and wonder about time management. Do something - other work or exercise or whatever, like blog - until enough fatigue leaves my body so I can sleep.

    In this scenario getting up at 5 is an answer. Having dinner already ready somehow upon arriving home would be a good thing - post workplace drama I am too hungry to go straight to gym.

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  9. Aha but: what I meant to say was my main point: I always wrote every day. There wouldn't have been a way to pass college courses not doing it; they had too much writing for me to do all at once since all the material was new to me and I had to digest it. So I never questioned the write every day thing until I got into a situation where in a practical sense it is very hard to do. What I can say about *not* writing every day is that it is incredibly weakening. So, coming from the other side, for people who don't write every day: try it, you'll find it makes you calm, focused, happy, strong.

    I think also you have to give yourself enough time. I got really confused at some point by all the lectures there are about time management and so on because the assumption is that one doesn't know how to do it. So in the face of all this advice, I thought I was supposed to now go faster and faster, in less and less time, which wasn't true since I had established my pace and hit my stride already - it was already second nature -.

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  10. Profacero,
    I am hearing two things from you 1) Writing daily keeps you focused and in control and 2) Right now you don't have enough control over your schedule to find time for writing. Is there any way you can take back a modicum of control?

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  11. Well, my frustration is that every strategy I have tried as an individual has failed. It is by reading sites like yours I have figured out that the missing piece is administrative support.

    So yesterday and today, I've been taking insights gleaned from reading these websites into a forum site with our new department chair, who as he is taking shape, resembles our former ones less and less. It has been quite interesting, along the lines of -

    Him: you mean, you do not see Project X as your "turf"?
    Z: not at all, just a responsibility I inherited.
    Him: oh, that's news to me. Tell me, do you consider Project X essential?
    Z: it would be unnecessary if Committee Y could meet.
    Him: why can it not meet?
    Z: because Professors A and B cannot see or speak to each other.
    Him: do you know whether they both want to be on Committee Y?
    Z: you may want to double check, but it is my understanding that neither one does.
    Him: OK. I'll have to ask the others, but we could cancel Project X, and replace Professors A and B on Committee Y.

    So that's taking back control by getting help. However, it's not the first time I've asked, it's just the first time anyone has responded.

    In the absence of that, or had that failed this time, the plan I had formulated was to start visualizing myself as a completely autonomous enterprise - not the default position if you're teaching multisection courses in a program where courses build upon each other, but a necessary one if alleged cooperation means destabilization and all sinking.

    The other thing I realized recently, thinking about work issues, is that in my case at least what manifests as a "writing issue" (not finishing manuscripts because of getting sidetracked by draining departmental hijinx) is really a work issue more generally. It appears *to others* as a writing issue because of what *obviously* doesn't get done. There are other things that don't get done, either, and that are actually in my case the aspects of work that are hard for me the way writing is for some people, but that aren't seen as "problematic" because they can be hidden or don't "count." Yet if you're reorganizing as I am, you have to consider it all because everything is a factor.

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  12. Hmmm, 5:30 AM does appear to work.

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  13. Amazing! The trick is to be able to get to sleep early enough to make it feasible as a long-term strategy.

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  14. Every hour before midnight counts for 2! Factory worker parents at my elementary school pointed this out and it is sort of true.

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  15. 5 AM, I'm tellin' ya. Although I'm modifying this: use your prime time for your most difficult task, and this is for me lower division teaching.

    (It is still really odd to me in general that professors talk about writing as their hardest task. For me it's lower division teaching, and that is because we were paid for so many more hours per course as TAS than we have time in the week for as professors. The way I learned to teach these courses *all* has to be unlearned and that's what's the hardest task. Everything else is more like, just carry on.)

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  16. ok, I can't imagine 5am but I moved to 6:30 a couple of weeks ago and it works well. But only if I am in bed by 9 and sleeping by 10. (yes, I am one of those 8h sleepers)
    Thanks for the reminder, I will get back to keeping a record of my writing.

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  17. I'm so happy that I found this blog...I can't wait to read all of the other posts...I feel like it will really help me during my first semester of teaching. Kudos!

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  18. Welcome, Jooyoung! Great to hear you find blog useful. Your research looks fascinating as well. Can't wait to learn more.

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  19. I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful post.A friend of mine told me about your blog page.

    I am working on my first piece of fiction and have been struggling with the last two chapters. I found out that one hour of writing and another hour for editing previous chapters work for me. I have only done this for a week and hope to keep the pace because I get easily distracted by internet, booze and parties.

    Again, thanks Tanya.

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  20. It is an amazing blog! Wonderful points! I always struggling with sitting down and being more productive.

    Thank you for sharing, Tanya!

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  21. Tanya,

    Love your site! Just found it -- you make me feel lazy but it's good. I wondered if you had any advice about starting a writing group. I'd love to work with other academic/parenting types but I'm not sure where to look. Ideas?
    Thanks,
    Suzanne

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  22. Just a question: What do you mean by keeping a record of your writing?
    I am a new student and I have been advised to write every day. I am trying very hard to keep it up, but I can see it getting out of control. I write about different topics every day, depending on my mood, and I have no idea how to keep track of it all.
    Any ideas on how to keep my writing organized in a way that makes sense?
    Many thanks!

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    1. Perhaps get a small moleskin notebook or whatever organisation program you might use on your computer. I am just getting started too and I write out what I'm going to write and what I actually write in my daily plan. In google calender you can create multiple calenders and you could record what you've written there or you could print out a spread sheet and record the dates and some notes.

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    2. Thanks a lot! That was really good advice.

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  23. Great post--I am taking the plunge into writing every day! A colleague recently introduced me to your blog, and I must say, it is a godsend. I am in the final year of my PhD and had nearly convinced myself that academia is not for me. However, many of your posts have directly addressed my deepest concerns and inspired me to stay in the game rather than walk away. Thanks so much!

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    1. :) I am sure it will all work out for you.

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  24. Thank you so much for your tips in this blog...it is saving me some anxiety with writing my Master's thesis. Now, I just need to get in the habit of writing everyday. I do it in spurts and I realize why I end up burned and toasted every time I write.

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  25. I also write daily and I enjoy doing it. Your tips are all just right. In addition, we can write if we are in the mood to write, so better condition ourselves to do writing everyday.

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  26. This may sounds like a stupid question, but when people say "write every day," do they mean seven days a week?

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  27. Ok, thanks! I'm trying to improve my writing habits (maybe "habit" is the wrong word since it currently isn't one, which is the problem). The idea of writing seven days a week sounded intimidating, but five days a week sounds like something I should be able to handle. I'm going to try it! Thank you for the response.

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  28. Thank you for the tips! One thing I found useful is to go back to reading and note-taking when I don't know how to start writing. It is easier to respond to another person's ideas than start writing from thin air.

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  29. Hello Tanya,

    I have been an assistant professor for about an year now. Thank you very much for your advice. It is really helpful. I have 2 questions:

    1. Are there online communities/academics who can help an academic like me be accountable?

    2. I received my PhD from the University of Kansas, Lawrence. My research requires collection of data from databases. I can collect only 1 point of data at a time.

    For example, I can get total assets of an international company, then get net income of the same international company, then get the total long term debt of the same international company etc...before moving on to another company on my list.

    In you opinion, does this count as writing?

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    1. Dear Sunita, I suppose you have to think about what works for you. Do you need to do all of your data collection and analysis before you begin to write? Or, could you spend 15 minutes writing before or after collecting your data? The trick is to develop a consistent work habit that allows you to move forward on your project and to make sure you don't get bogged down reading or doing data analysis and never get around to writing up your results.

      As for online writing communities, I know there are many but can't think of one to point you to now except for one I have on Facebook called "Daily Writing Updates."

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  30. Dear Tanya,

    This is great advice. Thank you so much!

    I will look up daily writing updates on Facebook. Wow, I think I will finally start using my facebook account after 3 years of having it.

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  31. Hello Tanya,

    I searched for your 'Daily Writing Updates' on Facebook. I think I am not searching properly.

    Would it be possible for you to point to it via a web-link?

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    1. It is here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/240426526320/ When you ask to join, send me a message so I can know who you are.

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  32. With you all the way ... I began trying to write every day in 1998, and got 98 percent successful around 2002. This year, I began using a site called 750words.com, and my productivity has gone up ten-fold.

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  33. Apologies if this has already been answered -- I only got through some of the comments and questions above -- but who did you hold yourself accountable to? Someone at work, I presume? (I actually know someone who Tweets about his work (i.e. "My goal today...") and he does have three books, so, ya know?!

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    1. usually someone else who is also writing. it can be through social media, a discussion forum, phone call, in person, email, etc.

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