Tag Archives: Productivity

The Lure of Planning

As I’ve been working on my book manuscript, I’ve been struggling with a persistent tension: I know that I should let problems emerge through writing, but I want to solve those problems in advance through better conceptualization. At the first hint of trouble, my inclination is to stop and rethink. As with most writing challenges, there can be value in both approaches. If there’s a significant problem with the plan, surely it’s wasteful to simply carry on implementing that plan. On the other hand, as I’ve frequently argued in this blog, our best chance of understanding the problem often comes from using writing to clarify our thinking while working towards a full first draft. In most cases, moving ahead—even when we sense that something is off—is often our best chance of grasping the problem. In fact, here’s a (not-yet-revised) passage from the chapter I just finished:

I often meet with writers who are working hard to improve the first half of a chapter or an article; in these meetings, we find that so many questions lead us to a discussion of what is yet to be written. Those writers are often hampered in their ability to fix what is already there because of the uncertainty caused by what isn’t there. To be clear, I’m not advocating pressuring yourself to finish any piece of writing as quickly as possible. Writing often starts and then needs to stop for more research or data analysis. Or because life gets in the way. But serious structural revision will work best once you’ve reached that end point, and the value of getting to this stage is notable enough that you may wish to push ahead, allowing the draft to be manifestly flawed.

Despite having just written these words, I’m still struggling with the desire to create a perfect plan. Even though I know that the strengths and weaknesses of the current plan will emerge from writing the chapters, I’m fixated on the notion that I can reconceptualize my way out. For some writers in some writing circumstances, that reconceptualization might be the right strategy. I’m pretty sure, however, that this stepping back from writing to do more planning is just me losing my nerve. It was fun while it lasted: there were big sheets of paper and a variety of post-it notes and lots of coloured pens. And maybe it helped me see things more clearly. And maybe I’m being a bit puritanical about it: if I enjoyed it, it must be wrong. Whatever the timeout meant, I’m putting a stop to it. I have put away my beloved markers and am going back to the hard work of implementing my imperfect plan (just as soon as I publish this post).

I’m not pushing ahead because of some abstracted notion of productivity but rather because I literally can’t make a better plan right now. Knowing that the current plan may be wrong is a valuable perspective to carry with me, but that insight isn’t leading to any more meaningful actions. I’ve written out my worries (What if chapter five is now too long? What if, despite being too long, it is also not enough? What if the reviewers were right about my inadequate understanding of applied linguistics?) and now I’m going to give it my best shot. I’ve written about this type of anxiety before on the blog, so I’m going to end with a passage from that post:

… I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?…

This post is the fourth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’ll try to pause to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about 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: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude each of these book reflections posts with a status update. Needless to say, the complexity of life over the past four months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Part One and completed a full draft of Chapter Four. My original schedule had me further ahead and contained the optimistic claim that ‘a viable schedule always includes time off’. While I still wholeheartedly believe that, I’m going to spend some of my vacation time this month trying to catch up. Here’s my revised schedule:

  • December 2019: Chapter One
  • January 2020: Chapters Two and Three (plus Part One revision)
  • February 2020: Chapter Four
  • March 2020:  
  • April 2020:  
  • May 2020:
  • June 2020:  
  • July 2020: Chapters Five and Six (plus Part Two revision)
  • August 2020: Chapter Seven
  • September–October 2020: Chapter Eight 
  • November 2020: Chapter Nine (plus Part Three revision)
  • December 2020–March 2021: Full Revision

I’ve left March through June of 2020 blank because I think that’s a legitimate representation of my writing experience in recent months. The challenges of parenting during a lockdown and the demands of transitioning to emergency remote teaching were enough to swallow up all of my planned writing time. I’m using this schedule as a reminder that I’m not simply ‘behind’ on my writing: my writing was overtaken by unexpected events. I’m still planning to meet my deadline, but none of us knows what the upcoming academic year has in store for us. Whatever gaps you may be experiencing between what you needed or hoped to do in 2020 and what has proved possible, I hope that you are being kind to yourself and reworking your own schedules to reflect what is possible for you right now.

 

Writing Right Now

Earlier this week, I participated in a tweetchat with #VirtualNotViral, a great initiative from Anuja Cabraal and Pat Thomson. On their site, you can find out more about their resources for doing doctoral work during a pandemic, including information on upcoming tweetchats. I was invited to discuss academic writing during these challenging times. I found it helpful to process what I’ve been thinking about writing right now, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.

The key for me during these extraordinary times is that each person ought to be given space to reevaluate what they are able to do. Thinking that you should be able to carry on as usual or, worse, be more productive is to underestimate the effect of everything going on around you. If you need a break from academic work because your caregiving responsibilities have changed, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your financial situation has worsened, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your research plans just fell apart or because the incredibly difficult academic job market just got more dire, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because you are finding the state of the world traumatic, of course you should take that break. If you need more than a break and need support to cope through this time, I hope that support is forthcoming. Each of you is responding to a unique set of personal circumstances, geographic factors, and institutional policies, but nobody should be pressured to be productive during this time. I think this bears repeating: events beyond your control have dramatically altered the conditions under which you are working, and you shouldn’t be required to act as though that weren’t happening.

I’ve now said as many ways as I can that you shouldn’t feel pressured to write right now. But some of you may want to write. Writing may lend normalcy to your otherwise upended routine. Writing may make you feel better about not being able to pursue other elements of a research agenda derailed by self-isolation. Writing may keep you in touch with an important part of your identity that may be threatened by the current disruption of your life. Writing now may actually feel better than dreading the implications of not having written later. Whatever your reasons for wanting to write during this time, I do think it can be a valid choice.

While some of you may be choosing to push ahead with writing right now, I don’t have any great new advice. The new part is that you shouldn’t be pressured to do so. With that caveat in place, I think good writing advice now is pretty much the same as it ever was. Writing support should be, it goes without saying, supportive. Should recognize the full embodied person that is doing the writing. Should recognize that caregiving work is crucial and not always conducive to a consistent writing practice. Should recognize that such caregiving work is often gendered. Should recognize that writing in English is often obligatory, placing additional burdens on those for whom English is a subsequent language. Should recognize how the persistent whiteness of the academy complicates the writing identity of racialized people. Should recognize that academic writing is a source of anxiety for so many. This list could go on, but my point is that anything that I might put on this list now was already there two months ago. On academic Twitter, you are seeing a lot of thoughts that start with the phrase ‘now is not the time’: Now is not the time to be berating people, questioning their commitment, presuming that they are using the crisis to cheat or slack off in some way. But I’ve yet to see something that we shouldn’t be doing now that we should be doing the rest of time.

Now, as always, we should be talking about academic writing productivity as a matter of process. This shift away from a model of pressuring writers to produce and towards one of supporting writers in finding a productive process has two main elements: first, writers need to be exposed to a range of options to see what writing practices will work for them and, second, writers need access to writing instruction because expertise is crucial to productivity. Both of these interventions can move us away from a moralizing treatment of productivity that lays blame on the individual for what they aren’t getting done. If you were a better person, would that solve all your writing woes? That would only make sense if your writing woes were in fact the result of a deficient character. If, instead, your writing woes come from the fact that academic writing is hard and lonely work with high stakes and a pernicious lack of community, you’ll need productivity advice that recognizes those inevitable challenges.

One thing that may be unique to writing in this moment is the variability of your reaction to everything that is going on. At some points, everything may feel close to normal; at other points, you may feel genuine panic about these profound disruptions to the life you know and to the plans you had for the immediate future. In addition to this daily yo-yo, you may also have found that your reactions have shifted as these weeks go by. You may have felt energized through the initial rush of reorganizing your life but now feel a sense of lethargy. You may have been somewhat paralyzed by the shock of everything changing so quickly but have now adjusted to a manageable new routine. If your reactions are shifting, so likely are those of the people that you are responsible for. Parenting may present very different challenges one day than the next. Managing your relationship to loved ones who are now physically distant can shift over time. All of which is to say, as you think about academic writing during this time, expect that you will need to be flexible and gentle with yourself: what might make some sense one day may seem impossible the next.

So I have no particular “how to write now” advice because there is no singular experience of now and because I hope you are already following advice that tells you to be mindful of who you are and what you need. Be kind to yourself; write if you want to; write if you have to; temper your expectations of yourself; if others aren’t tempering their expectations of you, try extra hard to be kind to yourself. And reach out for support. I always tell my students, graduate writing may be done by you alone, but it needn’t be done by you alone. Now, of course, we are all more alone than usual, but I hope you’re finding the virtual writing community that you need.

Here are ten pieces on working through this time that I’ve found helpful:

Aisha S. Ahmad, Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions

Pat Thomson, Getting By and Getting On

Inger Mewburn, Should You Quit (Go Part Time or Pause) Your PhD During COVID-19?

Erin Wunker, Shifting Strategies

Christine Tulley, Resetting Your Research Agenda

Cally Guerin, The Year of Wonders: Doctoral Writing in the Time of COVID-19

Nadirah Farah Foley, Don’t Forget About Graduate Students

Chris Smith, Five Strategies for Writing in Turbulent Times

Fay Lin, What Not To Say to Grad Students During a Pandemic

Anuja Cabraal, When I Write, I Write for Myself

 

Writing Old Words Into New

As I was working on Chapter Two of my book project in January, I realized that I needed to return to a post that I wrote early in the life of the blog: a treatment of the benefits and hazards of reusing our own writing. These ideas are relevant to me right now, as I am taking the central concerns of this blog and turning them into a book. I’m struggling with exactly the issue that I discussed in that earlier post: what I should reuse and what I should write from scratch. The table of contents for this book was constructed on the basis of the blog; I used the annotated table of contents page to make my original plans. Having done so means that there are posts that roughly correspond with each chapter of the book. That doesn’t mean, however, that the words I need for each chapter are already written; on the contrary, I fully expect to write most of the material anew. My operating assumption is that the posts have given me an articulation of the topics that I want to cover and a rough shape for the manuscript but not the actual words. I’m content with that vision of the manuscript, but I’ve been encountering a consistent hurdle nonetheless.

When I try to write about these familiar topics, my mind keeps going strangely blank. This is weird, obviously. I should have lots to say about things I’ve written about frequently in the past. In Chapter Two, for instance, I’m talking about topics that have been the central recurring themes of this blog. Rather than gaining added fluency from that familiarity, I seem to be gaining added inhibition. Instead of writing freely about topics with which I’m so comfortable, I find myself thinking, ‘surely I’ve said this somewhere already’. This reaction seems to be more than mere laziness: it feels like my brain being unable to move on without having retrieved its previous thoughts. Since fighting against one’s brain is often futile, I decided to find a way to work with my own instincts.

I started by constructing the architecture of the chapter with writing from the blog. This initial construction allowed me to respect my own deep discomfort with starting over and, more practically, allowed me to be sure I hadn’t left anything out. First I put old things together and then I rewrote everything on that basis. It was as though I needed to do the new writing in the literal presence of the old writing. Throughout, I was aware that my attitude to the old writing had to be highly instrumental: my goal wasn’t to use the old material by massaging it into a new form. Instead, my goal was to let the old writing help me do a better job with the new writing. In the end, for me, the debate between using old stuff and simply writing new stuff was mooted by my inability to choose the second option. It ended up as less of an either-or and more of a first-one-then-the-other. That is, I couldn’t start over, but I also knew I couldn’t create a chapter out of previously written words. Neither approach worked for me, and thus I needed to make both work for me.

What does all this mean for someone else, for someone who is not writing a book inspired by a blog? I do think there’s relevance here for the thesis writing process. Think about the role of the proposal in the first draft. Many of the things that will need to be said in the thesis were already said in the proposal. Despite this overlap, the proposal is always a text with manifestly different aims. As a result, sentences borrowed from the proposal often stand out as an awkward fit in a draft thesis chapter. But while this may be true, my experience suggests that it may still make sense to want to use the earlier formulations. Given this inclination, it can be helpful to have a strategy for making that work. I tried to manage this tension by using different fonts. The copy-and-paste stuff was there in a less-pleasing font (Courier, which looks to me like a draft should); the new stuff was written in my preferred font (currently, Calibri). By the time I was done, the text was all Calibri, no Courier. I greatly enjoyed this visual manifestation of the process of building on existing text while crafting new text. I ultimately felt confident that I’d taken all I could from the old text while still deriving the benefits of composing the new words that I need now.

This post is the second in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. 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 what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude these book reflections posts with a status update. My goal is to write approximately one chapter per month. To that end, I’ve created the following schedule:

  • December 2019: Chapter One
  • January 2020: Chapters Two and Three (plus Part One revision)
  • February 2020: Chapter Four
  • March 2020: Chapter Five
  • April 2020: Chapter Six
  • May–June 2020: Chapter Seven (plus Part Two revision)
  • July 2020: Vacation (a viable schedule always includes time off)
  • August 2020: Chapter Eight
  • September–October 2020: Chapter Nine (plus Part Three revision)
  • November 2020: Chapter Ten
  • December 2020–March 2021: Revision

I’ve frontloaded this schedule somewhat, as I have a short break from teaching at the moment. I’ve also given myself a bit more time to complete chapter drafts that coincide with my busiest times. I’m going to do a provisional round of revisions of each part of the book as I complete it. The real work of revision will take place once a full draft is complete, but it will still be beneficial to make each part marginally coherent before moving on to the next. I am currently not quite on schedule: I’ve drafted Chapters One (Introduction), Two (Key Principles), and Three (Identity and Contribution), but I still want to do more revision of Part One before moving ahead. By the end of the week, I should be on to Chapter Four (Structure).

Writing Introductions: First or Last?

There are some questions that I can always count on during a session on graduate writing. Whether or not I had planned to deal with them, these are the topics that invariably come up. The top three perennial questions involve the desirability of the serial comma, the role of the first person in academic writing, and the ideal timing for writing an introduction. I talk about introductions a lot, and it sometimes feels as though the very word will cause someone’s hand to go up. The question will start—as so many do—with ‘I’ve heard that …’ or ‘My supervisor says that …’. Usually they’ve heard along the way that introductions are better written at the end of the writing process; that is, they’ve been led to believe that it is inefficient to write an introduction before knowing what the whole paper is going to say. This sentiment seems so wrongheaded to me that I’m always willing to stop whatever I’m doing to talk about it. Leaving aside whether efficiency is necessarily a good metric for efficacy in writing, I’m pretty sure that delaying introduction writing is actually a false efficiency.

My usual approach to this query is to say, ‘yes, you should write the intro first and, yes, you should write the intro last’. The second part of that formulation is obvious: no introduction is ever going to be adequate until it has been revised to reflect the work it is introducing. The first part is what I want to argue for here. The act of writing the introduction is so valuable that it ought to happen first. Why deny yourself the opportunity to encapsulate what the rest of the paper is going to be about? This early version of the introduction may be provisional, but not so provisional that it should exist only in your mind. Most of us can’t hold an entire introduction in our minds: we have to write it down. Imagining that we could leapfrog that conceptualization and move straight to the body of the paper seems to overlook something crucial about the writing process. When we use writing to clarify our thinking about the introduction, we are giving ourselves a much better chance to write the rest of the paper more effectively. It’s not about writing a good introduction at this stage: that will have to happen later. It’s about writing an introduction that will allow you to write a better paper (before looping back to fix the introduction). Ultimately, if writing the paper is harder without an early stab at the introduction, doing so may not be efficient. Writing the introduction first and last may sound inefficient but is actually a way of improving the overall writing process.

As I’ve been working on the introductory chapter to my book, I’ve been finding that writing an introduction at the outset may be a sound writing practice, but it is also both hard and somewhat terrifying. It’s hard because we are trying to introduce something that doesn’t exist; there’s a lot of guesswork, which is generally unsettling for a writer. It’s terrifying because it can feel deeply presumptuous to promise that you are going to do all the things you raise in an introduction. Even the simple phrase, ‘this book will have three sections’ was unsettling for me to write. How am I going to write a book with three whole sections? And are these even the right sections? The reviewers weren’t sure that they were, and, needless to say, the reviewers have set up camp in my brain where they can comfortably poke holes in all my ideas. I have to keep reminding myself that my plan for these three sections may or may not be exactly right. I can only find that out by giving them life on the page. And I’m only going to be able to give them that life if I formulate a plan. That is what the introduction does: it allows me to plan enough that I can dive in and find out if my conception makes sense.

So while I haven’t changed my answer to this question, I am happy to have been reminded of how psychologically gruelling it is to commit yourself to writing something when you still have no proof that you can in fact write the thing. That, of course, is so often the state of mind of a thesis writer who is writing something unprecedented in their own life. Since I can’t really remember how I felt when writing my own doctoral thesis introduction, I’m glad to be reintroduced to the vertiginous feeling of taking the leap of faith into a new writing project.

This post is the first in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. 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 what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude these book reflections posts with a status update. At some point, that update will include an assessment of whether I’m on track; at this point, however, it’s still too soon to make that estimation accurately. Until I have a more informed sense of how I’m going to write this book, I’m not creating a week-by-week schedule. That sort of honest accounting is crucial, but it’s too early in the process for me to do so. For now, I’m just reporting that I’ve written an eight-page introduction. As I hope this post has made clear, I’m unsure whether this introduction represents the book I’m actually going to write. What I am sure of are two things. One, this introduction represents the book that I’m now going to begin to write. Two, this introduction lays out a slightly different plan than the one I started with; in writing the introduction, I’ve seen new problems and possibilities, both of which have led to an updated chapter plan. I’ll let you know how it works out!

Write Your Way Out

I recently had a request to give a talk to graduate students about writer’s block. This term is frequently mentioned in the context of graduate writing, presumably because of the general sense that something is inhibiting the writing processes of students at this level. While I was explaining why I didn’t want to give a talk on writer’s block, I realized that I spend quite a lot of time telling various people that I’m sceptical about the concept of academic writer’s block. Having recently read two interesting takes on writer’s block in academia in the past year (from Helen Kara and Julia Molinari), I decided that my own disinclination to use this concept might be worth exploring here on the blog.

In general, I am resistant to identifying common graduate writing difficulties as writer’s block. Most graduate writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking. That isn’t just a semantic quibble: it matters that we grasp exactly what is inhibiting our writing processes. When we diagnose ourselves as having writer’s block, we can start to believe that we aren’t currently able to write. If you find yourself with a sore leg, it may well be that avoiding walking is a sound strategy. If you find yourself unable to write, might it be a sound strategy to avoid writing? The answer to that question is almost always no. Not writing has little-to-no curative power, in my experience. I’m not saying that we don’t need to take breaks; there are many things that we can do away from our desks to clear our minds and loosen up our ideas. But when we are committed to working, the act of writing is often the most immediate way to tackle the problems in our thinking. The risk of identifying inevitable writing challenges as writer’s block is that doing so can lessen the chance that we will use writing to move our ideas forward.

The idea of writer’s block can thus be seen as having the potential to detach writing from its broader intellectual context. When we treat writing challenges as psychological rather than intellectual, we run the risk of minimizing the conceptual work involved in graduate writing. I have, of course, encountered graduate writers who appear to have a disposition towards writing that is so fraught that they may need some sort of psychological shift in order to develop an effective writing routine. But for most graduate writers, writing is being hampered primarily by the challenge of sorting out what they think (or what they think they should think or what others think or what their supervisor thinks about what they think). In other words, they don’t have a psychological block; they simply have the intellectual confusions endemic to the process of communicating sophisticated research. Those intellectual confusions are real, and they can have deleterious consequences for writing. But when we treat these problems as conceptual problems in our thinking, we create the space to use writing as a strategy to solve those problems. Writing can move from being the problematic thing to being a means to solve the problem.

To use writing in this way, I suggest introducing a new font that will signal that you are writing in an exploratory vein for your own benefit. The variant font will remind you that your eventual reader need never see these ruminations, thus lessening your own reticence. Using this new font, try writing something like this: “I’m worried that what I’m saying here …”

“… is inconsistent with what I said on p. 37.”

“… might be confusing the cause with the effect.”

“… may lead the reader to think that my research is less significant than I’ve claimed.”

“… is the sort of thing that annoys my supervisor.”

Staying in this provisional, for-your-own-eyes-only font, try writing a follow-up sentence or passage: “To figure this out, I need to …”

“… re-read the sections on and around p. 37 and decide which formulation works best. Does this shift represent an actual shift in my thinking or just a different way of expressing things?”

“… satisfy myself about the direction of causality in my argument and think of a way to flag all the places where this may have become confused.”

“… revisit my initial claims for significance to see if they are affected by the current line of reasoning.”

“… decide how I feel about that potential reaction, whether that annoyance is something I want to withstand or something that should guide me in a different direction.”

The key, for me, is that this writing is just that: writing. We can’t, arguably, have writer’s block when we are actively writing. Instead, we may have unresolved issues that are making us want to avoid writing. Using writing as the means of addressing these issues  gives us a strategy for inevitable conceptual hurdles. Even in those cases in which writing-about-writing highlights serious problems, we have still made progress by identifying what is wrong. In the end, my concern is simply that the writer’s block label may be further alienating us from our own writing. While it may not be possible to write our way out of all problems, I’m convinced that it is near-impossible to solve writing problems without using writing as our central strategy.

Can You Have Too Much Writing Time?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former student, asking for some advice about managing a summer of writing. With her permission, I am sharing her email and my reflections on our conversation.

Dear Rachael:

I’ve taken the summer off teaching with the aim of making considerable progress on my dissertation. I’ve only once had a big block of time for writing during the degree (very early on), and it was terribly unproductive. And terrible. Although I’ve made progress with writing, I’m oddly nervous that I won’t maximize my time and will have forgone a summer of income for nothing. I’ve made a writing schedule for the summer that I believe is ambitious but reasonable, but I would like to have another pair of eyes on the plan. I’m especially interested in your feedback, as someone who thinks extensively about dissertation writing and productivity.

My first thought upon receiving this note was that the student was right to be afraid of too much time. A generous block of writing time is an opportunity, not a solution. As with any opportunity, you need a sound strategy in order to take full advantage. If you find yourself thinking that time itself is the solution, you may not be engaging in the planning necessary to make the most of that time.

At this point, you may be thinking that having too much time is better than having too little: if we simply don’t have enough writing time, all the strategic planning in the world won’t remedy that problem. But just because too much time can be a good problem to have—and I’m sure some of you are desperate for more writing time—doesn’t mean that it can’t still turn into its own productivity challenge. The student’s letter had a telling detail: she had already experienced the perils of having too much time with not enough to show for it. Until we have had that experience, we may think wistfully that more time would be better. Unfortunately, far too many of us are familiar with having failed to take advantage of ample time.

Think of all the conversations that take place among academic writers in late August. “Yes, I had a good summer, but I didn’t get all the writing done that I had hoped.” Sound familiar? This reflection is often followed by one of three different sentiments:

But I needed a break, so I’m okay with how I spent my time.” In other words, there may be times when foregoing writing in favour of recharging is the best decision.

But my goals were unrealistic, and I’m happy with what I did get done.” In other words, if our goals are truly disproportionate to our time, we may fail to meet those goals while still having been productive.

And now the term is about to start and I can’t believe that I let the summer get away from me.” In other words, I needed to write and I had the time to write and still I didn’t meet my goals.

The first two sentiments are good moments for self-reflection. When deciding how to use our time, we should definitely be aware of the need for real breaks and of the tangible limits to what we can accomplish in any given time. The third sentiment requires a deeper kind of self-reckoning. Having had time to write and yet having not taken full advantage is a profoundly frustrating experience. Since it is still April, I thought now would be an apt time to reflect on the process of devising an effective summer workplan.

If you want to make sure that you maximize the benefit of a significant expanse of writing time, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Create a timeline: What needs to be done and by what date? By explicitly defining your goals, you can move from a hope to a commitment. “I’m hoping to finish chapter three … ” can easily lead to “I didn’t get as much done on chapter three as I’d hoped I would.” Starting instead with “I’m going to finish chapter three …” puts us in a much stronger position. Of course, we must be realistic and rational about our timelines; however, once the timeline makes sense, we should endeavour to treat it as a commitment.
  2. Create a realistic breakdown of the task: The next step is to break the task down into composite parts. (This breakdown may show us that our original timeline was flawed; if that is the case, you can tweak that timeline before proceeding with this step.) “Three months should be plenty of time” becomes This number of days means that I’ll have to do that amount of work every day.” At this stage, it is crucial to resist any sort of magical thinking. A summer is never endless and it rarely involves a complete cessation of all other tasks. We need to count the number of weeks, subtracting those weeks that will be spent on crucial, restorative leisure. We need to count the number of days per week that we can realistically write, subtracting those days that need to be spent on other sorts of work or relaxation. Most importantly, we need to count the number of hours per day that we can write, subtracting those hours that need to be used in other ways. Not only do we need to leave time for all the other tasks that comprise our work lives, we also need to account for the fact that we can only consistently write for a certain number of hours per day.
  3. Create concrete interim tasks: With our committed timeline and our realistic breakdown, we are then able to define the constitutive tasks of each working session. Without this third step, it can be way too easy to let our writing time slip away. Let’s say you have four hours a day to write. First, make sure that you also have a couple other work hours in which to do all the writing-adjacent things that will need doing; needless to say, if you have four work hours per day, you won’t actually have four writing hours. If you have an open expanse of time, you can divide it up into writing time, non-writing work time, and leisure time. If you legitimately have four hours for writing, you will need a plan for how to ‘spend’ those hours. You won’t be able to do this all at once, of course. In April, you can’t know how you will use your time on the afternoon of August 16th. But it is a crucial habit to get into, at least for the near future. Its value works in two ways. One, if we have a concrete goal for our writing time, we can’t be satisfied with just having put in the time. And, two, the accomplishment of the concrete goal can give us a sense of satisfaction. If we have general tasks—of the ‘work on chapter three’ variety—we can end up doing very little or we can can end up doing lots while still feeling like we haven’t accomplished something specific. It is crucial to be flexible about these goals: writing is a mysterious process and you may be wrong in what you think you can or should be able to do in a particular time. This flexibility, however, shouldn’t be allowed to turn into imprecision. Precise interim goals are tremendously useful, even when they ultimately need to be revised in the face of the vagaries of the writing process.

This planning process is designed to help those of you with an expanse of writing time in the near future make the most of it. But what if, as is likely for many of you, you are looking at a summer with writing pressures and a lack of writing time? Perhaps you have to teach or work over the summer or perhaps your family responsibilities will ramp up as school ends for the year. As you face this tension, it can be helpful to remember that a shortage of time can be a manageable problem. Just as we sometimes err in thinking of time as a straightforward solution to writing problems, we can err in thinking that a lack of time must be an insurmountable obstacle. To be sure, a complete lack of time is a legitimate obstacle, but a shortage of time need not be fatal to our plans. When writing time is scarce but writing is still essential, it makes sense to think about how you will fit writing in without waiting for stretches of time that may never come. The planning process laid out here can help writers manage long stretches of writing time, but it can also help you maximize scarce writing time within the confines of a full and busy life.

A Productive Process

As I prepare for an upcoming dissertation boot camp, I find myself frequently returning to a central question: How do I talk about productivity without seeming to suggest that my audience is somehow at fault for being insufficiently productive? There’s no getting around the fact that self-improvement schemes often rest on a basic notion of inadequacy. Why else would we need to improve the way we eat, exercise, communicate, or store our socks? Obviously, many such suggestions are benign; even if you’ve been bundling your socks all wrong, it’s unlikely that any suggested improvement could make you feel particularly bad. You may even feel good about your existing sock storage regime and be happy to roll your eyes at those who advocate dramatic new approaches. But chances are that you lack the same insouciance when on the receiving end of writing productivity advice.

Advice about writing productivity is a sensitive topic for two reasons: one, because writing is an inherently hard activity that is intimately connected to our sense of self and, two, because writing often elicits our very worst tendencies. If it were just the former, things would be much simpler. Advice would scarcely be necessary: support and encouragement would be sufficient. But the truth of the matter is that most writers struggle to write enough. Our writing struggles are emphatically not a superficial issue: all this not writing isn’t freeing us up for more leisure or more sanity in our work-life arrangements. If anything, inconsistent writing habits are making it harder for us to achieve some sort of balanced allocation of our limited time. The promise of writing productivity is that if we learn to manage our distractions and use sound strategies to harness our good intention, we might spend less time writing and still get more done. While that sounds entirely good, advice about writing productivity can still often feel very wrong.

One of the reasons that productivity gets such a bad name in academia is that it often seems as though even good productivity advice fails to take into account the complex context in which academic writing takes place. Self-improvement, after all, puts the focus firmly on our self, leaving very little room to treat that self as subject to a wide range of social, economic, emotional, and physical pressures. When the individual is seen as the sole author of their own productivity woes, they are likely to experience a sense of personal inadequacy, regardless of the structural barriers that they face. However, while productivity can be a pernicious framework, productivity itself can be amazing. The ability to get things done is generally a significant factor in the happiness of a writer. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that a writer who isn’t writing because they have caregiver responsibilities or administrative duties or teaching tasks or a desire to enjoy these last days of summer vacation is doing anything wrong. There are so many reasons for not meeting externally determined goals, and I have no desire to contribute to the view that we are only doing right when meeting those goals and conforming to standardized productivity approaches. But while productivity can be a poor master, it can still be a good servant. Despite my reservations about the hazards of the discourses surrounding productivity, I’m still going to talk to graduate students about having a productive writing process.

My hope is that the shift from talking about productivity to talking about having a productive writing process will undercut any hint of guilt or blame. Being productive can mean meeting external demands in a way that is detrimental to our sense of ourselves and to our ability to live a full life. But having a productive process is something that naturally benefits us. We aren’t focused on producing a certain amount or on meeting disembodied requirements, but rather on what we need in order to be productive writers. To develop that self-understanding, we have to be reflective about all aspects of our writing process. What does being productive mean to us? What does a good day of writing look like for us? What sorts of things stop us from realizing those goals? What roles do guilt and anxiety play in our ability to write? What sort of writing support community do we want? What specific pressure points tend to push us away from writing and towards distractions? What might we do differently to change the patterns of our writing practice? These types of questions are a way of starting a conversation about building a productive writing process into our lives. And while that conversation needs to be critical about the conditions of academic labour and highly attuned to individual circumstances, it also needs to acknowledge the power of building a productive writing process.

2015 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I’d like to take a quick look back at the past year. My first post of 2015 was my attempt to articulate what I found so troubling about the tone of Steven Pinker’s 2014 book on academic writing. In this post, I argue that the value of Pinker’s insights on writing are obscured by his overly broad characterization of what ails academic writing.

I followed this defence of academic writing with a somewhat related topic: how we use metadiscourse. In this post, I talked about the evolution of signposting, suggesting that even boilerplate metadiscourse can be transformed into something that informs the reader while being well-integrated into the text. I think this notion is important because the prevalence of clunky metadiscourse shouldn’t be treated as an argument against the value of effective metadiscourse in academic writing.

My next topic was a very different one: whether I should use the singular ‘they’. At the simplest level, I decided to do so (spoiler!) because this blog is a place where I can pick and choose among style conventions as I wish. But, more generally, I made this particular decision to embrace the singular ‘they’ because I believe that it is necessary, correct, and beneficial.

During our summer term, I taught a thesis writing course. At the end of that course, a student sent me an interesting email questioning some of the assumptions animating my discussion of productivity. This note gave me a welcome opportunity to think more about the ethos underlying the notion of productivity, especially as it pertains to graduate student writers.

In lieu of writing a reasonable number of new posts this year, I spent an unreasonable amount of time classifying my old posts. What I came up with was an annotated list, published in September as How to Use this Blog. This list is now a permanent page on the blog, allowing me to update it as needed. It can be found by using the For New Visitors tab. This list is a good way to see the type of topics that I have discussed here and to find groupings of posts on particular topics. If you are interested in finding out if I’ve covered a specific issue, you might prefer to use the search function (located near the top of the left-hand column).

After a short post previewing AcWriMo 2015, I ended the year with a post on the way we write our presentation slides. In this post, I discussed the possibility that our presentations may suffer if we compose slides in the same way we compose our other written work.

As you can tell from the brevity of this list, the past year was a relatively quiet one here on Explorations of Style. The blog is now five years old, a milestone which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what comes next. While I will continue to publish new posts, my main project for the upcoming year will be to rework some of the older posts. I’ve learned so much over these five years—from readers, from students, from colleagues, from other bloggers—and some of my original posts need updating to reflect that development.

As always, I’m happy to hear about topics that you’d like to see discussed or questions that you’d like answered. In the meantime, thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!

Are You Ready for AcWriMo 2015?

When I saw that PhD2Published had announced AcWriMo 2015, my first thought was that they were announcing it early this year. Then I looked at my calendar and noticed that it was already October 29! I’m not sure where October went, but I’m excited that AcWriMo is starting. Given that my October seems to have vanished without a trace, I obviously need something to inspire me to get back to writing.

For those of you who are new to Academic Writing Month, you will find all the information you need on the beautiful new PhD2Published site. For my thoughts and reflections on previous iterations of AcWriMo, see here, here, here, and here. As I say in all those posts, I love the idea of a month dedicated to academic writing. By inspiring us to articulate specific goals (rather than just hoping to write more) and by nudging us to share those goals publicly (rather than keeping them quiet in case they don’t pan out), AcWriMo can change our experience of academic writing. There are no magical strategies, of course, but giving academic writing more priority and more publicity makes a lot of sense to me. If you are interested, go to PhD2Published to declare your writing goals and plans for the month. I signed up this morning; I’ve never been all that productive during AcWriMo in years past—all the great conversations about academic writing and productivity inevitably distract me from actual writing—but I’m hopeful enough to try again.

I am hosting the next #acwri Twitter chat (November 12 at 3:00 pm EST/8:00 pm GMT), and we’ll be chatting about AcWriMo and productivity more generally. Whether or not you decide to participate in AcWriMo, I hope you’ll join me on the 12th to talk about the many ways in which we all struggle to be productive in our academic writing. And all month you’ll find a great conversation about academic writing by following the hashtag #AcWriMo. I looking forward to seeing you there!

 

Productivity: An Ethical Response

At the end of a recent course on thesis writing, I received an interesting note from a student, Ann Sirek. We had spent our final class talking about productivity: what impedes thesis writing and how we can overcome those impediments. Ann wrote later to say that our conversation had inspired her to think about the challenges of thesis writing from an ethical perspective:

The writing of the dissertation could be viewed not so much as a patchwork of duty, obligation, punishment, and even self-effacement, but as a fulfillment and culmination of a certain kind of personal maturation, that comes, as all maturation does, with some travail and adversity. Sometimes in the name of virtuous discipline, violence gets perpetrated in subtle ways, and that kind of discipline paralyzes creativity. But, if I reward even the slightest flicker of creativity and growth, I start developing habits of creativity, rather than habits of fear. From this point of view, times of chaos and non-productivity require balancing out with intentional times of quiet and stillness in an attitude of self-compassion (eg. yoga, meditation, prayer, music, painting, etc).  I think you were getting at all this, but obliquely. The ethical paradigm that rewards growth and creativity is quite different to the one that adjudicates and punishes. This insight from the world of ethics might bring to awareness a question worthy of consideration. Is writing a dissertation more about obligation and getting stuck in one’s own limitations, or is it more about creativity and exploring my own personal, undiscovered potentials? For me it has been about increasingly fostering my own creativity and turning away from voices that would adjudicate and make me anxious about failing. I may not be the exemplar of PhD perfection, but I am getting towards the finish line, and that’s the goal for most of us! My comments are not meant as a critique of you, but rather as a sharing of my own process and my own work with the intention of perhaps reassuring someone else in the same boat! Thanks again for this very excellent course and for your warm teaching presence!

I was so pleased to get this thoughtful response from Ann because it gives me an opportunity to address something that is obviously missing from my discussion of writing productivity. When we treat writing as something to be managed or as a chore or as a necessary evil, we are foreclosing the possibility that writing might be joyful or that we might use the occasion of writing to be kind to ourselves. Ann is absolutely right to see a notion of discipline inherent in many versions of productivity; while we often think of self-discipline as positive, it’s important to be mindful of what we are doing when we view writing as something that has to coerced out of us. Coercing or disciplining ourselves into being productive writers can preclude us from seeing writing as valuable way to express our developing selves. Reflecting on Ann’s observations allowed me to think more about my usual approach to writing productivity. That approach—both here and in the classroom—tends to focus on two things: the value of admitting that writing is inherently hard and the importance of acknowledging the systemic obstacles faced by graduate writers.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I talk often about the inherent challenge of academic writing. And I definitely see a great deal of benefit in acknowledging that difficulty. Doing so allows us to ask this crucial question: ‘how can we write through the difficulty?’. Like many people, I’ve been thinking of late about the influence of William Zinsser on the way we approach writing. I often return to this passage: “Writing is hard work…. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (On Writing Well, 2005, p. 12). As a teacher of writing, I feel obliged to offer a bit of pragmatism: you don’t need to enjoy writing, you just need to get down to it and work through the difficulty. It seems so important that each struggling writer be reminded that the problems aren’t theirs alone—everyone struggles with writing.

Second, I also think it is valuable to recognize that the inherently difficult task of writing may be hard for reasons that are beyond our control. We need to be sure that we don’t use discourses of productivity to overestimate the power of the individual to minimize systemic hurdles. Encouraging people to write in an atmosphere that neglects their barriers to writing seems genuinely wrong.

While I believe that these two approaches are valuable for most writers, I’m intrigued to engage with the ethical challenge that Ann has raised here. Any approach that is premised on the notion that writing is hard has to confront the hazards of negativity. While I don’t think that the writing-is-hard narrative is necessarily negative, it can easily crowd out a more positive attitude. On the other hand, I often worry that encouraging people to find joy in writing seems a bit risky; the last thing I want is to annoy students or to make them feel that they ought to be enjoying the writing process more. My yoga teacher is able to deploy, at the absolutely perfect moment, the phrase ‘with joy’; the class always laughs because her suggestion comes just when practice feels the least joyful. Being reminded to do something that’s important to us with joy—when it’s done right—is a gift. But done wrong, it can just make everything worse.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a dichotomy between effective pragmatism and unattainable idealism. That dichotomy is false because Ann is illuminating a third possibility: productivity through meaningful self-awareness. In her vision—which is a lovely one—productivity comes from self-realization which in turn comes from self-awareness and deliberate self-care. We don’t discipline ourselves into productivity; instead, we nurture ourselves into productivity. This view doesn’t diminish the trials of writing but rather reframes our response to those trials.

I would love to know what others think. How do we define our work in order that the completion of that work becomes an authentic and satisfying expression of ourselves? If we confront the undeniable challenge of graduate writing by turning it into an unpleasant task that must be handled with discipline, are we in danger of damaging a valuable dimension of that work? For me, this comes down to a set of questions about what sort of writing advice is likely to do the most good. Do you want tools for disciplining yourself through the daily slog of writing? Would you rather be encouraged to view writing as form of self-expression that can be drawn out if we are sufficiently attentive and kind to ourselves? Or perhaps something that tries to encapsulate both approaches? Again, many thanks to Ann for raising such provocative questions.