Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reflection, Creativity, and the Writing Process

Writing, even academic writing, requires creative energy. As writers, we have to be mindful of protecting and nourishing our creative energies. If not, we risk burnout and serious drops in productivity. Writing well requires practice, but also knowing when to stop.

Beach jungle

A few months ago, a friend called me up and said, “Tanya, today, when I was on the treadmill at the gym, I had this fabulous idea!” Does that resonate with you? Do you often have great ideas for writing projects when you are not writing or trying to write? I certainly do.

In fact, this has happened to me so many times recently that I feel compelled to write about it on this blog.

I spent the winter break in Hawai’i, and made a point of walking along the beach every day. I had one of the most important epiphanies about my book project during one of those long beach walks. Here’s what happened. I woke up early and listened to the recording of an amazing oral history of Mateo – one of the deportees in Guatemala whom I had interviewed. As I listened to Mateo’s interview, I became enthralled with the richness of his story. I realized that this was the kind of rich data I was looking for. Not every interviewee has the trust or narrative ability to tell this kind of narrative, but Mateo did. I was particularly struck by his story of how he left Guatemala at the age of ten – alone! – to travel through Mexico and eventually to the United States. As I listened, I recalled other border-crossing narratives and thought to myself that it would be awesome to put Mateo’s story with others. After lunch, while walking along the beach, it became clear to me how I could put those narratives together into a chapter. I then had another epiphany – this one about how I could frame my book on deportees.

I have been struggling for months over how I want to frame the book, and, while walking along the beach, it became clear to me that I could structure the book as a narrative about the migration journey, using different stories to fill in the pieces. It sounds simple, but it was huge to me to finally be able to see how I could structure the book. Without a big idea, I felt stuck in the project.

The point is: the idea came to me when I was not writing, when I was walking along the beach. Since then, I have worked out two other minor writing challenges during my daily walks. These situations have taught me two important lessons:

  1. It is important to make space in each day for reflection. Creativity is much less likely to happen if we don’t open up the space for it.
  2. Creativity happens when we are engaged with our projects on a daily basis. The ideas occurred to me when I was not writing or attempting to write, but they happened after I had spent time working on the projects.

One of the beautiful beaches in Hawai'i where I walked, and reflected

For me, walking is an obvious way to build time for reflection into my life. What about you? How and when do you find time for reflection?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How to Be Productive by Writing Two Hours a Day

You can be extraordinarily productive by writing two hours a day, five days a week. I know because I practice daily writing and it works.

Many writers find the suggestion to write for two hours every day ludicrous and instead aim to write eight hours a day. Unable to write for eight hours, they berate themselves and spend lots of time thinking how much less productive they are than other writers.

Tryping: My Name Is Matthew Allard

I have tried many different ways of convincing writers that it is much better to write for two hours a day and move on to other things than to try incessantly to write all day without success. The former leads to feeling accomplished and productive on a daily basis, whereas the latter leads to burnout and less productivity. It may not make sense, but it is true: writing for two hours a day is a much more effective long-term strategy than trying to write for eight.

In 2007, I was lucky enough to have a post-doctoral fellowship that involved very few responsibilities. This seems like an ideal situation for someone who wants to write and be productive. I showed up to my office every day and tried to write for as long as I could. Usually I would burn out by lunch time. Other days, I would intend to write, yet find myself surfing around on the Internet or staring at the wall.

I decided to try to write for just two hours a day. It worked, and my writing projects began to move forward. However, I always had this sneaking feeling that I should be trying to write more. With 24 hours in the day, how could I dedicate just two to writing? One week, I decided to try and write as much as possible. I hammered out a full conference paper in one week by writing four to six hours a day. The next week, I showed up at my office on Monday and had trouble getting started. After a few minutes of writing, my mind began to wander and  I found myself surfing the Internet. That week went much less well than the previous one. My experiment taught me that I need to be mindful of my limits. If I over-extend my brain, it won't work as well the next week. I went back to writing two hours a day, and only try to write for three to four hours on an emergency basis.

Last year - 2011 - I wrote for two hours a day, Monday to Friday, for most of the year. I'd venture a guess that I did this about 46 of the 52 weeks during the year.

During the Spring 2011 semester, I wrote every day, Monday to Friday, for two hours. I did lots of different things during those two hours, but I mostly drafted new text, revised old drafts, and took notes from books and articles. Between January 1 and May 1, in four months, I drafted a total of about 42,000 words of new text. A large chunk of that writing - 25,000 words - was the first draft of my third book: Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. 

It took me about 80 working days to write 42,000 new words, an average of about 525 words a day. Keep in mind that these 42,000 words were very rough drafts, and that I spent much of the remainder of the year revising these drafts. Nevertheless, by December 2011, my third book was in press and the remainder of those words (an article and a book chapter) were under review. Thus, even if I did not write any new text after May 2011, and only revised what I had written, this would have been a productive year.

During the Summer, I did spend a lot of time revising, and also wrote a small amount of new text. I wrote and/or revised for two hours a day for at least two months during the summer. By the end of the summer, I had written about 8,000 new words. In addition, I finalized and revised the short book that I drafted in the Spring, and completed a "revise and resubmit" from a journal. I also analyzed and coded some of my interviews.

During the Fall Semester, I also wrote two hours a day, every day, Monday to Friday, most of the time. There were a few exceptions when I was traveling, but I tried to make up for it. The Fall semester was not as productive as the Spring. In all, I wrote about 21,000 new words. I did not write as many new words as in the Spring because I spent quite a bit of time revising, in addition to taking notes, reading, and preparing and delivering ten presentations.

During AY 2011, then, I wrote about 70,000 new words. I almost never wrote more than two hours a day. There were also very few weekdays when I did not write. The major exceptions are during July when I took a two-week vacation and December when I took another two-week vacation from writing. Taking vacations allows me to maintain my equilibrium, renew my creativity, restore my energy, and continue to be productive.

If you focus on writing every day, you can’t help but be productive. Trying to write more than humanly possible will lead only to frustration and burnout. The best way to be productive and stress-free is to write every day for two hours a day on a consistent basis.

For me, the rewards are clear. The short book I drafted during Spring 2011 will be released in Spring 2012: Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ten ways To Write Every Day

If you have been following my advice and 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 convinced myself to give it a try. Now that I have been writing every day for five years, I can share with you a few ways to make that possible, and explain to you why I wake up each weekday morning and write.

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 article, he explains the virtues of writing every day. Boice describes a study where he divided new faculty into three groups and recorded their writing productivity:

  • 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 those findings, I was convinced I should at least try daily writing.

How to write every day

After deciding I needed to write every day, my greatest challenge was to figure out what it meant to write every day. I asked myself, "What counts as daily writing?" To find out, I dove in and tried to write every day. I joined an online writing accountability group where I could record my writing progress and talk to other daily writers about the practice.

Eventually, I came to realize that writing means a lot of things and that there are lots of ways to write every day. Daily writing works for two reasons: 1) It ensures you are moving forward with your writing projects. 2) It keeps you engaged with your writing. Thus, any activity that accomplishes these two goals counts as daily writing.

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. That is my prime time. 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!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Want to Become a Prolific Scholar? Try Daily Writing!

Daily writing is the best way to ensure consistent and amazing productivity.

Are you waiting for a strike of inspiration for you to write? Do you keep reading and thinking, hoping that the muse will visit you, and when she does, that you will produce pages and pages of prose? Or, do you wait until the weekend or the break to write, with the idea that you will have long blocks of uninterrupted time? If any of those questions resonate with you, you are not alone. Many writers think that they write best when they are inspired.

The truth is that inspiration is most likely to come when you sit down and begin to write.


A study by Robert Boice, reported in his book, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, provides concrete evidence for two concepts: 1) writing daily produces more writing and more ideas and 2) writing accountability works.

The Test: Does Writing Accountability Work?

To find out if daily writing and accountability can be effective, Robert Boice conducted a test with 27 faculty members who desired help with improving their writing productivity. He put the 27 faculty into three groups and examined their writing productivity for ten weeks.

The first group was instructed to write only if they had to write, but asked to keep a log of creative ideas for writing. The idea behind this group was that planned abstinence would lead to the production of creative ideas for writing when the time came.

The second group scheduled writing sessions five days a week for ten weeks, but was encouraged to write only when they were in the mood. They also were asked to take the time they had scheduled for writing to log a new creative idea for writing each day. The idea behind this group was that writing only when they were in the mood would be favorable for creativity.

The third group agreed to a strict accountability plan. They scheduled five writing sessions a week for ten weeks, and kept a log of creative ideas for writing. To ensure that they would write every day, the members of this group gave Boice a pre-paid check for $25, made out to a hated organization. If they failed to write in any of their planned sessions, Boice would mail the check. The idea behind this group was that forced writing would require the group to come up with creative ideas for writing. This group was based on the Clockwork Muse theory - the idea that if you write on a regular basis, your muse will show up each time you sit down to write.

The Results: Daily Writing and Accountability Work

Boice’s study revealed:

  • Abstinent writers produced an average of 0.2 pages per day, and only one idea per week.
  • Spontaneous writers produced an average of 0.9 pages per day, and one creative idea every two days.
  • Forced writers produced an average of 3.2 pages and one creative idea each day.

These results show that, contrary to what one might think, creativity can be forced. Sitting down and making yourself write every day is a great way to make those creative juices flow.

How to Write Every Day

The lesson here for writers is to not wait until you feel like writing to write – as that might not happen very often – but to schedule your writing every day, show up to your writing session, and keep track of when you do and do not write.

This week, I suggest you try this method of becoming a prolific writer by scheduling in 15 to 120 minutes of writing in each weekday, and keeping track of how much you write each day.

I look forward to hearing how this strategy works for you.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Five Steps to Making a Semester Plan for Academics

Now that we have brought in the New Year, there is no denying it: the Spring Semester is here. This means it is time to make a Spring semester plan.

The beginning of the semester is always a hectic time for academics. We often are anxious about all we have to do now – finalize syllabi, set up appointments, prepare for classes, and re-arrange our schedules – as well as all we have to do over the next few months - teach, grade, publish, etc. For this reason, I would like to share with you a strategy I learned from Kerry Ann Rockquemore in an online forum she hosted in 2007. (Dr. Rockquemore also has a great post here on the importance of semester planning.)

I have been planning my semesters since 2007, and now can't imagine life without semester planning. For me, semester planning takes a lot of the anxiety out of all I need to accomplish as it permits me to make a feasible plan and to see that it all will get done, eventually.

Spring Flowers

Although you probably are in a frenzy to get ready for the upcoming semester, I am going to suggest that you add one more task to your immediate to-do list: Make a plan for the Spring Semester.

Setting goals for the Spring Semester will allow you to see a bit more lucidly what lies ahead and will relieve some of your anxiety by permitting you to come to terms with what you can and cannot accomplish.

Thus, even though it is one more task in addition to all you have to do, I highly recommend you take an hour out of your busy schedule and sit down and write out your goals and plans for the Spring Semester. Here is how I do it.

Step One: List all of the research tasks that you would like to accomplish this semester

Look over your calendar and through your emails to make sure that you do not forget any important tasks. Things you might put on the list include: submit book proposal, send off article, complete a revise and resubmit, or prepare paper assignment for undergraduate class.

Here is a list of my Spring 2012 goals:
SPRING 2012 Goals

Finish Deported book
Guate interviews
Guate draft
Brazil interviews
Brazil draft
Rewrite chapters
Citizenship notes
Incorporate discussion of TRAC data

South Carolina
ASA (submit paper)

Submit Human Rights piece to Sociology
Submit jokes article to ERS
Write intro essay for ERS
Project with SD and YI
- Paper #1
- Paper #2
- Paper #3

Finalize SOC 332 syllabus
Finalize SOC 780 syllabus

Step Two: Arrange your tasks by month

Now that you know what you need to do, the next step is to figure out when you are going to do it. Take a look at your list of goals and decide which ones you will complete in January. Put put in the month of January any task that requires your immediate attention. Anything with a February deadline goes in February, and anything with an March deadline goes in March. Once you have dealt with the tasks that have deadlines, you can decide where to put the remaining tasks that do not have firm deadlines.

Here are my January goals

January Goals
Guate interviews
Guate draft
Submit Human Rights piece to Sociology
Submit jokes article to ERS
Summit speech
Finalize SOC 780 syllabus
Finalize SOC 332 syllabus
AJS review
Paper to ASA

Step Three: Arrange your tasks by weeks

If you have four writing goals for January, then you can place one in each week of the month. If you have two, then give yourself two weeks for each. The point is to decide NOW when you will turn your attention to each task. This will help you to keep on track and to feel less guilty about not dealing with everything at once. For January, for example, I have:

Week 1
- Human Rights piece for Sociology
- Speech
- Finalize SOC 780 Syllabus
- Finalize SOC 332 Syllabus
- AJS review
- Guate interviews
- Submit paper to ASA

Week 2
- Human Rights piece to Sociology
- Outline/Plan OUP Chapter 3
- Guate interviews

Week 3
- Submit jokes article to ERS
- One section of OUP Chapter 3
- Guate interviews

Week 4
- Complete draft of OUP Chapter 3
- Complete Guate draft

Step Four: Figure out what will not get done this semester (The 4 D's)

What do you do when you have more tasks than time? Anyone who has read David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity will know that there are four options for any task: do, defer, delete, or delegate.

For the Spring Semester, this means that you have to look at each of your goals and decide if you will do them this Spring, defer them to a later date, decide they are not important and delete them, or delegate them. These decisions can be hard, but it is much better to make this decision now than to have these tasks weigh on your shoulders for the rest of the semester.

All of your pending tasks should fall into these four categories:

  1. DO:  Prioritize all of the tasks and projects you actually will do this semester, and make sure there is a place for them in your semester plan.
  2. DEFER: If the project is something you really would like to do, but can't do it this spring, make it a priority for the summer (defer it).
  3. DELETE: If it is something you wish you could get out of, find a way to delete it diplomatically. For example, if you have agreed to do something by February and now realize you will not be able to, you can tell the person with whom you made the agreement: “I just made a detailed plan for my semester, and have come to realize that I simply do not have the time to complete this work by the deadline. I hope you can find someone else to fulfill this role.”
  4. DELEGATE: Delegation is often particularly hard for academics, but there are things that can be delegated, such as organizing your office, transcribing your interviews, cleaning your data, and formatting your endnotes.

Step Five: Implement your plan

A detailed semester plan is not of much use if you don't implement it. Many productivity experts suggest you print out your goals and place them somewhere you can see it on a daily basis. I think it is even better to post your plan where you will see it every day. This will serve as a constant reminder of your goals and where you are headed.

Each week, as you make your weekly plan, refer back to your semester plan to make sure you are on track. Finally, remember to find time to write every day to maximize your chances of achieving your semester goals.

I wish you the best as you plan for the Spring Semester.