AcWriMo: Writing happens when you figure out approaches that work best for you

Guest post – Dr Laura Barnett, Lecturer in Higher Education, Surrey Institute of Education

The most important point that I’d like to make from the outset about academic writing is that it is a very individual and personal experience. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of going about writing, it’s about finding approaches that work best for you, a lesson I learned well whilst writing my own PhD thesis.

Ironically, when I procrastinated and avoided writing my thesis, I read lots of texts about thesis writing, doing research, came across some useful websites/blogs about thesis writing and received lots of writing tips from well-intentioned people. Initially, these resources and people left me feeling slightly disheartened because despite all their great advice, I was often left wondering, why isn’t their advice working for me? When I look back, I realise that I needed to be more self-reflective and pick out from the all the good writing practice out there what did and didn’t work for me.

Through a process of self-reflection, I have discovered what works for me when it comes to writing. The environment in which I write is incredibly important and dictates a lot of my productivity. I like to have a clear desk without any clutter as I find mess distracting. I need silence to write well and get into the ‘zone’…writing in a coffee shop is probably my worst nightmare. I like lots of natural light. I write better in the morning because I have zero concentration in the afternoon. I feel that I have to set my formatting up before I can start writing. I try and create blocks of time for writing because it takes me a while to find my rhythm…Pomodoro timers are not for me. These are all habits that I adopt post-PhD. As you can see, I am a complex creature. When you start to think about these little details about yourself, you will come to realise that you are too. So knowing thyself can be really important in the process of setting yourself up for productive writing.

The other main area that I want to flag up is around the relationship between perfectionism and feedback. I used to try and write in a chronological way and then edit as I went along in order to produce the perfect draft before I felt brave enough to share my writing with others (e.g. my supervisor or peers). Not only did this slow me down in producing drafts of writing, but constructive (and much needed) feedback from others would often change the writing quite dramatically at times. Whilst I valued their feedback and knew that it produced better writing, sometimes I felt demoralised that I had spent lots of energy in producing a ‘perfect’ draft to then have to change things later. So I have really taken on board the idea that a ‘good’ draft is more than fine, and I make sure that I get feedback throughout the writing process to enhance the writing later on.

A few other useful tips (but remember to do what works for you):

  • Exemplars of writing can be so helpful in helping conceptualise writing in your discipline. Immerse yourself in the writing of others to appreciate what good writing looks like.
  • Know thyself. What works for others in writing might not work for you.
  • There are some days when writing just doesn’t go your way. Ask yourself if you need a break or if you would be better off doing something else more productive for a while.
  • Breaks are important and looking at writing with fresh eyes can be helpful. However, when I am in the zone or rhythm of writing, sometimes I just keep going a bit longer and find that I come to a natural stop when I am ready.
  • Set realistic writing targets and try and gather a sense of what you can accomplish within set timeframes.