Most advice on academic writing starts with something like “write every day even if only for 10-15 minutes.” The idea behind this is that we all need to practice our craft in order to master it, so we should write regularly just as someone training for a marathon needs to run regularly. The advice is sound and logical, but writing every day doesn’t work for everyone.
I tried to write every day during my early years in graduate school and felt guilty when it didn’t work for me. Ironically, the guilt was the worst on days that I spent most of my time doing data cleaning, coding data, or making tables related to my latest research project. It was all time well spent, but I wasn’t putting words on a page. To move past the feeling of guilt, I had to recognize that this common advice was not for me and figure out a workflow that fit how I work best.
The hardest part about moving past my guilt was that so many people swear by writing every day, to the point that when I have mentioned that I don’t write every day, people assume that I’m not writing. While that certainly could be true, I still write 3-4 times a week despite the fact that I don’t write every day. The main difference between my schedule and the schedules of those who write every day is that I don’t schedule specific times to write. I organize my schedule around tasks, which inevitably include writing as my projects are not all in the data collection and analysis stages. Each week, I pick which project(s) I need to focus on and create a to do list. Even if most of that work is about data collection or analysis, I end up writing memos to myself, documenting data collection and coding in codebooks and protocols, and writing down ideas for future analyses, papers, and chapters.
There are a few reasons why this loose approach to writing works for me. First, I’m not paralyzed by writing. I’m what some might describe as a “word vomiter.” My first drafts are a hot mess and need a lot of editing, but I get words onto the page quickly. (I would actually describe myself as a stronger editor than a writer, so I work best with something on the page to whip into shape.) Second, I rarely face total writing blocks. What I mean by this is that while I experience blocks with how to articulate an idea, concept, argument, or finding, I rarely cannot write at all. When I do have a block, I can write through it with memoing to figure out what I want to say. Third, I can pick up and put down my writing fairly easily. Writing is something I can do in spurts between when my toddler is occupied and when he needs my full attention (or wants to bang on the keyboard with me). (He is currently sitting on my shoulders as I line edit this post.) So squeezing in writing where it fits works for me (and for my schedule as a working mom). Finally, it’s a lot harder for me to pick up and put down data cleaning, coding, and analysis work. I like longer and concentrated periods of working with my data. Once I start on a data analysis task, I work best by continually plowing forward until it’s done. These traits about my optimal work style make writing when it fits in work for me.
In practice, writing “when it fits in” means writing several times a week. For example, last semester, I taught one course that was a new prep as part of my postdoc, so my Mondays (until around 2:30pm), Thursdays, and Fridays were dedicated to course prep and grading. Monday afternoons, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, I worked on my research including data collection, analysis, table/figure creation, reading literature, memoing, and writing manuscripts. Most weeks I wrote 2-3 days a week whether it was memoing or writing for a manuscript. Even without writing every day, I wrote a new manuscript based on data analysis I had completed over winter break, revised 2 manuscripts that had been rejected and submitted them for review, drafted and submitted an extended abstract for a conference, and wrote a data-supported essay that you can read on Conditionally Accepted.
Now just because this system works for me, doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for everyone, just as writing every day doesn’t work for all writers. Here are a few questions to ask yourself in determining what would work best for you:
- Do you procrastinate around writing?
- Is writing agonizing?
- Are you a product writer, that is someone who prefers perfecting a sentence before writing the next one?
- If you start writing something and don’t finish it, is it hard to pick it back up days later?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should try writing every day. If you answered no to all of these questions, you might find that a more fluid approach works for you. Just remember, there is no one size fits all in writing or research. Find what works for you!