November was Academic Writing Month, a month dedicated to collegial online support for writing productivity. Some of you may have participated; some of you may have laughed at the very idea; some of you may have resented the public show of productivity at a time like this; some of you may have tried and found it unhelpful; some of you may have never even heard of it. For the first time in many years, I tried to keep up with #AcWriMo myself in order to finish a first draft of my book manuscript. Switching up the way we work is always revealing, and I thought I’d use this post to reflect on the experience.
Overall, I found it pretty helpful. I now have a complete rough draft, although it’s definitely more of a ‘zero draft’ in places. Getting to that milestone was obviously important to me, but here I’m more interested in the fact that I was able to write fairly consistently throughout the month. I’m not short of ideas about how to sustain a consistent writing practice; this blog is full of my thoughts on writing productivity. But having thoughts has never ever been a guarantee of putting those thoughts into practice. Despite my awful track record when it comes to taking my own advice, I actually managed to write somewhat consistently throughout November by working with the following principles:
Write ‘every’ day: When I say write every day, I don’t mean write every day. I simply mean that it’s a good practice to pre-commit to writing on all the days that you have available for writing. That way, you won’t have to decide on any particular day whether or not you’re going to write. Taking the decision out of it will cut down on the decision fatigue that will eventually work against you. For this month, I committed to writing some amount on 20 days: all the weekdays in November, except the last one (which I’d allotted to starting this post). I didn’t manage to write on all those days, but I wrote on more of them than I would have without the pre-arranged plan.
Set concrete interim goals: Tackling a writing project with lofty and poorly defined goals can be unnerving. When your daily goal is simply to make progress on a larger goal, it can be hard to keep yourself honest. Instead, I recommend giving yourself concrete interim goals that will guide you through each writing block and then coalesce into a strategy for meeting the ultimate goal. It can be so much easier to settle into writing when you have a specific task that can be completed in the available time. I wanted to finish rough drafts of my final two chapters, Chapters Eight and Nine. To make that happen, I broke the larger goal down into both weekly and daily goals. I’m truly terrible at articulating these micro goals, so I had to rework them frequently. But the fact the goals weren’t perfectly aligned with my actual writing progress didn’t prevent them from being of great value as I got down to writing each day.
Work towards a full draft: Planning your writing schedule to prioritize creating a full draft is a great idea; getting to the end will mean that the full arc of your text can then inform any further decisions. In order to make this idea work, you have to be willing to sacrifice local polish for overall shape. When we polish our writing before establishing an optimal shape for the text, we run the risk of investing in material that isn’t serving our needs. In my case, I was actually trying to finish a full draft, but this advice is scalable. You can prioritize getting to the end of a section or a chapter and still reap these benefits. The point is not to write more or faster. The point is to revise more effectively by giving yourself the greatest possible amount of insight into the goals of your own text; that insight is inevitably deepened by the creation of a full text, one with a beginning, middle, and end.
Use writing to solve writing problems: When pushing yourself to create a full draft, it’s crucial to use writing to figure out what you think. I found Chapter Eight relatively easy and fun to write; I found Chapter Nine (my conclusion) to be a special kind of torture. To deal with my paralyzing dread of conclusions, I tried to write my way out. The rough draft of this concluding chapter is still full of ALL-CAP rants to myself about the absence of a coherent end point. But those backchannel conversations with myself allowed me to figure out what was wrong and to find a way to bring things full circle, at least tentatively.
Don’t write alone any more than you have to: Writing completely alone isn’t natural for us; even when we are literally alone, we still value the involvement of others. Maybe we crave that involvement even more right now. Building a writing community—actual or virtual—means that you don’t have to be completely alone in your writing. Over the past month, reporting my daily writing achievements, such as they were, was helpful to me. #AcWriMo may be an attenuated form of writing community, but it was still motivating. The recipients of my reports (people following the #AcWriMo hashtag on Twitter) didn’t really care. Nobody was going to berate me for not writing or question my commitment or progress. But having announced that I was going report my writing progress each day, I felt a tug of obligation to do so. And I was grateful to have expanded the web of obligation beyond just myself.
I did ignore one of my key principles: Write at your best time of day. In general, writing is such an important and challenging activity that I recommend doing it at the time of day when you have the most energy. However, my priority this month couldn’t truly be writing; instead, like many of you, I was most concerned with managing the unfamiliar routines of online teaching. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to settle into writing when my mind was engaged with preparing for this novel form of teaching. I wasn’t exactly violating this principle: I was following its spirit, which says that you must devote your best energy to your most important activity. It was just that writing couldn’t have my best energy when this new frontier of teaching needed it more. Instead of writing at my best time of day—earlier for me is always better—I was writing at the end of day, once all my teaching and teaching prep were done. It wasn’t ideal, but I appreciated the #AcWriMo motivation that helped me to squeeze in some writing at the end of these busy days.
When #AcWriMo was new, someone added a tagline: “Write like there’s no December”. I’m afraid I can’t find who said it first. It’s an appealing slogan, one which helps to convey the essential absurdity of having an ‘academic writing month’. If you are going to engage in an artificial push to write more in a month than you usually do, you are likely going to need to play some mind games with yourself. Like pretending that there’s no tomorrow. But, of course, there is a December—unlike any December that we can remember but December nevertheless—and we all need to figure out what this means for our writing.
There’s always December in the sense that you might say, if you didn’t get much writing done in November, ‘there’s always December’. There are so many reasons why you may not have written a lot in November: the ongoing pressures you are facing during this pandemic; the ordeal of the interminable American election; a disinclination towards arbitrary productivity measures; the rhythm of your teaching schedule. And, even if you did get lots of writing done in November, there’s still always December. It’s unlikely that you’ve exhausted all your writing tasks, no matter how much #AcWriMo may have helped.
So, there’s always December (or January or some point in the future when other things in your life start to get back to normal). If you’ve got writing to do and that’s not been possible during these most peculiar times, I hope you are holding out hope. Things will get back on track, and past writing struggles don’t have to predict future performance. Whenever your life allows you time for writing, there are things you can do to improve your chances that writing will happen in those times. Significant among these strategies is the willingness to write in public: to make commitments aloud; to feel the accountability engendered by those commitments; and to take the encouragement that comes from an online community that wishes you well. Whatever the month, you don’t have write alone.
This post is the sixth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.
Status Update: I’ve now finished an extremely rough first draft, which puts me more or less on schedule. I say ‘more or less’ because I’m unable to predict the time it will take to fix what’s wrong. There’s so much wrong! I don’t say that out of modesty but out of fidelity to the truth. I look at people’s writing for a living, so I know of what I speak: this manuscript needs a lot of work. As I said above, my desire for a complete draft to work from has inspired me to treat as provisionally finished things that are manifestly unfinished. I don’t regret this, but I know that much of the hard work is still ahead of me.