A few weeks ago I dropped in on one of the follow up sessions that we offered to the alumni from one of our programmes. The group had asked for help with writing and came in search of some magical tips that would help them to make more progress with their plans.
Writing is one of the areas that we offer most support for in IAD. We run writing retreats, train people to run writing retreats, have courses on many different aspects of writing (see the lists for postgraduate researchers and research staff ) available face to face and online.
I’m talking to a few different schools about how we can support staff to develop better strategies for writing in schedules which are dominated by teaching, supervision and other duties. The struggles that many researchers face with writing are partly to do with this “fragmentation” of time, although there are ways to carve out writing time, and you may find some suggestions in the ten tips described by Raul Pacheco . Although it is possible to write some things under fairly challenging conditions (yes, I’m looking at you ScotRail) and in small pockets of time, the nature of academic writing is such that it often requires a particular set of conditions to be met. And even then the muse doesn’t always strike.
Just before I started my job here I had to complete a number of fairly substantial writing projects. Despite setting aside time to complete these, I often found that on the writing days, that I was lost for words. Eventually all the projects were completed and so far it looks as though they were completed well enough to achieve what was expected of them. I just wish that I could write with less pain and frustration.
As part of the writing session we talked about what makes us write well and I realised that my writing happens when certain tipping points occur. In the early stages of writing, it feels like the scales are imbalanced and that there are more things stopping me from writing than driving me to action. Over time, I can feel the scales start to move, although this can also be the most stressful time – I start to feel the urgency of the piece but still don’t make any substantial progress. Finally things tip over and I can usually write fairly quickly once I feel that internal momentum is in place.
So having articulated this insight a few weeks ago I’ve been trying to work out what I can “add to the scales” to write with less pain. These are some of the things that help me – if you also struggle to get started, keep going or finish, it may be worth thinking about how your personal scales can be loaded differently.
I’m more likely to write…
- With a fixed and immovable deadline so I try to set these for important pieces of writing. These don’t have to be with other people – I’m trying to blog every week and even though this is challenging, I don’t want to miss this internal deadline.
- If it’s on a topic that I have a good story about The deadline only works if the words are there. What’s interesting through is that often the story is in my head, albeit in a draft form. I suspect that for many people who struggle with writing it isn’t that they don’t have anything to say. Perhaps it’s good to remind yourself of this because I think every other problem is more easily addressed!
- If someone else is waiting for the work and I have made a commitment to them I don’t like to let people down so including other people in the process can create momentum through guilt and fear of disappointing others. One thing I’m trying at the moment is being part of a group of four who have shared writing plans and will nudge each other to keep making progress.
- When I’ve worked out a structure and can write shorter sections rather than as a whole It’s a cliche, but you can’t eat the elephant in one bite. I can usually motivate myself to write a couple of pages at a time, so if I can create a structure with this kind of scale, I find it easier to make progress.
- When it becomes a habit A few months ago I started to send a daily email to a group. At first it was hugely daunting, but over the month I was committd to it became easier and seems to fuel other writing. I find the early mornings the best time to write, but I don’t let this stop me writing at other times.
- In certain places I have always had problems working from home despite doing it for many years. I can often write well on the train, in public (that sense of guilt kicks in again) and in a group. I suspect I’m not alone, which explains why our writing retreats and movements like Shut Up and Write are so popular.
So, if you have intent to write but aren’t getting the words to flow out of you, what might tip your scales?