By: Crystal E. Garcia
Writing. It’s a major part of our lives as graduate students – yet is also something we have dreaded at some point in time (or, if we’re being honest with ourselves, many points in time). As graduate students we have all experienced those stressful moments where we waited until the last possible minute to write a paper for class or to get that conference proposal in. And while it is unlikely and unrealistic that we will avoid having to experience the ramifications of procrastination or rushed writing during the rest our academic or professional careers, we can develop some habits of consistency that will help us to live healthier lifestyles and avoid adding unnecessary stress.
If developing consistent writing habits is so important, why is it so tough to actually do it? The problem is that changing patterns, particularly in the middle of a semester, can be just as challenging as starting a new diet or exercise regimen. It means changing an entire lifestyle. Sometimes it may seem like changing patterns is much more difficult than continuing to live with the same old bad habits of binge writing.
So what better time to make changes in your life than over the summer? The summer is a great time to start because it gives you a little buffer time to get in your groove before the chaos of the fall semester kicks in. Not to mention the fact that it will feel great to know what you can accomplish just over a couple months during the summer!
Before offering you some tips to get your writing plan started, I first have to say I am not a writing coach or scheduling guru. I can only share some tips that I have learned over time. Below is a list of suggestions developed from my interactions with faculty, through workshops, from readings, and lessons learned the hard way from my own personal experiences. I hope my collection of advice and personal experiences can, at least, help you to get on a more sustainable writing path.
- Distinguish a dedicated, official writing time. I was working on writing my dissertation proposal during the spring semester and found myself progressing pretty slowly. This seemed ridiculous to me since I logged at least 7-8 hours of writing related activities (researching, reading articles, writing, etc.) daily. What was happening? Well, I was actually spending most of my writing time on research I engaged in as part of my graduate assistantship and extra research projects I took part in – which meant I neglected my proposal writing. For those of you that are a part of a research team or write as part of your job or graduate assistantship, be sure that you distinguish between the time that you dedicate to each task and allocate time for your own writing.
- Develop a progress plan with small, achievable tasks. Although you can count anything writing related toward your writing time such as researching and reading articles, if you only do that during your writing time you will not get very far. So be sure to set short-term and long-term goals. I like making a list of lots of small tasks that I need to accomplish to finish the paper I am working on so that each day I can choose something different to tackle.
- Schedule your writing time and protect it. Add your writing time to your calendar and treat it just as you would with any other important meeting—do not cancel it or move it around your schedule unless it is absolutely necessary. If someone asks to schedule a meeting during your writing time, simply say I have a prior obligation scheduled at X time and offer another time to meet.
- Schedule your writing time when your brain’s writing light is on. I admit the wording on this one was a little weird, but it makes sense if you think about it. Some of us (like myself) are early birds and write best in the morning while others are night owls and do their best writing at night. Regardless of the time of day, just make sure it works best for you.
- Schedule small blocks of writing time with breaks. Could you schedule a two-hour block of writing time and stay productive all the way through? Maybe. And if you could, just ignore this tip. But for the rest of us, it is better to work in smaller bursts of time and then take a couple minutes between to stretch or walk around a bit. Don’t be afraid to sample with different options.
- Use your full block of writing time to…write. During your writing block, zone in on your task and remove all other distractions. I realize that in our technological day and age what I am about to say may sound crazy, but it worked for me. When I first began scheduling times to write, they were not as productive as I wanted because I often felt the urge to check my phone, email or admittedly, the dreaded Facebook account during my writing time. So, I did the unthinkable. I turned off the Wi-Fi on my computer, put my phone in a different room, set a cooking timer and worked until I was done with my block. It is amazing how productive I was when I just minimized my distractions!
- Use your support networks. If you have fellow grad students that could meet up for writing days, that is great. If you are a distance student or just can’t make it to face-to-face meetings, try setting up writing groups online. You don’t have to set up a Skype and stare at each other during your writing block, but you could check in at the beginning and end of your writing time. This could even happen over a text or Facebook message. It does not have to be formal, but some sort of accountability through support networks could be helpful.
- Reward yourself. Be proud that you have started a new, healthier approach to writing and reward yourself for sticking to it! Again, you decide what makes sense for you whether that is daily rewards, weekly rewards, or a reward plan based on achieving long- and short-term goals. As much as I would love to buy myself a new pair of shoes every time I did my writing block for the day, my GA salary could not handle that. But could I afford to purchase those shoes I have been eyeing after I stuck to my plan for a month? That is much more reasonable. In the meantime, other smaller rewards could be going outside for a walk after a block of writing, treating yourself to a sweet, or indulging yourself in a TV show you have been wanting to watch.
Good luck with your summer writing plan—pretty soon you can kiss those days of binge writing goodbye.
Crystal E. Garcia is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Leadership and Higher Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she serves as a research assistant for the Department of Educational Administration.