Know yourself and pace yourself – some thoughts on the temporalities of academic writing

This is an edited version of a discussion-starter presentation used at the UWS School of Social Sciences and Psychology writing retreat in November 2013, Kangaroo Valley. Thanks to Rae Dufty-Jones for the invitation. Thanks also to the group for sharing their own experiences and processes, many of which are very different from mine.

Let me first say that in academic life no one ever gives you time to write. Even though it is a core responsibility of the scholarly endeavour, there are always endless details and demands that will crowd in and demand priority. You have to carve out that time, and you have to wrest it somehow in the midst of all those other things that would fill your days. You also have to wrest some from those who have completely legitimate demands on you – your boss, your kids, your students. So if you are making the choice of a scholarly life, you are choosing not to do some other things, and not to do everything.

Here are some thoughts on how I have done it, remembering that everyone is different. (And here are the visual aids I used in the talk.)

Let me also say that I am not talking here about project design, fieldwork, laboratory work, analysis of data or reading lots of literature. All of that also needs to be scheduled into your life. I’m assuming you’ve done that, and I’m concentrating here on finding quality time for quality writing. Nor am I talking about the mechanics of writing – again, there are plenty of helpful guides on that.

Matching the tasks to the times

There are overlapping cycles of time that it is important to attend to. You have to assemble your writing in quality periods of time, while also using fragments creatively. It is a matter of breaking down your writing goals (papers, chapters, theses) into specific tasks that can be matched against these bits of time.

In my experience there are three main steps that need quality time, and they each need a different kind of time. Don’t try and do more than one at once – total recipe for stress.

  1. Planning and thinking. This stage needs lots of staring at the wall and going for walks. Its outcome is a plan/diagram/flowchart/structure with at least a rough idea of the bits and the number of words in each. It is important to relax about this – you have to give yourself permission to not do anything else except stare at the wall. (Especially do not open email.)
  2. The brain dump on the page. Get those words out. More than you need. Talk to yourself, on paper.
  3. The high quality edit – restructuring, moving, rewriting (not proofreading). No. 3 often works best if you have been able to put No. 2 in the bottom drawer for a few days or weeks.

Each of these tasks needs a solid length of time to do well. Basically a day, but you can often get away with a long half day. Where might we find those solid lengths of time?

Days. (Weetbix) There is a lot written about finding the time of day that suits you. For most of us that is the mornings. I have never been able to do serious writing at night – if you can, good luck to you. So a solid span of time might be 8am-2pm.

Weeks. (Shopping docket) When you schedule your week, within the constraints that are possible around face to face teaching and other fixed responsibilities, don’t let your writing time take the leftovers. That will be different for everyone, but it is most unlikely that Fridays are going to be the best time for writing. For me, the first days of the week are the most productive for sustained thinking and writing tasks, consecutive if possible.

Weekends are contentious and everyone has different views. Some people protect them fiercely. I’ve always been relaxed about working on weekends as it was part of the juggle of having kids and an academic partner. Sunday morning has been an important writing time for me at different times of my life, at other times it has been completely off limits.

Months. (Tampons) We don’t very often talk about the menstrual cycle and writing, but we should. I used to have two weeks of the month when I could take on the world, and felt I had enormous energy and power. And two weeks of the month where I was scratchy, had poorer concentration and needed to be more gentle with myself. It took me a while, in the maelstrom of everyday life, to recognise this and schedule writing tasks accordingly. These days my hormones are more even, but I kind of miss those power surges.

So far, in my example, we’ve got Monday and Tuesday mornings on the first two weeks of the monthly cycle. Those are golden times and you need to protect them fiercely.

Years. (Calendar) Most of you in the course of your job or thesis will go through a process of setting goals with your supervisor. For example you might have the goal of publishing three papers in a year. In my experience, the people who are successful in that endeavour are those who can break that goal down into specific, achievable tasks and schedule those tasks into appropriate timeslots. The unsuccessful ones are often those who cannot do this crucial linking step.

So let’s say we devote Monday and Tuesday mornings of the first week of the first monthly cycle to thinking out the structure of the paper. The next week (week 2 of the first monthly cycle) we might devote that Monday and Tuesday morning to braindump writing – just getting the words down on the basis of the plan and these ideas. In the next monthly cycle you can use your four mornings to do the cleanup writing, having let it stew. Apart from that you can do the other bits in fragments of time during your week or month – check the references, polish the text, hand it round to critical friends. Six weeks, eight long mornings, the guts of a good paper. Quality over quantity, and plenty of time left for other things.

Parenting times. (Duplo) There’s a lot written about how having kids slows down your academic writing and of course that’s true. And yes you need good quality childcare, and a carefully and constantly negotiated arrangement with a supportive partner. But there are enormous benefits as well – kids are great at requiring you to be present with them, and so they take us out of ourselves in very important ways. For me, some of the material rhythms of childcare – washing and hanging out nappies (it was a while ago!), walking slowly to the park – were also good thinking times when all sorts of ideas popped into my head. (Other times are hopeless – the evening feeding and bathing frenzy, for example.) For me, kids also made me more enthusiastic about life generally, and I think this flowed into my scholarly work.

Life cycle. (Superannuation brochure) We all have different trajectories according to the choices we make and the unexpected things that life throws at us. I think for most (not all) women academics who choose to have kids, there is value in not being in a desperate hurry. Yes, it’s good to carefully plan and be strategic about your work paths, but what’s the rush? (Again, lots of wisdom of hindsight here!) There will be different pulses of productivity at different times of your life.

Breaking the rules. When I gave this presentation at the UWS retreat, several participants shared that they do things in a completely opposite way to me. So knowing yourself and pacing yourself is very personal – the important thing is to think about it systematically. And after I came home, I broke all my own careful rules, in order to meet a batch of end-of-year manuscript deadlines, simultaneously with a set of administrative demands. But I’ve already blocked out what I expect to be my best writing days in the first few months of 2014, and I will be guarding them fiercely. After I’ve had a holiday!

You can follow @ProfLesleyHead on Twitter. Lesley has also written several posts for this blog, including ‘Shards of the past and seeds of the future‘, ‘Loving your monsters – the Climate Council and #Pinktober‘ and ‘Words and weeds in Sweden‘.


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