A list of strategies contributed by participants at the 2022 ASCILITE Spring Into Excellence Research School, curated by Prof Michael Henderson (Monash University) and Prof Phillip Dawson (Deakin University).
Academics at all stages of their career are faced with the challenge of overcoming barriers to writing. These barriers include heavy workloads and busy schedules, lack of motivation, a need for inspiration, battles with procrastination, lack of confidence, or simply not knowing where or how to start. There are many self-help books and useful blogs that offer advice to all kinds of writers – and some of these are listed at the bottom of this post.
It is perhaps not surprising to find that the challenges scholars face in producing writing of quality are much the same as writers of fiction and other genres. There is no single answer or solution to this seeming epidemic of writers’ block. We are all hunting to find the strategies and conditions that work for us.
During the ASCILITE Research School, twenty-two early career and out-of-field researchers joined with seven senior researchers to explore how, when and why we might research Technology Enabled Learning. During the three days we covered topics such as the need for critical perspectives of technology, the use of theory, the range of applicable methodologies, the difference between writing for journals and grants, and the use of alternative forms of engagement to achieve impact. On the second day we asked the seemingly trivial question of “what are your strategies for productive writing?” In less than five minutes the group identified over 65 strategies that had worked for them. This sparked an enthusiastic conversation – a sharing of challenges and achievements in the struggle to wrangle words.
With permission from the participants, we present their hard earned insights below. The writers of this blog have organised the strategies into loose themes, made small editorial changes to aid clarity and voice, and synthesised some items that were similar.
The following strategies simply represent what has worked for 29 scholars – from early to late career. The list does not attempt to be comprehensive and in some cases are light-hearted acknowledgements of the fickle nature of human motivation and academia. Some of the advice even contradicts other bits of advice on the list – showing that what works for some writers might not work for others. We offer these to you in the hope that they may elicit a chuckle, a groan of sympathy or perhaps even inspire you to experiment with a new strategy.
Strategies to get started
- Recognise that there is no perfect time – don’t wait for the 2-day gap or the uninterrupted hour.
- Don’t feel you have to write A-Z. Sometimes writing is a jigsaw puzzle.
- Respect the power of procrastination and distraction
- Turn off your internet
- Hide the vacuum, cleaner/washing, etc
- Log out from all socials and disconnect
- Close email, turn off notifications
- Going off campus, turning off wifi
- Get into the right headspace
- Be kind to yourself
- Find confidence in yourself
- Exercise and then write afterwards
- Ensure you get sleep, exercise and eat well
- Reward yourself (each time you write, when you submit, other ways): celebrate milestones
- Make sure all of your outstanding work is done to empty your brain and then write
- Acknowledge that it is trial and error – keep experimenting to find out what works for you. Something that works at one time may not always be best. You may need a range of strategies that change according to context and time.
- Have a ritual to get you into the headspace, such as putting on headphones with white noise.
- Come at it from a different angle:
- Create conference presentation as structure then expand out into journal article
- When you don’t feel like writing, read something. You can improve your own writing by reading the work of others – particularly writers you really admire.
- Read good stuff
- Finding the time:
- Find a time when writing works for you
- Capitalise on your ‘productive’ times of day – for me, I am motivated and alert first thing in the morning. So, I set aside two hours (8-10am) two days per week for writing.
- Have a certain time each week and commit to meeting with other people for accountability
- Protect your writing time just like you would protect the time you set aside to teach a class
- Block out time and be precious about your time
- Set the scene
- Find a place where writing works for you
- Set up your environment to set the occasion for writing (sounds, smells, lighting, clothes, temperature, etc.). For me, it’s a vanilla candle, trakkies, and Lana Del Rey. IT REALLY WORKS to get you in the zone!
- Create the imperative to write:
- Make deadlines to accomplish certain tasks
- Put yourself into a situation of peer accountability – share your progress with peers
- Make yourself accountable to others (but also be realistic, don’t make promises you can’t keep)
- Create an external driver: ‘Something I have to do for my teaching’ or ‘I’ve told someone I’d review this’
- Have a deadline!
- Use dictation tool to get your thoughts down
- Get up earlier and write first thing – even if it’s only half an hour. Writing skill is like a muscle
- Just write
- with friends
- with coffee
- … and write… get something down and then edit later
Strategies that help keep your writing flowing
- Speed up by editing less.
- Get ideas down – craft it next time. Technologies can enable (e.g. speech-to-text) or hinder (e.g. the editing features of moveable-type can bog us down).
- When it’s time to write, just write: don’t edit, don’t look up literature, just write
- When you set aside writing time, just free write! Don’t edit, don’t reference, don’t read. Just get words on paper, even if they suck
- After you’ve written something, put it away and come back another day to edit/review it
- Keeping you focused:
- White noise
- A quick trip to the gym when doubts/unhelpful thoughts are too loud
- Plan for a significant writing event:
- Writing or research retreat: Go away for a week to your happy place with other writers during recess (e.g., Dec, Jan, non-teaching semester).
- Go away for a writing block (interstate) for at least a week
- Be in a writing team to drive you
- Write with co-writers – in the same room
- Write with others – then you only are responsible for part of the paper and not the whole paper
- Break the task into smaller tasks:
- A structured writing process: brainstorming, then outlining, then more detailed outlining, then writing a bad first draft, then writing a better first draft
- Make detailed outlines before you start writing – then work backwards to fill in the details
- Write in a way that works for you – e.g. put it all on the page, or one paragraph a time – don’t listen to what other people tell you
Finding ways to sustain and motivate over time
- Track your progress – it helps you keep an eye on things over time and helps you understand your own rhythms, what works for you and when. It is also a great way to stay accountable to your goals.
- Always have a paper you can work on that depends on nobody else – your “no excuses” paper.
- Form habits
- Identify what you already do on a regular basis – and preferably something you like (e.g. coffee at morning tea) – and build small expectations of writing (e.g., a para) each time before you go to that morning tea.
- Know when and how to stop
- Stop when things are going well – make a note – and come back to it another time. You can associate success with writing – not effort.
- At the end of your writing session make notes that explain your thinking so you can pick up from that point when you return.
- Join a writing group and meet with them regularly.
- A useful strategy common to many of the participants was using the “shut up and write” approach which began in San Francisco in 2007. The idea is simple enough – a group of people turn up at a location (possibly online) and simply work on their writing for a specified period of time (e.g. a few hours). There is no expectation of talking about their writing, no reviewing or editing of each other’s work. Some of the participants talked about combining the writing session with time-keeping such as the Pomodoro technique (see below). Importantly, for those who want to begin their own initiative along these lines – we suggest some thought goes into its naming. One participant reported that they did not attend such sessions simply because of its name – which does have an aggressive tone.
- Managing time on task
- Pomodoro technique – you only need to write for 25 minutes at a time
- I like to write using the Pomodoro technique – working for a specified amount of time with clearly defined breaks. I find that having a short break in which I can check emails/put on the washing helps me and then I rush back to start again.
- Increasing the length of sessions using tomato timer/pomodoro methods to “ramp up” (ie – 20mins, 30mins, 40mins, repeated)
Books and resources recommended by participants
- Hugh Kearns book Turbocharge Your Writing changed my life – and my approach to writing
- Read the book Air and light and time and space by Helen Sword
- Check out the blogs ThesisWhisper and ResearchWhisperer
- Pat Thompson’s blog https://patthomson.net/category/academic-writing/