In my work as an academic writing consultant, I talk to clients a lot about how to develop a daily writing practice. Devoting time everyday (or Monday-Friday) can fundamentally transform your academic writing. Even in the best of times, however, establishing a daily habit of writing can feel like a lofty goal. Many scholars are overwhelmed with teaching and family commitments, and these responsibilities have only been intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic. So what are some small steps you can take to carve out space for academic writing during turbulent times?
1. Lower your expectations
As a general rule, scholars tend toward being overachievers so this advice might be a difficult pill to swallow. Nonetheless, I think it is critical for professors and graduate students to lower their expectations, not just for the students in their virtual classrooms but for themselves as well during these turbulent times. Giving yourself permission to do less can actually help to spur you on to action.
For many people, online teaching and working from home have made it harder than ever to devote time to writing. The closure of libraries and archives have made research much more challenging. And of course the economic crisis for colleges and universities as a result of Covid-19 has affected funding opportunities for professors and graduate students. These are serious hurdles to overcome, and they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Therefore, it is important that academic writers not fall into the trap of setting unrealistic goals, or even worse thinking they will be extra productive because of an abundance of so-called free time due to the quarantine. The goal is to establish a regular writing practice in whatever form is realistic for right now.
2. Commit to your academic writing & track your progress
While this is not the time for overly lofty or rigid goals, it doesn’t have to be a time of stagnation. Instead of goal-setting, scholars should consider making a commitment to their academic writing. If you’ve completely fallen out of the habit of making regular time for your academic writing, start small. Spending even fifteen minutes a day can mean the difference between finishing a major writing project in a year vs. never finishing. You can always build up to more time once you’ve developed some momentum.
To reinforce your commitment, keep a simple work log to track your progress. It can be as basic as putting “yes” or “no” next to the date to signify whether or not you’ve completed your allotted writing time for the day. Your work log can be analog or digital–whichever is easiest for you to maintain. Committing to a regular writing practice and tracking your progress can dramatically improve your productivity.
3. Create a writing ritual
Support your daily writing practice with visual, auditory, and olfactory cues. In other words, make your writing time something that you want to show up for and not something that you are trying to avoid. Consider choosing a mantra and putting it somewhere you can see from your desk. Here are some of my favorites:
“The best dissertation (or book or article) is a finished dissertation.”
“There is no perfect time to write. There is only now.”–Barbara Kingsolver
“Keep calm & edit later.”
Do you like to drink a hot beverage while you write? Designate a favorite mug as your writing mug. Or as I call it in my mind, “getting my shit done” mug. Both the sight and smell will shift your mind into writing mode.
Find a musical genre or channel or artist that keeps you focused. My go-to genre for everyday work is baroque. But when I’m really lacking motivation, I listen to pop music. I also use a paid app called focus@will.
Other ways to make your writing time more “sacred”: light a scented candle or use an oil diffuser; keep a writing sweater or blanket handy to make yourself cozy at your desk; splurge on a good-smelling hand cream or a special pen for when you’re free writing. The point is to identify any triggers that make you feel more productive and more like a writer.
In the end, the key to a successful writing practice is to show up and keep showing up, even when you don’t feel like it. You’ll be glad that you did!