Day Two of the Writing Challenge - so how is it going so far?  Are you wondering how to fit it in and maintain dedicated space for writing in your week?  This is familiar problem for many academic writers.  Identifying and developing a writing habit that will work for you and sustain your productivity can be an ongoing challenge, but time invested in exploring what works for you will be well worth it.

Today's guest Writing Challenge blogger is Karina Quinn, a postgraduate student in the School of English. She was the winner of both the Peoples' Choice and Faculty award at La Trobe University's 2012 Three Minute Thesis competition and is also one of the founders and Managing Editors of Writing from Below, a peer reviewed, open access interdisciplinary Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies journal.

In her piece, Karina examines her evolving approach to writing as she has progressed through her PhD candidature. As she highlights, embarking upon a substantial research project often necessitates the re-evaluation of one’s writing processes and systems of self-organization. Sporadic writing ‘binges’, which were effective when approaching more contained writing projects, may not provide sufficient fodder to maintain a sense of control over a large thesis. The ‘pomodoro technique’ has gained increasing currency amongst academic writers because it can help to enhance focus and determination and to avoid distractions, thus, aiding writers to navigate away from the downward spiral of guilt and anxiety that often accompanies procrastination. Using this method, as well as attending regular group writing sessions, has enabled Karina to make significant and impressive inroads into her PhD thesis.

In praise of snack writing, the pomodoro technique, and productivity

Karina Quinn

When I started my PhD in 2011, I couldn’t call myself a writer without feeling like a fraud. The word ‘writer’ conjured up for me incredibly productive and slightly crazed individuals who sat at their desks into the small hours of the morning (or else got up at 3am every day, a-la Sylvia Plath, to write before the children woke) tapping away at keyboards and drinking litres of tea.
That was not me.

I was a binge writer (thank you, Thinkwell for this term). I would push something out, with pain, if there was an encroaching deadline or a course requirement hanging over my head, but that was all. I knew I should have a daily writing practice, but like eating four to five serves of vegetables a day or going to the gym three times a week, this stayed resolutely on my should do list.

Then I started a PhD in the English department at La Trobe. And suddenly I had to be able to sustain a long term writing project. Spewing something onto the page the night before was not going to work, but I also had no idea what would work. Enter Thinkwell’s workshop ‘the seven secrets of highly successful PhD students’. Needless to say, I was suspicious. It sounded far too chirpy for my liking. But I went. And that’s where I learnt about snack writing: doing a little bit of writing, often. I realised that if I wrote 1,000 words a week I’d have more than enough for a PhD. Then I learnt about golden hours: making an inviolable space for writing, every day. I did this in the beginning, and am glad I tried it, but it didn’t quite work for me. Sometimes I needed to read to be able to write, and I’ve needed some flexibility with that.

Which brings me to the pomodoro technique (essentially working in 25 minute blocks with five minute breaks after each block, and stringing these blocks together). I’d been following The Thesis Whisperer and taking her advice for some time when I read her post about Shut up and Write (and wow am I glad I did). I started reading and researching through the week, and then going to a Shut up and Write session at RMIT every Friday morning, where I was able to write 1,000 to 1,500 words in three pomodoroes. And there’s my weekly target. The benefits were instant and long lasting: psychological calm because I was producing good work, never needing to worry about supervision because I always had material to send her, and connection with and support from other post graduates and academics in a casual and friendly environment.

I’m now nearing the end of my second year and I have 65,000 words of my thesis written, and have published four papers (as well as some poetry and short stories), two of which are peer reviewed. If you’d told me I’d be in this position when I started, I wouldn’t have believed you. I thought I would be blocked and in pain with my writing forever (dramatic, but true). Making connections with other postgraduates and academics, and using the pomodoro technique to snack instead of binge are the keys to my productivity. I am one very happy and grateful writer. And yes, I now call myself a writer.

We hope Karina's piece will inspire you to experiment with the 'pomodoro technique'. You might like to come along to RED Writing 'Hood 'Shut Up and Write', a weekly group writing session where the 'pomodoro technique' is used. 'Shut Up and Write' is held on the Bendigo campus on Wednesdays from 10-12 in HHS2 331 and 332, at Bundoora on Thursdays from 9:30am–noon in the Charles La Trobe Lounge and at Albury Wodonga on Thursdays from  9:30–noon in the Conference Room and Fridays from 9:30–noon next to the Library Training Room. All the details you need are available on the RED Unit website: 

Also, for all those interested, 'Writing from Below', will be officially launched on Friday, December 13th, 2013 at 7:30pm at Hare Hole at Hares Hyenas in Fitzroy. Check out the Writing from Below website for more information:

And remember to keep us up-to-date with your Writing Challenge progress or your thoughts on the 'pomodoro technique' by posting in the comments section below. Happy writing!


Anonymous said…
Have set my daily goal at 2 hours of writing - pomodoro style... plan to finish one task this week and a different one next week. Hopefully not too challenging...but both need to be done. Rather than the same time each day I have slotted the 2 hours in around other commitments...Day one dawns - sick child, off to doctors, 2 hours gone! Off the horse but didn't beat myself up – honest… 2 hours yesterday and looking good for today. Pam
Hi Pam,
Thanks for sharing that. My plan was less ambitious in terms of time spent. I am aiming for 1 hour each day. However, like you, external forces have thrown me off course. And I have allowed myself to give over MY writing time, doing other writing tasks. I have beaten myself up about it... BUt that is not proving very useful. SO I have now blocked time out in my calendar (Including all the SUAWs I can fit in), and if fate intervenes promised myself to do the writing before I go to sleep. I can do two pomodoros once the kids are in bed.

I wonder how everyone else is going?

Anonymous said…
It is good to hear we have similiar experiences. Well on day 1 my efforts were limited to dusting off an old paper I have attempted to write a number of times. It is now at a stage that if this does not get written before Xmas it is destined for the WPB (waste paper basket) or to be PC – recycle bin (both in the literal and virtual sense). So my first day was reacquainting myself with what I had written and re-thinking both title and target journal. Not much writing but I have a tentative title and changed my target journal which the 2nd author thinks is an ‘excellent choice’.
By day 2 my thoughts drifted to ‘why did I put myself under such pressure?’ particularly as my PhD student was about to submit, marking was due and already we are preparing for teaching next year. So when the email arrived to encourage me I thought – okay I will make an effort and write on the blog – much easier than writing my paper. Unfortunately that was not easy either. I discovered my comments were lost as I did not have a profile! So what did I achieve a tidy desk and found parts of my paper and information about the target journal. I don’t think there was any real writing.
So I now come to day 3 – the blog writing glitch fixed (thanks Jeanette) and I have managed to do some writing not up to target but at least I am writing. I have done this before and disciplined myself to write each morning with the result of 3 papers published - so I know it can work. Maybe not this time…although I have manage 100 words and some research about setting up my argument. Marking awaits and bound thesis about to arrive so off to RSO to photograph the momentous occasion. PS managed to write 300 words in my comments – easy! Jeanine
Ana said…
I have been organising my notes and articles in NVivo, for me it makes it much easier to write as it gives me triggers on what to write/ which references to use. Some draft writing done, but needs lots of editing. I have set up an online Shut up and Write session with a friend, scheduled 3 hour sessions each day, combining mondays and afternoons (to see when I'm more productive, although I think I don't have a preferred time). In my case, I usually need external help to get organised and motivated. Otherwise, I'm easily distracted and always find something better to do.
Priscilla Ennals said…
Thanks for your blog post Karina. As a PhD student I too have recently discovered the benefits of Shut-up and write at LaTrobe - enjoying both the words on the page and collegiality in the breaks. The pomodoro works well for me; writing in a sprint and doing a review/edit later increases my productivity and gets me over humps of inactivity.
The part of your blog that inspires me is the idea of allowing the time during the week to read and plan and saving up the writing for a concentrated pomodro session. I have been struggling with a pressure to write, but also need time to read and think to accomplish what I am working on at the moment. If I follow this plan and trust that the words will come in the pomodoros, I can feel Ok about allocating the time to read and research. This means I need to change my goal - hope that is ok. New goal is to allocate 3 hours daily to reading/research/planning and 2 x concentrated pomodoro sessions (3-4 pomodoros) a week - this should get the article finished in 2 weeks. On day 3 I am exceeding my allocated time for planning - can I convert this into words tomorrow at SU&W??
This week I have also discovered Scrivener ( as a way of organising my writing. I am optimistic that this will help as I am not someone who writes from start to finish but like to get thoughts down as they come to mind, or as I am reading. I am also visual so like the idea of notes scrawled on the pin board. Will keep you posted on whether this helps.

Thanks for your comments, Jeanine, Ana and Priscilla.

I too am hoping tomorrow's Shut and Write Session in the Charles La Trobe Lounge (Bundoora Library) at 9:30 is is going to make up for a bit of lost progress!