Keeping the writing going

 The third post in a series of tips and strategies around academic writing.

What is the difference between a pomodoro and a pear? And how does a grape count? These slightly bizarre questions were thrown up during my recent writing retreat. But we were jesting in earnest: pomodoros, pears and grapes are all techniques to keep writing regularly. They are just one of the activities I use between writing retreats and meetings of my writing group. In this post I will outline the fruit strategies and some other tips I have found useful. It is important to remember, however, that you need to find something that works for you, as only you can do this.

Activities

  • Writing every day

This is an oldie, but a goodie, and one I personally struggle with. It is best to do this first thing – before coffee and definitely before email – and may be done while still in your pyjamas. Even if you can only manage 30 minutes it all adds up. This is the thing that I say at everyone final session of my writing retreats. Binge writing doesn’t work and is difficult to fit into a busy schedule. Reward yourself with coffee afterwards. Put a star on the chart or put some money into your shoe buying jar.

  • Process writing

I use this frequently with students. If you are staring at a blank screen simply start writing ‘I don’t know what this is about but what I am trying to say is…..’ Don’t pause, don’t edit and see if you can write half a page. Only then look back over what you have written, and see what bits you can cut and paste into a new document.

  •  Draft without editing

Another version of the previous one. The greatest hand break is the censor within. That voice that says ‘I can’t believe that is a sentence…. What is that cr@**%p?’ It is best to look over your draft after leaving it for a while or as part of your next daily session. Things will compost or percolate in your brain while you are showering or on the way to work and overnight. That is a very valuable stage of the process.

  •  Breadcrumbs for next time

I do this without realising that it has a proper name. When you finish a writing session, jot down some notes to help you start again straight into it. It could be bullet points of the next steps in the argument or next paragraphs. It could be a list of keywords. It could be a revision of the writing plan that you should have sitting next to your keyboard.

  •  Writing plan

I am a great believed in writing a plan or sketch of the structure of the piece you are working on, even it is revised many times while writing. Do you have notes for the intro, body and conclusion of the piece? What contribution are you making to the literature/knowledge in the area? Can you recite an ‘elevator pitch’ of your piece ( the two to three sentences/paragraph that says exactly what you are doing and why as you ride the elevator between floors)?

  •  Blogging

It took courage to start blogging, just as it did to stammer my first tweet out. But it is more relaxed, easy writing that can be done in 30 minutes and keeps your hand in. It can help you find a ‘voice’ and the almost instant feedback is gratifying and all the moral encouragement you need! Blogging about your research is also a way of having a first stab at what might end up as a more formal piece of academic writing. You can try out things and get reactions. It is also a mighty fine way of building in regularity and discipline to a writing schedule.

Tools

  •  Planning – as outlined above
  • Electronic gadgets

A pomodoro is a set time of writing (usually 25 minutes) with 5 minute breaks and is named after the Italian word for tomato partly because people used tomato shaped timers. You can also download electronic apps that don’t have the same ticking noise. The breaks are really refreshing and mean that you can concentrate and then pause. [A pear (pair) is two pomodoros, one of which may be reading (invented by me at the last retreat). A grape is working in groups of three or four and perhaps incorporating feedback.]

I use the free app Evernote to store all my documents and images; PDFs of articles, lists and schedules. It has a function that lets you clip from websites which is very handy.

I also use Pocket to store things to read later – webpages, articles, tweets, Youtube videos, whatever. I have these apps synced across my laptop, phone and tablet so that I can reach them anytime, anywhere.

  •  Write on site or shut up and write!

A research group buddy set these up in a spare room on campus once a week for two hours. We had a 5 minute break in the middle but otherwise it was just 5 of us and our laptops, working away silently and collegially. People often use local cafes too.

  •  Rewards are your friend

Whether it is coffee, a phone call to a friend, a star chart, movies, shoes or a workout, give yourself a gift for making progress.

  • Accountability group

In order to get the last part of my book manuscript finished, I enlisted the help of my work in progress group from my writing retreat. I had to email them every fortnight to report on whether I had finished the latest chapter or not. The warmth of the replies was fabulous! It gave me a set deadline that was external and public.

  • Work in progress with friends and buddies

Do you have some colleagues or friends that you could meet with to talk informally and briefly about your writing? Can you ask for feedback or suggestions for issues that you are having problems with? They will amaze you with their acuity and resourcefulness. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Inspiration and other sources of advice

  • Twitter #writingpact

I have just begun this. It is group support that is instant and full of warm fuzzies. Tweet what you are about to do with this hashtag and then success or progress when you have finished with the same hashtag. You will get lots of favourites and replies!

  • Other blogs:

I have been following and reading theses for a while and they are goldmines of advice: Patter and Thesis Whisperer. There is lots of other advice on the internet. The most important point is to stop reading and start doing! And make sure that you have a good work situation set up that encourages you to make use of it.

And you know the old adage: practice makes perfect! My best wishes to you in your endeavours to keep the writing going.

I would love you to share your best strategies and what works for you via comments below. Thank you.

How writing groups work

The reaction to my last post on writing retreats was so positive — thank you everyone for your likes, retweets and reads—I thought I would continue the vibe and focus on writing groups.

I have been part of a writing group for three and half years now and it is a key part of my strategy for keeping the writing going between retreats. Some of the same elements of a retreat are carried over: good company, good food, and work in progress. What’s different is that it is disciplinary specific: we four are all historians. This provides a different kind of intensity and also a taken-for-granted understanding of what I am trying to do, which I really appreciate.

The group was initiated by another member who had a semester’s sabbatical and had to complete her book manuscript in that time. We decided that it was a great idea for all of us and had an initial meeting. What’s interesting for me about the constitution of the group is that it consists of a former colleague, my PhD supervisor and my MA supervisor, who are all now good friends. So we all knew each other and each other’s work well.

We decided that we would meet roughly every six weeks on a Monday evening for dinner at a wonderful local restaurant, and that we would eat, drink and talk about what we are currently working on and our progress to date. At the beginning of the year we usually share an annual writing plan and then we do a stock take at the December meeting of what we have achieved (or not).

A typical meeting consists of brief updates from us all and then we focus on one member’s work in particular. We might circulate abstracts and bits of drafts for reading beforehand, and the woman whose work is in focus might provide a fuller piece. We are meeting this Monday and I have part of a chapter to respond to in advance, from a larger book manuscript. Often we also talk about workplace issues or support we might want for thinking about our career. We try to keep moaning to a minimum! We also have a practice of bringing the artefacts, our publications, to the table, to be passed around and celebrated in person. Our collective productivity is really quite amazing.

For most of last year I felt as if I was always turning up with little to show for it. Yet it was always good to talk, to get reassurance and to get searching, productive, questions about what I was trying to do. Having to front up regularly was very good discipline. I also find that I learn as much from the other members and their wrestling with writing, as I do from what I am attempting to do. It is patently clear that I try to do too much and have a long, ambitious plan in February, when really I should just concentrate on the main thing on my list. So I have taken myself in hand. This year is much better in that respect.

In the first year we helped our colleague finish her book and she won two prizes for it. There has been one from another member since (gone to press due to be published in August) and the other two of us have nearly finished our ones. There have also been articles, chapters, online encyclopedia entries, and several conference papers each. In between meetings we text, email and phone encouragement (and empathy), and email new articles we have published to each other. It is just wonderful to know that my writing group members are always there for me.

Happily, I will be able to report on Monday that in the last six weeks or so I have delivered a keynote and an invited paper (in sequential weeks!). I have received feedback on my book manuscript from a good writer friend and the publisher, and completed the revision of the introduction, while at my writing retreat. I have also sorted out what I have to do to next on the book revisions and in what order. I have done lots of thinking and planning about my current and next projects. I have also commissioned the last contributor to an edited collection on material histories that I am preparing and received another abstract and paper in outline. Oh, and of course, I have started this blog!

The bliss of writing retreats

I am writing this from a desk looking over Lake Taupo, in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. A well-stoked fire is roaring and six women are writing with me as we share space in a large hall. All is companionable silence.

This is the tenth year I have been coming to either a winter or spring retreat of ‘Women Writing Away’ at the Tauhara Retreat Centre. It has made all the difference to my productivity and also to my hopes and fears around writing. I would not have published as much scholarly work as I have, nor learned how to think, plan and organise around it, if I had not attended these retreats. They form precious bright spots in the year when I can leave everything else behind and focus. Yet, as other women have commented, at the same time it feels like a holiday because we have good company, good food, and as much sleep as we want to have!

ImageThe main building at Tauhara, image from website

The WWA retreats are organised by the incomparable Barbara Grant from Auckland University, who has written about them here. They follow a well-developed template of a mixture of writing time, work-in-progress sessions, group paragraph editing, optional workshops, and a collectively written murder mystery that often has a lot about university politics and bureaucracy thrown in for good measure!

The retreat centre at Tauhara is around the lake in Acacia Bay on semi-rural land. We supply our own breakfasts and coffee, and daily lunch and dinner, made from local produce, is provided for us. This takes the time and angst of meal preparation away and leaves ample time for writing.

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The dining room, image from website

The aim of the week is to produce an article ready for publication or for a conference, or a chapter towards a book or PhD. We arrive for Sunday night for introductions, orientation, planning and decompression, followed by a shared dinner to which we all contribute. After the first, sometimes slow, day of writing on Monday night we do the mandatory group editing of a paragraph. This exercise is brilliant. We read a paragraph aloud sentence by sentence and respond to feedback on the appropriateness/accuracy of words and send, the rhythm and length. I always come away with a much punchier and convincing paragraph and it is amazing how reading aloud helps!

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights we share work in progress. The idea is to bring an issue, a puzzle or a piece of draft writing to the group for reponses. Last time I got collective thinking about my schedule for finishing my book and we set up an email group that I agreed to check in with every two weeks. This time I am going to run an ‘elevator pitch’ for my book past the group so that my introduction has a consistent focus. At the moment it takes several goes at saying what the book is about!

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My desk as I write this

After lunch most days there are optional workshops on getting writing going, first sentence exercises, writing book proposals, applying for grants or whatever someone nominates.

On Friday late afternoon we reconvene as a group to set some goals to keep the writing going when we return home. These are emailed to us afterwards so we can keep to our promises! Then on the last night we read aloud the Case of Missing Conclusion, our jointly written murder mystery.

I usually bring one main project and other subsidiary ones. When I first started attending, there was no WiFi, and we could really keep to the retreat nature of the week. Now I do a lot of (re)searching on line so I choose to pay for WiFi access for the week. I have managed in one week to draft out a whole article, but usually my aims are more modest. If find that I do as much research planning and strategising, as actual writing, as I have uninterrupted time to think. I find the week a useful stock-taking time.

I always make time to have an on-site massage. Self-care is a big part of the week.

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Accommodation units, image from website

This year I plan to go in Spring as well, as my current large administrative role makes it more difficult for me to carve out writing time. This week it is revisions to my book manuscript, which has had more than one trip to this oasis on the edge of Lake Taupo. I’m optimistically hoping that it will be the last time I bring it!