By Dr. Sonia Cabell, Florida State University
Scholarly writing for publication is our currency in academia. The more we publish in high quality journals, the greater the impact we will have in our field of research. Not to mention that it is often an essential consideration in promotion and tenure. But for most of us, it is a struggle to maintain productivity in our scholarly writing. It’s not that we don’t want to do it. There are just so many other competing demands. Just today, I have fielded important communication about setting up meetings with two large urban districts, had an unscheduled hour-long conference call with research staff about an emergency issue, have communicated with graduate students and colleagues, and am trying to work through an unending “to do” list that has little to do with moving my writing forward. And this is a pretty calm summer day with lots of hours “supposedly” available for writing.
Writing is a challenge. Yet I have found two easy ways to increase my writing productivity, namely developing a regular writing habit and creating accountability.
#1-- Make Writing A Priority by Developing a Regular Writing Habit
We can’t really complain that we don’t have time to write. We all have the same 24 hours in our day. If I am not making time for writing, I am choosing to prioritize other tasks over writing. I have found that if I don’t make writing a priority today, it is less likely to be a priority for me in general. Once I get away from a regular writing habit, it is much harder for me to return to it. I forget the details of the paper I was writing, and it takes me 30 minutes just to re-orient myself to where I was when I last wrote. Let’s face it. Writing for publication is hard work! So I have found that developing a regular writing habit, particularly a daily writing habit, has helped me increase my productivity.
Daily writing, even for 30 minute increments, has some very useful benefits. First, I have learned to not rely solely on large chunks of time for moving my writing forward. Yes, these chunks of time will always be helpful and perhaps even necessary to complete writing projects. But our schedules don’t always allow for these blocks of time, and that can be an anxiety-provoking experience. Second, I feel that I am accomplishing something each day of the work week. This makes me more likely to want to return to my writing because I feel that I am meeting my goals. Third, having a regular writing habit promotes a healthier work-life balance. I know that I will have time to write productively during my work day, so I can really spend quality time with my three-year-old son on nights and weekends.
Some colleagues have asked me, “What can you get done in 30 minutes?” Well, I have found that I can easily jump back into a paper I was working on the day before, without much need for re-orienting. And I break my tasks down into bite-sized chunks... like incorporating a particular study into my argument in the introduction section, writing the study hypotheses, working on references, or writing a description of a particular measure in the method. And 30 minutes often leads to spending more time, with 90 minutes being my typical daily length. Writing daily, even in small chunks, also helps writing feel routine instead of a special activity reserved for special days.
But to develop this regular habit, we must protect our writing time. We would never consider skipping a class we are teaching. Yet we allow meetings to be scheduled over our writing times. If I really see myself as a professional writer, then I will protect my writing time. For me, I have found that my best bet for writing is when I first arrive at work. So I try to schedule all my meetings for the afternoon.
#2-- Create Accountability for Yourself
We all benefit from accountability in all areas of life! For many of our academic tasks, we have built-in accountability. For example, if I don’t prepare for class or grade papers, then my student evaluations will likely suffer. If I don’t respond to emails from my students or project staff, they will remind me with another email or pay a visit to my office.
We don’t have this built-in accountability for our scholarly writing projects. No one is checking in with us to make sure we have made progress, especially when we are the ones leading the writing effort. Even when we do collaborate with others, we often write our own sections of a paper rather independently. Not meeting proposed writing timelines can sometimes feel like the norm rather than the exception.
Here are some easy ways to create some accountability for yourself:
Set a daily writing goal.
Goal setting keeps you from drifting aimlessly. Each time I sit down to write, I set a writing goal for that session. My goals have included writing for 30 minutes or writing 250 new words on a paper. I try to specify what paper I want to move forward and how I want it to move forward (e.g., begin the discussion section).
Keep a writing log.
Research shows that just tracking what we are eating, with a program like Weight Watchers, helps us make healthier choices. Similarly, tracking our daily writing goals can help us make good writing decisions. Here is an example of my writing log from a week where I had accountability from colleagues. I tracked both my time spent writing as well as the number of new words I wrote per day. Tracking words keeps me honest and shows me whether I am spending my time wisely. Some days, I won’t have any new words when I am revising or editing a paper or thinking through the argument for the introduction section. That’s okay. But at some point, the log should show that I am writing new drafts too. I also like keeping track of how I felt about the writing session on a given day, because it gives me a chance to celebrate successes or vent my frustrations.
Share your writing log with others.
Having some sort of accountability partner or writing group is a key to success. Share your log with these trusted colleagues for regular review. Engage in a weekly writing “check-in” to discuss your writing goals. Talk about how you did with your goals for the past week and your goals for the upcoming. Remember that you don’t have to be in the same field to be in the same writing group.
Recently a colleague of mine challenged me to work on a paper transparently using GoogleDocs. This allows us to see each others’ progress in real time. We both could even be writing in the paper at the same time! This can serve as a motivating collaborative experience. Importantly, this provides another layer of accountability to propel your work forward.
How will you make writing a priority today?
I hope that these ideas have been useful to you as you consider how to increase your writing productivity. I find that even the most highly productive scholars are looking for ways to improve in this area. This may be one of the reasons for their productivity in the first place! Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions.