More than Word Counts: The Emotional Benefits of Daily Writing

By Becca Tarsa

Becca is in her final semester (she hopes!) as a dissertator in the Composition and Rhetoric program at  UW-Madison. She is currently serving as TA coordinator in the UW Writing Center, and writing her dissertation conclusion – one 750-word day at a time.

During a workshop I led recently for dissertators entering the proposal stage, a student raised her hand and asked “I feel like I hear a lot about daily writing lately, but can you talk about how it actually works?” Her question stayed with me, because I suspect a lot of academic writers feel this way. Daily writing gets a lot of good press, and for good reason: it works. There’s strong evidence that daily writers are productive writers. Brian Martin uses the metaphor of athletic training to make the case for daily writing: athletes don’t work themselves to the point of collapse once every few weeks – they achieve their best results by training moderately every day. We would never encourage a new TA to binge-grade an entire set of papers in one weekend, or tell them not to do any planning unless they have time to finish three or more lessons at once. That would be a crazy way to approach the work of teaching. But as Martin points out, this is an extremely common attitude towards the work of writing.

Silvia's approach is thorough and effective.

Silvia’s approach is thorough and effective.

Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot outlines excellent strategies for increasing productivity through daily writing goals, and Rebecca Steffy Couch wrote a great post last year about how effective his approach can be for working on a large-scale project. But if you’re seriously stalled out on a project, or if you have no idea how or where to begin writing, it might be hard to see how daily writing could help. Even after reading detailed advice like Silvia’s, you’re still left asking “…but how does it work?” It’s common to feel like you aren’t ready to write, or that you don’t know what to say, or that you simply aren’t capable of writing that much or that often.

I hope this post can help writers at all stages think about how to use daily writing, as well as help tutors think about how they might frame daily writing for students struggling to make progress in their sessions. But most of all, it’s written for anyone who’s seriously struggling with a large-scale writing project – whether it’s a dissertation, a senior thesis, an article, anything. When we struggle to write, there’s more at stake than just our project timeline the timeline of our project. Failing to meet writing goals can lead erode a writer’s confidence – in our abilities as a writer, in the value of our project, in our capabilities as a researcher.

The Emotional Toll of Writing Failure

It’s extremely common for academic writers to hold unrealistic and even irrational expectations about writing large-scale projects (Miller 25). For writers, this tends to be variations on one of two themes: “I can only write when I have a large block of time” and “I can only write when I’m feeling inspired.” These statements are probably all too familiar to anyone who’s undertaken serious academic writing, or who has tutored such writers. They start off as desires or goals, but over time, these desires turn into requirements; anything less that these ideals is not worth doing. This thinking leads directly to binge writing – long sessions of writing driven more by guilt than inspiration; these sessions are too exhausting to become a regular routine, creating a cycle where the writer spends more time stressing than writing. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that this kind of writing is inefficient and unproductive (Kellogg).

It’s also emotionally exhausting. Failing over and over again to live up to the expectations you hold for yourself about what and how you should be writing takes a toll on more than just your project’s timeline. It can erode your confidence – as a writer, as a researcher, and in the value of your project as a whole. Constantly struggling to motivate yourself to write about something you’re supposed to be passionate about can poison even the strongest relationship with writing. And even with an open schedule and a strong will, it’s hard to stay motivated about something you’ve come to dread.

I know firsthand how difficult it can be to break out of a writing rut once it’s gotten deep enough. But daily writing made just such a breakout possible – not because it made me so productive (though it did that as well), but because it helped me reclaim my voice and confidence as a writer.

My Daily Writing Story

My dissertation project was – is, I suppose – a qualitative one, using interviews with undergraduates about their casual online activity to learn about how they experience written language in the digital landscape. I felt sure that if I understood those experiences better, I’d be able to create better writing experiences in the classroom. When I turned in my dissertation proposal, it was with a sense of excitement: now I could start figuring things out.

An artifact of my "trial and failure" approach to dissertation writing

An artifact of my “trial and failure” approach to dissertation writing

But before I knew it, months had gone by and I had made almost no progress beyond receiving my IRB approval. And then they just…kept going by. I collected and transcribe the interviews I needed, but I still couldn’t manage to write anything for the dissertation itself. Thinking about the project began to make me feel anxious and resentful; I fell into binge writing and unrealistic expectations, which just made those feelings worse. I knew I could write this dissertation, but I no longer had any confidence that I would. I stopped keeping a teaching journal. I stopped keeping a personal journal. Any writing I did just reminded me of the writing I wasn’t doing. I recently found a document in the depths of Evernote from the end of this period called “Getting Your Writing off the Ground – for REAL!” The note is completely empty.

It must have been around that time that I mentioned to my adviser that I didn’t know how to transition into writing. (A huge understatement, obviously.) He recommended I set myself a 750-word daily goal. Not 750 polished words, he emphasized; not necessarily always continuing where the last day’s writing left off, either. He told me I should concentrate on writing about what I saw in my data, on turning the ideas in my head into words on a screen, any way I could. “Just write,” he told me, “until you understand what you want to say.” His advice made me see the project, and the writing I needed to do for it, in a completely new way – as something that was about my ideas.

From past experience, I knew that my idea flowed most freely when I wrote in what I called “academic discourse optional” style. Basically, this meant I wrote about academic ideas in my own voice. Usually this ended up looking just like my normal academic writing only clearer and more fluid – but anytime I got stuck or frustrated or felt myself getting hung up on re-writing one sentence over and over, I would drop into an extremely informal voice. This allowed me to keep the words flowing, while simultaneously ensuring those sections would get attention during revision. I’d only ever used this strategy for a page or two at a time, and never as a way to advance on the “actual” writing part of a project. But it turned out to be exactly what I needed to make daily writing work for me.

I know broadly what each of my chapters would focus on, but not much beyond that. I’d done the most thinking about Chapter 1, which dealt with digital interfaces and writing, so I started my daily writing there. For four weeks I worked through ideas about how interfaces were working in students’ experiences as they came to me; when I got stuck, I moved to writing about another angle, another student’s responses. By the end of week 2 I had figured out what I wanted to argue; after another two weeks I had a picture of how the chapter would look as a whole. So I moved on to writing about what students had said about their online reading, my focus for Chapter 2. Rinse, repeat.

No books allowed for this writing - just me and my data

No books allowed for this writing – just me and my data

It was incredible how different writing felt almost immediately. Writing was once again a tool I was using to learn – in this case, to learn what was interesting about all these students’ experiences with digital writing. My goal wasn’t to write a chapter, so I didn’t feel stressed about not knowing what that meant. My goal wasn’t to enter the conversation about digital writing, so I didn’t feel anxious about what I had and hadn’t read. When it became hard to keep writing about one thread, I would wrap up and move on. I trained myself to push past the temptation to re-word the same sentences over and over. I learned to think of assembly as the next step, rather than letting it limit my options in the moment.

After four months I had more than 90 pages of writing that covered all three of my chapter topics. I knew what was interesting about each of those topics, and had a good idea of what I wanted to argue. I’d also built a reading list for each chapter, things I knew would help me turn my ideas into actual chapters. It was time to assemble my chapters – and with all this at hand to do so, I felt more excited than anything. Because here was all this evidence that I could write – and that when I wrote, I had something to say.

Different Kinds of Goals

My experience left me a firm believer that daily writing can benefit anyone, no matter where they’re at in their project or their mindset. But achieving those benefits is not just about discipline. You also have to understand clearly what the goals of that writing are – and what goals are best suited to your needs at the moment. Daily writing can make you more productive and help alleviate those negative emotions about your work. Or rather, it can make you more productive by alleviating them.

Below, I suggest three goals for daily writing that aren’t purely about production – but that may help you find the motivation to stick you’re your routine and thus reach those productivity benefits as well. They’re meant as starting points, to help guide you through your concrete goal – the means of approaching those 500 (or however many) words each day.

Re-writing as you write can make it hard to feel good about the end result. (Image credit: Tammy Strobel)

Re-writing as you write can make it hard to feel good about the end result. (Image credit: Tammy Strobel)

Let yourself experience success: Daily writing challenged me to be disciplined – to stop hiding from the problem and actually do something. Before I felt powerless, because I thought only in terms of what I ought to have accomplished by now. Now my job was defined – you write three pages a day. And I knew that if I followed my rules for this writing – my ideas, in my own voice, with minimal re-writing – I could do that job in one morning’s work. This turned writing from a constant failing into a series of small victories. It gave me permission to feel good about writing: “You did it!” instead of “You didn’t do enough.”

 

Take a second honeymoon with your topic: Daily writing did make my page count grow – a lot. But far more important was the way it changed how I felt. Oh yeah, I remember thinking around Day 7, I chose this topic because it’s fascinating. I caught myself thinking about my research in the shower, or while taking a run. For the first time in years, I felt good about writing my dissertation. Making progress towards concrete goals like chapter drafts and literature reviews is important. But if you’ve been stalled out for more than a month or two, consider making one of your goals for the first few weeks to reconnect with what interests you most about your topic. For me, this meant starting with the interviews I found the most interesting, and building out from there. When you notice you’re interested in something – an idea, a piece of data, whatever – literally type “Why is this so interesting?” and then run with it. Focus your writing on what makes you excited that day. Just a week or two of this can make a major change in your mindset overall; meanwhile, you’ll likely find that this writing naturally develops into something you can turn towards a concrete project goal. And those feelings stretched beyond the dissertation as well. I started blogging about my work regularly, and returned to keeping a personal journal.

Reclaim writing for yourself: In telling me to write only from my own ideas, my adviser challenged me to rely on myself to write, and to respect my own voice enough to set aside time for it every single day. I had fallen into thinking of my dissertation writing as separate from myself, as purely a function of my academic self. Writing like that is like trying to play catch with one eye closed and a hand tied behind your back: it’s a lot more work for a much poorer outcome. Yes, any serious academic project requires attention to the ideas of others and adherence to disciplinary conventions. But it also needs to be yours in some significant way. Daily writing is a good way to put yourself at the center of your project for awhile, so you can see those insights more clearly. How long it’s useful to write that way depends entirely on your nature as a writer and the nature of your project.

But even if your project is quantitative, or you already know what your arguments will be, spending a few weeks writing every day in your own voice can transform how you think about writing overall. You may learn that you think through certain things much better if you write them out – research plans, negotiating long-term timelines, identifying blocks in your analysis or workflow. Or, like me, you might just remember that hey – you’re better at writing when you relax about it. Approaching daily writing as a place to use your voice to explore your research can be extremely productive – both for insights into the research itself, and into your relationship with writing as a whole.

 

Works Cited

Ronald T. Kellogg. The Psychology of Writing. 1999

Brian Martin. “Want to Publish More? Then Train Like an Athlete.” 2012.

Alison B. Miller. Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All!: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on with Your Life. 2009.

Paul J. Silvia. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. 2007.

11 thoughts on “More than Word Counts: The Emotional Benefits of Daily Writing

  1. Thanks, Becca, for this insightful and provocative entry. I’m intrigued by your reminder that the daily writing is a place for my own voice. I don’t think much of my own voice, but you’re ahead of me there, reminding me that when I relax, I tend to do better writing. You’re also stopping me from claiming I’m too far along to adopt (re-adopt) this approach, sharing your own experience with us. I ought to get back on that 750 words a day wagon. Thanks again, and also for the citations, which make the idea seem more legitimate.

    Andrew P. Karr
    UW-Marathon County
    Coordinator of the Wausau Homes Learning Center

  2. Like Andy said, lots of good reminders here — I particularly liked what you said about developing your argument, which is something that I struggled with when writing my PhD thesis. Because it was a science-based thesis, I spent so much time writing up my results and then interpreting individual results and getting really into solving smaller problems like why this particular sample looks the way it does that I wound up losing sight of what the larger arguments of my thesis were. Daily writing would have been something that would have helped me with that — although I did not struggle with word count, I would instead write in large bursts about individual components, and I think that doing daily writing would have helped me keep the larger picture in mind better.

    One thing, though, that I think needs to be addressed (maybe in a future article…???) is something that you casually mentioned but did not touch on — the fact that you knew what structure you were writing into. Having an outline or at least concrete ideas of the direction your writing is going is crucial to this kind of process, imho. Maybe you could talk more about how you came up with that structure!

    Jamie, University of Oxford

  3. In this vein I really recommend Ulysses for daily writing, though ultimately anything works. I sit every morning after making some fussy coffee and write 500 words. This has led to a big accumulation of ideas.

    During my prelims (still underway) I spent some weeks beforehand getting into this habit and developed a lot of paragraphs about topics related to the abstract I had written for the prelims. Then I created a mind map of those topics and filled in blanks for topics that were missing, or important concepts and ideas (In Eastgate’s Tinderbox). Then I structured those into a hierarchical outline (with OmniOutliner). Now if I’m at a loss as to what to write about in the morning, I take a look at the outline then just write.

    One of the most important parts of this practice for me is to write without much referencing or context-switching. I write about studies from memory. I can always go back and fill in details and specific citations later during an editing phase, or in the afternoon, as I can only really write in the mornings. This has worked thus far, at least.

  4. I love this so much, Becca! Thank you for inspiring me to take up daily writing. Your post got me thinking that even when we *are* working towards concrete goals–a diss chapter, an article, a lit review, we should probably keep up with daily writing, if only as a way to check in with ourselves and to continue to remind ourselves that our writing IS about us–our interests, our voice, what we see in our data. I deeply appreciate the way you’ve framed daily writing. It’s not a chore to get through, but a way to own our own work.

  5. Becca, this is a wonderfully useful post. I especially appreciate your honesty and willingness to share your experience working through a dissertation project. The struggles you mention really resonate with me, and I’m especially struck by the “emotional toll” you mention that’s tied to writing projects and to a sense of writing related failure. Your concrete tips bring me — and so many writers — hope and, more than that, tremendously useful advice. Thank you!

  6. Becca, one thing that I really appreciate you emphasizing is the idea that writing time should be composing time. I remember in Silvia’s book (or maybe misremember) that for him, writing time can also be research time, etc. I struggle with writing every day, and sometimes I’ll “research” instead. I actually think I need to be composing every day, especially where I’m at right now (prelims). I forget sometimes how writing doesn’t have to be for an audience besides myself and that it can be a way to process what I’m reading. I’m actually teaching my students this right now as they do fieldnotes for an ethnography, so I should follow my own advice!

  7. I love the empty artifact you include – “Getting your Writing off the Ground – for REAL!” If we could only develop a study of writing’s empty spaces I feel like we could tap into some of the anxiety that pervades our writing practices more generally. Someone should work on an anthology of empty notes, an archive of empty notes (how do we title these notes, how do we categorize them, what are these empty spaces anyhow do they produce anything? so many questions and answers get suggested in a space where there is, often, little or nothing! What do these rhetorics of empty spaces have to tell us! so much maybe….).

    BUT I also love it largely for the obverse reasons. I have notes and notes of writing about texts, chapter drafts, ideas, ideas piled on ideas to the point where they re practically unnavigable. Yes, they are there and I can wade through the development of some ideas, to nought or not, but the urge to produce, as a means to feel…what, validated? productive? has left so many similarly named documents so many strands and ideas left to be developed later (and never returned to), that the impetus to write, to write, to write and then more, leaves this soggy mess. Sometimes the figure of an empty space seems, well, refreshing, a place to stand,and not sink through, if only for a moment before you push into a soggy mess, give form to some selection, perhaps randomly chosen, whimsically pursued (this will lead somewhere! now where….).

    Love this article so much, really.

  8. This is so wonderful, Becca – thanks for writing it! I’m going to email the link to my Graduate Writing Group; they will love it. I especially appreciate your point about reminding yourself why you fell in love with your topic in the first place. While it’s a myth that one needs to feel “inspired” to write, it’s also true that reminding yourself (through writing!) why you care can be a huge motivator. I love those moments when you think: wow, I really do enjoy doing this! It’s such a great point that those moments don’t have to come out of the blue; rather, they can be something to expect and work towards just by asking “Why is this so interesting?”

  9. Fantastic article. Academics in my experience are terrible at the whole “Letting yourself experience success” concept and implementation, and it is crucial. We have to stay in touch with the love we have for writing, for expression, for critical engagement. Thank you for the reminder!

    Jessica F.
    Univeristy of New Hampshire

  10. Thanks for this great post, Becca. This sentence in particular resonated with me: “Achieving those benefits is not just about discipline. You also have to understand clearly what the goals of that writing are – and what goals are best suited to your needs at the moment.” I’ve often tried to start a daily writing practice, but when I’ve done so in the past, I haven’t had a clear goal in mind for those pieces – which is silly, given that when I sit down to write, I often list out goals for that session. But I, like you did previously, associate “daily writing” with “something I should do,” so it often turns into a kind of corrective or penitential idea; my 750 words might as well consist of “I’m sorry” over and over. The way you frame the practice here is incredibly helpful and freeing, especially in how it helps me remember that daily writing is about the long game, not always the short-term payoff.

    One thing I’d be curious to hear about from others is: this seems like am especially helpful approach for those who have “finished” the research or reading stage (acknowledging, of course, that these processes are ongoing). What might daily writing look like, or how might I articulate my goals, before and during the data-gathering phase? How has the phase of your project changed your approach to daily writing?

    Leigh Elion
    PhD Candidate, Composition and Rhetoric
    UW-Madison

    P.S. Michael: A few years back, the BABEL Working Group (a group of pre-modernity scholars interested in alternative forms of scholarship and publication) had a call for a collection of half-finished writing. Fittingly, I can’t seem to find it…

  11. During my undergraduate days I spent a few weeks in advance getting into this propensity and built up a considerable measure of sections about subjects identified with the dynamic I had composed for the prelims. At that point I made a brain guide of those points and filled in spaces for themes that were missing, or imperative ideas and thoughts . At that point I organized those into a progressive blueprint . Presently in case I’m at a misfortune with reference to what to expound on in the morning, I examine the layout then simply compose.

    A standout amongst the most critical parts of this practice for me is to compose without much referencing or setting exchanging. I expound on studies from memory. I can simply backtrack and fill in subtle elements and particular references later amid an altering stage, or toward the evening, as I can just truly write in the mornings. This has worked so far, in any event.

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