A few weeks ago I encountered this interesting post, from which this one takes its title, on the Thesis Whisperer which I tweeted from various accounts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the post proved popular. I was quite taken with the idea and thought I’d give it a try. I’ve experimented with writing targets in the past and always struggled. I sometimes set an entirely unrealistic target and, once I inevitably fail to meet it a few days in, I get disenchanted and give up. Alternatively, I set an entirely realistic target which is transparently sustainable and eventually find that the lack of challenge means I get bored and give up. Nonetheless, I’ve been attracted to the idea of a writing target for a long time because of an awareness of quite how habitual my behaviour tends to be. The appeal has always been that, with a bit of forethought and preparation, I might find myself in a situation where I’m writing a substantial amount each day out of habit. Not in the sense that it’s an unthinking process but rather that I would no more question the fact I’ll do my daily writing than I would question having a shower or brushing my teeth.
The Thesis Whisperer makes quite a compelling case about the practicalities of sustained daily writing:
I think most people only have about two really good, creative writing hours in a day – two hours in which new ‘substantive’ ideas will make their way onto the page. Most of us are in the best frame of mind for this after breakfast and before lunch – whatever time of the day that happens to be for you. So writing new stuff should be almost the first thing you do when you sit down to your desk. Personally I find it hard to resist the siren call of the email, but if I am on deadline I do an emergency scan then close it until lunch time.
This advice also comes from Becker, who points out that thinking happens during writing. The surest way to slow the process is to worry too much about whether your thinking is any good.So give yourself permission to write badly. If you can’t think of a word use another/equivalent/filler words: don’t slow down and start to think too much.
Do this ‘free writing’ in bursts of about 10 to 15 minutes. When you need a rest, review and fiddle with the text – maybe plant a new seed – then move on to another burst. It’s likely you will produce more than 1000 words if you do this for two hours – in fact I usually did around 3000. It’s grueling and bad for your back and shoulders, which is why the two hour time limit is important.
So for the last two weeks I’ve been trying to do precisely this. It’s the longest I’ve ever sustained a daily writing habit and it’s certainly the most ambitious target I’ve aimed for in my many failed attempts to establish this sort of routine. I’ve been dividing the daily target between a few projects: my blog, an NVivo eBook I’m writing, my PhD and two papers. This range of options seems increasingly important, almost as a form of structured procrastination, with at least one of them feeling suitable for some input each day, even if I find myself deliberately avoiding some of the others.
I’ve also noticed that my reading seems to be becoming more focused in the last week or so. This is something I often have a problem with: I’ve learnt over time to make structured choices about reading in order to feed into specific projects but, left to my own devices, I will tend to read in a scattergun fashion. My reading tends to be too wide (and consequentially rather shallow) and I’m too prone to picking up new books (and consequentially often struggle to finish books because I end up with 20+ on the go at once). There may be an element of confirmation bias in the observation but it does feel as if the structured writing habit is starting to inculcate a somewhat more structured approach to reading, without this being a conscious outcome I’m having to plan and aim for (as I had to do for my PhD reading for example).
I’m also becoming increasingly aware of how the physical act of writing does not, in itself, take much time. There’s a certain experience of immediacy and urgency in writing which has always been one of my most valued creative experiences: when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world. On such occasions, writing is fast. But these experiences have tended to be few and far between. Yet I’ve felt this a number of times in the last couple of weeks. It’s almost as if the discipline involved in setting the daily writing target ensures the space needed to be sensitive to the potential onset of these rounds of ultra-enthused writing and, with this, it becomes easier to recognise them and act on them. Is a rigid and disciplined approach to writing in general perhaps a precondition for free and creative experiences of writing on specific occasions? Obviously, it goes without saying that the results of a daily writing habit need editing. This is a given for my academic work and it’s something I’m feeling the need to do more frequently for my blogging. But thus far this daily challenge is proving to be a deeply rewarding experiment in academic life hacking and I’m really grateful to the Thesis Whisperer for writing the post which led me to try this.