Creating Writing Habits for the New Year

January 01, 2015

By Sharon McGee

As academics, we often think of the “new year” as the beginning of the academic year, but January is also a good time to start new, productive habits. I find that many faculty, particularly at a teaching-first institution like SIUE, find it difficult to sustain their writing during the semester. After all, having a classroom full of faces staring at you is motivation to prep for class and fielding constant questions about “when will our papers be graded?” encourages us to get assignments returned quickly. But what about our writing? Typically, there’s no immediate, tangible external motivation to keep us on track. We have to find that motivation ourselves, the same kind of motivation to go to the gym or eat healthily. I’ve put together a few habits that may help you find the time and motivation to begin—or continue—your writing during the new semester.

1.    Schedule time to write, ideally every day. Many financial advisors say that the best way to save money is to pay yourself first; that is, have money automatically deducted from your paycheck and put into your savings account. I think the same concept applies for writing. Make a standing appointment with yourself to write. If you can write in short blocks of time, schedule 30-minute blocks throughout the week to write. If you need longer blocks, schedule those. And then keep those appointments as you would any other. Show up and be ready to write. I set my pig timer to help me focus and stay on track.

Writing every day - even 10-15 minutes - is beneficial because it helps you develop the habit of writing, as Gregory Semenza argues.

2.    Set short term goals and reward yourself for accomplishing them. There’s an old, but relevant, joke: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. By breaking a big writing project (a journal article, a monograph, a creative work) into smaller bite-sized goals, you can maintain your motivation for the project. It’s great to feel as if you are  making progress through smaller goals. As you reach those goals, reward yourself with a bowl of ice cream, a social media break, or a walk in the park. DIY MFA has some good tips for goal setting and rewards.

3.    Write before and after you write. This strategy may seem counterintuitive, but if you take 3-5 minutes before you begin to write, for example, to make a to-do list of things you need to later after your writing time, you can clear mental space to write. Or use the pre-writing time to jot down a list of points you want to get to in this writing session. Sitting down, either with paper and pen or a separate Word document, and jotting down ideas can help you focus during the writing time that you have.

Likewise, before you end your writing for the day, record—either in another Word document or in a journal—what you did during the writing session and what needs to be done when you come back to the project. Taking this step can save you time in the future. For example, making a note to yourself about why you decided to write about the data in the way that you did can save you time when you begin to question yourself and try to recreate your thought process. No need to do that: Check your journal. Or when you return to a piece of writing, you’ll have a note to remind you where you left off and where you need to begin, saving you time and freeing your energy for writing.

4.    Keep a research/writing journal. This is a habit that I let slide after completing my dissertation. But I have recently returned to it and found it very useful. I use it to keep a running list of other sources that I need to find and read. I use to record what I did during a writing session (see #3). An app like Evernote works well for some people, but I’ve decided to go back to the old-school method of paper and pen because I like being able to scribble down ideas without moving to another document or app. (I find that is an easy way for me to get distracted.) Your journal doesn’t need to be fancy or even organized; use whatever system works for you. Whether digital or paper, keeping a journal is a useful practice to cultivate.
5.    Join a writing group. Writing is very often a solitary experience. Joining a writing group is one way to help yourself stay motivated to write. SIUE has a couple of faculty writing groups or you can form your own with like-minded colleagues. Writing groups should offer support and encouragement to its members as well as hold members accountable for goal-setting and completion.  Group members can also share their writing and receive feedback from one another. SIUE’s Office of Academic Innovation and Effectiveness plans to hold its second-annual Faculty Writing Retreat, so watch for the forthcoming announcement.

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