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I am not someone who finds writing in my academic voice easy.
This is due to a range of reasons, which includes having a well developed case of imposter phenomenon (or imposter syndrome) that's spanned my time as a scholar in universities. Coupled with my high-level procrastination skills - something that's unfortunately very transferable to other work contexts - my writing practice can be patchy at best and non-existent at worst.
Over the years, I've found ways of making writing work happen and this post is a reflection on my own practices that have been effective - or not. One thing I have understood better over the years is that finding your best process for writing can be highly personal, necessary, and subject to change. This latter point about changing writing habits has been borne out by research.
Finding writing time and making space for yourself to focus on writing is one thing that occupies a lot of air-time for researchers.
Once you've actually made the time, though, what are the most effective ways to use it?Here are two practices that generate the most value for my writing momentum:
1. Chunking the work and knowing what I need to do when I sit down.
That's a very unglamorous way of saying that I get organised with the work that needs to be done and have a clear plan to proceed each time I sit down to write. This sounds so basic and it is, but it's also one of the hardest things to do consistently when you are spending a lot of time running around in the frenzy of a normal, busy life.
Having the clarity of knowing exactly where you are with your projects and writing requires a lot of articulation work. In their podcast On the Reg, Inger Mewburn and Ben Kraal discuss articulation work - here's a very quick primer from their notes:
"Articulation work is a fancy way of talking about:
- Putting tasks in an order (to complete some arc or work)
- Doing tasks sequentially or simultaneously (to complete some arc of work)
- Assigning people to do tasks (to complete some arc of work)"
And here's the episode if you want to listen for yourself: Articulation work isn't just a cool research paper from 1992 even though it kind of is.
So, it's the work you do before you can do the work. This process is extremely valuable and usually takes longer than you think.
2. Writing with others.
This elements works in two ways: writing with others in terms of co-authoring (I have spent a significant part of my research career as a lone wolf academic) and also writing alongside others at Shut Up and Write (SUAW) sessions.
Co-authoring makes things more fun, me more accountable, and the work better because of the synthesis of others' perspectives and wells of knowledge. My colleague Meagan Tyler wrote about the unexpected joys of co-authoring and I couldn't agree more. These joys are what have kept me in academia. Producing work together, sharing in the triumphs over (life and work) challenges, and just plain good fun with colleagues. It's a heady combination.
SUAW sessions have given me the focus and discipline to get through the things I've been avoiding. They provide me with companionship and solidarity in the grind of getting through first drafts and subsequent edits, and have given me some of the best friends I've ever had (many of whom are still my buddies today). I even wrote a 2-part blogpost about our gang's appreciation of SUAW.
Conversely, here are two practices that do not work for me anymore, even though they were more or less fine in the past:
1. Pulling all-nighters
I don't know whether I'm meant to say this, being someone who now advises others on good, sustainable work practices, but I was a researcher who counted on all-nighters to get to the finish line on thesis chapters, conference papers, and maybe perhaps possibly even an Honours thesis. I have always over-achieved on the procrastination front and completed work down the wire of a submission deadline. This was never a very good strategy but, when it was my go-to, I had a lot of buffering in my life in terms of discretionary time and a low number of ongoing commitments so it was do-able, if not entirely wise.
Why it doesn't work for me anymore: I don't have as much time to play with and a whack-ton more in terms of ongoing commitments. Such a significant disruption, which requires recovery time, doesn't sit well alongside a crowded routine with dependents and many other commitments.
2. Skimping on the articulation work
I would sit down to do writing and spend the first little while (anywhere from about 15 mins to....um...about an hour) sorting out what I was going to do for the day. This was fine when I was a research fellow, which was for more than a decade of my working life, because I was 100% research and just about my whole day, every day, was spent on research. Then kids came along. Then I wasn't a research fellow anymore. Time became much more restricted and playing fast and loose with when I do things was a lot less possible and led to much higher stress levels. A couple of years ago, I realised I was in a 'stuck' place with my research projects.
And the things is that I have read and heard the advice repeatedly about preparing to do the work, but it wasn't until I was interviewed by Chris Smith (who co-founded and runs Prolifiko) and Chris very kindly and generously gave me some impromptu coaching that I really put things into practice. I still remember the key thing that made me suddenly more productive: ensuring that each time I was stepping out of research work zone, I'd have planned the three things I'd be doing in my next appointment with my research or writing. That's it. Sounds basic but it's a process that's full of critical reflection on project approaches and setting feasible goals.
So, there you have it. My writing practices past and present, warts and all.
Has your writing practice changed over time? Are you alert to when your practice may need to be altered? I find a writing routine needs to be flexible, responsive to my present circumstances, and sustainable. It is very difficult to force a routine on yourself.
Dr Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in research education and development with the RED team at La Trobe University. Melbourne. She researches in the field of critical university studies and has published on early career researcher experiences, digital academic identities, and racial diversity issues.
Tseen created and manages the Research Whisperer with Jonathan O'Donnell. She's on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org and not really on Twitter at @tseenster.