Joanna: Here are a few more resources that I've found helpful in organizing my writing time.
I love this simple to-do list as a practical and simple way to organize my day. I try to create a list the night before so that when I wake up, I'm already engaged with the structure of the day. The checklist helps me to go ahead and do the next thing, even if I don't feel like it. It helps me to be realistic with goals, and it easily adapts to my week where no two days are similar. Since each day is different, but each will generally follow a particular routine across weeks, I can fit my writing expectations around particular days. It also helps me to group activities together. For example, except for e-mail--which I check at least two times a day and answer immediately whenever I can so that it's off my plate--I have clumped most of my class prep and grading into one or two specified days during the week. This way, I can set aside my internal to-do list for the particular days that are not "class days" and focus my mind on research and writing.
Returning to the idea in my earlier post that much of our writing is done before we sit down in front of our screen to write, this is a great guide to prewriting techniques. This article outlines structured brainstorming (write it down so you remember!), journaling, free-writing, outlining and perhaps my favorite technique, clustering. I teach my students--many of them first generation college students--the art of clustering as a study technique. If you memorize fact-by-fact for a test, the information most likely will slip out of your mind. But if you bring the ideas together in clumps, your mind more easily retains the connected ideas. Those of us who make up ditties to remember grocery lists, or alphabetize to-do lists in our heads when we can't find a slip of paper to jot them down, know this works.
By clustering the ideas that you are working with in your research, you can see the relationships in fresh and illuminating ways. Physically do this. Grab some index cards and jot down your ideas, shuffle them and group them. Or if you're in a later point in the research, physically cut apart your paragraphs and rearrange them. Try giving each paragraph a few key words, and see what emerges when you compare the key words across the paragraphs. Perhaps the conclusion is actually a key part of the introduction, or what you thought was a subsidiary idea is actually the capstone that reorients your whole argument. Clustering can also help you to see what the central ideas are vs. the secondary ones, and encourage you to use your writing to organize and highlight those relationships.
The fabulously titled article "Like Pushing an Elephant into a Volkswagen" is a good capstone for this topic. It's a roundtable discussion between five authors who balance writing with their full-time jobs, in which they share their lives with candor and vulnerability. They stress the importance of networks, having people come alongside you as you put on different hats, not setting aside the important relationships in your life. Each one has their own way of finding time to write, and practical suggestions are scattered throughout. Some of what they discuss is incredibly encouraging--such as the ways that their family life, day jobs and writing intersect in positive, mutually beneficial ways. But there's real honesty about the emotional/mental/physical drain that happens as we are pulled in different directions. This needs to be acknowledged. Some of us have different seasons of life, and it is okay if there is a particular season where writing is not a major part of a particular season.
I'll write one more post in this series simply to sum up some of the best strategies I've found. Happy writing, all!
Joanna: As a follow-up to my first post on writing routines, here are some posts that I've found useful.
"Writing Rituals" Debra Reed illuminates the mental process of ritual/routine. In her three-part construct (based on the research of anthropologists!), a writing ritual helps you to separate from other activities, transition to a distinctive mental state, and finally, reassimilate into ordinary life, hopefully refreshed by your step into another space. As she discusses, the "coffee shop" writing ritual works well for many because of its satisfying open-middle-close sequence: step into another (literal and figurative) space, work within the new space, step away at the end.
My thoughts? Being in a coffee shop alone is generally a once-a-week luxury for me, but is also one of my most effective tools. My kids are in a co-op on Tuesday mornings, and that has become my carefully guarded writing time. I have come to the point where I leave my grading for another time so that I can feel completely free to use the time creatively. I also try to find other spaces to do some of my less intensive/complex tasks, revising, checking bibliography, etc.
"Writing Around a Day Job" Tom Pollock's post here is infinitely practical, especially for those of us who are slotting in our writing times around an already full schedule. The importance of preplanning for your writing blocks, and carefully protecting your writing times are two of the biggest take-aways here. But I also like his emphasis on a holistic life. People are important. Be kind. Make room for relationships.
"How to Write While Managing a Full-Time Job: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Time" Here, as in Gertrude Stein's writing habits I alluded to in my last post, Chuck Sambuchino invokes the 30-minute principle: half an hour, for him, is equivalent to 300 words (a little more than a page of double-spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman writing, for another equivalent). By organizing small, easily squanderable nuggets of time, you can reclaim time for writing. Those half-hours--and those pages--quickly add up.
One of the important reminders here is how much of our writing we do when we're not actually sitting down to write. Take a little notebook with you for those moments when you realize how to unpack a problem. Text yourself or a friend. Narrate a rambling message on your phone. Find some open spaces when you're not distracting your mind with other things. Turn off the screen and sit in the sunshine with a cup of tea. Talk to your friend about a new idea you've had. Then when you come back into your ritual space, bring those ideas with you.
I'll be back on another day with some more articles I've found helpful.
Joanna: This is something I’ve pondered lately, with my own work and as I’ve been coaching students. How do we set rhythms and patterns that help us with our writing? What do they look like? How do we adapt them to the realities of our lives?
In the life that we’ve chosen and love, each day is different for me. Some days are structured around college teaching, others are about teaching piano, and every day also has to be about teaching my own kids. Sometimes we throw other kids into the mix, respite foster care or playtime with friends’ kids. And church stuff. And investment of time into dear friends and family. How does writing fit into those patterns? How do I make some of my long-term goals a priority as I work through the shifting rhythm of my life?
While musing on this, I came across a compelling book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Here, Mason Currey briefly traces out the daily habits of authors, musicians, directors, actors and visual artists. The evidence is taken from memoirs, letters, biographies, and sometimes, personal correspondence with the author.
It was a weird and wild read. Writing in various stages of dress and undress. 19-hour work days. Drinking cups of sugar with a little coffee on top to melt it down. Snail companions.
It was also one where privilege often came out. You have someone to make your tea the exact temperature in the perfect cup at the precise minute each and every day alongside a pastry made by the hands of angels, while someone else comes and helps you do your daily handstands? And another person comes to cook you all your meals and do all your cleaning? I exaggerate. But just barely. This is not my life. And I imagine it’s not the life that most of us live.
However, hidden within the privilege and bizarre moments, were some great principles. For one, a lot of the book could be boiled down to two main paths to creativity:
A) chemical alteration (binge drinking and nicotine were among the top contenders, but don't forget about absinthe!), poor sleeping habits, and a shortened lifespan
B) regular routines, a strong work ethic, and some kind of work-life balance. Many built in reading time with their partner, playtime with their kids, time outside walking or gardening, and hosting weekly meal times for friends and colleagues.
Choose wisely, folks.
And probably the most encouraging moment in the book was finding out that Gertrude Stein never wrote for more than thirty minutes a day. Currey includes a quote from her autobiography, “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.” (Currey, 51)
There are days where I might only have a nugget of time and thinking about Stein reminds me that these bits and space of time can be used productively. I hope you find this as enormously encouraging as I do!
More in the next post on some practical advice I’ve found on rituals.
Dissertating: The Transition
With Facebook's "On This Day" reminders, I frequently look back to the days of writing my dissertation. Even without the newborn-to-toddler twin stages simultaneous with the process, it was a stressful and somewhat lonely time. I was separated from my academic community because of our move down south when I was five months pregnant.
The transition from graduate student to dissertation author is tough. You spend years planning your life around the pace of the academic semester, with the predictable rhythm of the term (beginning, midterm, final) and the structure of the course syllabi. Suddenly, you're thrown into a realm where the rhythm is new and irregular. You can't tap to the regular beat that's been set for you, you have to create the rhythm yourself through long-term planning and self-mentoring.
It's a hard transition for many students. When I'm coaching a student, I emphasize the process of breaking down the big project into manageable chunks. Micro-deadlines fold into larger ones. One of the books that I love for this is Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Even though some of its discussion of process is dated, the basic principles are incredibly helpful. My biggest take-away was to divide my tasks up into small/medium/large and rote vs. creative tasks, and then use my small bits of time efficiently (oftentimes, the sweet spot when two babies were napping at the same time). Even if I didn't have space for large chunks of writing during a particular day, I could still attend to e-mails, annotate a bibliography entry, proofread a few pages, or make a list of needed interlibrary loans.
Currently, we have two students who are about to finish. Because of their particular circumstances, they had to move quickly through their academic projects. I worked with each of them to create an individualized work plan, looking realistically at their weekly commitments and breaking things down into weekly and monthly goals. They worked the plan, and now Tim is helping with the final editing (proofreading, footnotes/bibliography, format checks) as they move towards completion.
They did the work. But assisting with the transition is a joy-filled process.
This post is aimed at academic writers who want to reach a wider audience than those in their discipline, but I hope that any writer could benefit from this. By nature, some books are only for general readers and some are only for academics. But more often than one might think, a book can reach both crowds simultaneously.
For example, I write books and articles about popular music with an extensive bibliography, a detailed index, lots of footnotes, tables, diagrams, musical examples, and explanations of chord progressions, musical forms, and harmony. Yet, I keep musical examples short and easy to follow if I can, so they will make some sense to people who don’t read musical notation. I keep my discussions of music theory brief and to the point. I prefer endnotes to footnotes or in-text citations to make reading easier on the eyes. My objective is to present as much detailed research as I can to my readers, without alienating or boring them.
Why should an academic writer try to reach a general audience?
Joanna & Tim
Welcome to our blog!