By Rebecca Steffy Couch
Rebecca is in her third year teaching for the UW-Madison Writing Center, and she is writing a dissertation on recent American poetics through the lens of community discourse and spatial theory in the English Literary Studies program at UW-Madison. She currently co-coordinates the Felix Series of New Writing.
For many of us in the university setting, semesters, quarters, and intercessions arrange our time into predictable, if also swift, units of work. And these beginnings and endings invite us to assess and reconfigure our goals and habits. During the 2013-2014 cycle, practicing the habit of writing—indeed, making writing a daily resolution—has been foremost among my priorities.
Cultivating the everyday habit of writing serves two important purposes for me: it helps me, as a Writing Center instructor and teacher of writing, to narrow the gap between pedagogy and practice, between the suggestions I frequently give to other writers and what I do at my own desk. And, as a graduate student working on a dissertation of my own, the everyday habit of writing promises me that I will make steady progress toward its successful completion.
So last fall I embarked on a self-imposed “60 Day Writing Challenge,” in which I scheduled daily writing time and planned, on a weekly basis, writing tasks to tackle each day. This semester, I am once again challenging myself to write every day – this time, without the arbitrary end date.
By sharing my experience with a self-imposed “Writing Challenge,” as well as some of the resources that inspired it, I hope to encourage other writers to set new goals for their writing habits, and to invite teachers of writing to think about how they can coax students towards the habit of writing.
Last April, academic psychologist and author Paul Silvia visited UW-Madison to talk about his book How to Write a Lot (American Psychological Association 2007), a practical guide for academics (particularly social scientists) based on behavioral principles. Silvia focuses on what he calls “your outer writer” (3), the one fueled not by inspiration, but by task-oriented actions that ensure productive and efficient writing habits.
I was unable to attend Silvia’s talk, but I have since read most of the book, with my eye especially trained on those chapters readily applicable to writers in all disciplines. Silvia’s common-sense premise is that to write a lot, one simply needs to schedule time for writing and then write during that time, i.e. “[sit] down and [move] your mittens” (8). Not rocket science, behavioral science.
Silvia blends evidence from the published literature and from his own experience, peppering his how-to with light-hearted scoffing at the “specious barriers” to writing that many academics give. In brief, academic writers, should 1) identify and prioritize their writing projects to give their writing practice a goal-oriented trajectory; 2) schedule their days so as to designate time for writing; and 3) create an agenda for your daily writing time with specific tasks.*
My 60-Day Writing Challenge
So at the end of last August, as I peered over the precipice of another fall semester, I made a grand plan. From September 1 to October 30, I planned to write every morning on research-related projects. More specifically, I aimed to write for at least one hour Monday through Friday, and at least 20 minutes on Saturday and Sunday. I would write at home, in the make-shift office, affectionately dubbed “Command Center,” that I share with my partner, an open-source web developer. I reasoned that these were modest, achievable goals toward cultivating the daily habit of writing. I shared my plan with a professional mentor and supervisor, and even planned to set up an ongoing appointment at the Writing Center to help me stay accountable to my goals.
Earlier in the summer, I had written regularly, two or three times a week, during an eight-week summer session. During this time, I produced a roughly 20-page document that is a substantial start to a stand-alone article about practices that contributed to the longevity of an important independent literary arts center in Los Angeles. In addition, I drafted a book review of two new volumes in my area of specialization that I needed to read for my dissertation lit review.
Heartened by summer’s productivity, I aimed to revise the first chapter of my dissertation and make substantial progress on a rough draft of my second chapter during my 60-Day Challenge. I made use of Tanya Golash-Boza’s “Ten ways you can write every day” list, which she published on her blog “Get A Life, PhD” a couple of years back. Her list helped me to conceptualize the range of everyday writing options that I had, so I didn’t feel forced into a daily stand-off with the blank page. Armed with my plan and a snazzy-looking template for each week’s set of daily writing tasks, I had high hopes.
What Worked for Me
- Keep a research / writing journal. I learned about this idea while I was chatting with a friend about one of her long writing projects. I tried it out and it’s great! I keep a composition book handy whenever and wherever I am working. I use it to jot down random ideas that I have, library book call numbers, new poets I want to read, and notes to myself about next steps for a particular project. Occasionally, when I am stuck or at a transition point, I reread my journal. This helps to remind me of all that I have accomplished and what I still need to do.
- End a writing session by planning the next session. When a writer takes the time at the end of a writing session to assess what she got done and what she wants to work on next, it can make the start of the next writing session much more efficient. I find this to be enormously helpful. When I am blinking myself awake in front of my computer screen, it makes a huge difference to find a note on my desk or in my journal telling me what I should do. It also helps steer me away from the quagmire of reading instead of writing during my dissertation work time.
- Get specific. With practice, I became incrementally better at breaking writing tasks down into their component parts. “Draft” and “revise” are no longer sufficient on their own. “Lit review: consolidate positive perspectives on Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s work from within Chicana/o studies sources.” Now that’s a writing task! Getting specific gives me a better sense of direction as well as an enhanced sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
- Project manage. Being my own project manager is really tough. When I am finished with a writing session, the last thing I want to do is open another document to keep track of what I’ve done. But, apparently, it’s really important. Silvia cites numerous studies that show that monitoring one’s progress toward a goal is crucial to achieving that goal (39). Alison B. Miller, author of Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All! (American Psychological Association, 2009), agrees. “When you spend some of [your finite] energy carefully planning your work on a week-to-week and day-to-day basis, you actually free up a great deal of energy so that it is available and ready to harness in the direction of completing actual dissertation work” (108). This semester I am taking Miller’s advice to keep one’s action plans in electronic format by integrating my writing goals and progress into my online calendar.
The Next Horizon
My 60-Day Challenge was a really useful tool for me. Unlike Paul Silvia, I cannot report writing on 97% of my scheduled writing days. Nor did I keep enough statistics to compete with his 789-word average for those writing days when he generates new text (42-43). What I can report, however, is that I averaged five hours of writing per week, very close to my target. This showed me that it’s easier for me to log hours across the week than to write consistently every day. But most importantly, I did write a lot! Last fall, I transformed a roughly 35-page document that lacked a coherent arc into a 70-page document with sub-sections, pictures, notes, and the rhetorical shape of a real chapter. I know it will need more revisions later, but that’s okay. In addition, I wrote and presented a 10-page conference paper, and managed a demanding TA appointment that semester. Heck, if this were baseball, my percentages would be All-Star material.
But this isn’t baseball. In fact, I am trying to reject the motivating metaphors for writing that I often hear from others or imagine myself. Writing a long project requires habits, discipline and self-control, but it’s not really joining a religious order. It also requires endurance and pain management, but it’s not really a marathon. It’s just writing. Every day.
*Readers are encouraged to check out Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (Allyn and Bacon, 2000). Though I haven’t read it yet myself, it is cited by Silvia and others on the topic of productive academic writing.