A glimpse into my academic writing habits

The other day I was talking to a student who was interested in my approach to academic writing. Where do I write? When do I write? How often do I write? Etc. Later, this student expressed that our conversation was helpful. Here is the gist of my response. I hope you find at least one thing helpful.

I am not a naturally gifted writer, so producing writing that is considered a “scientific contribution” requires my sustained and focused mental effort. So the first thing I do is ensure there is time in my schedule to write. The second thing I do is ensure that I fill that time with cognitively-demanding and mentally-focused writing. Spend enough time doing mentally-focused writing: It’s really that easy. 

Perhaps it is because I come from a family of dairy farmers, or perhaps it is from my time in the military, but I am an early riser. I typically wake around 5 AM (except for holidays, vacations, etc.). From 5’ish until 6’ish I engage in what I call “deep writing” (inspired by the concept of “deep work”: http://calnewport.com/books/deep-work/). My morning writing time takes the same amount of time as drinking one cup of coffee.

Deep writing is not superficial writing. During this time I don’t just make bullet points or do mundane tasks like checking references or formatting a table. I focus intensely on the content of what I am writing. Is my writing clear? Is my writing accurate? Is my writing precise? During this time I am not checking my email or thinking of what is on my schedule for the day. It sometimes feels like a mental fight. The second I sharpen my focus, my mind seems to want me to check my email. Sometimes I am literally staring at the screen, but not doing any deep thinking. If I catch myself being unfocused, I refocus on the task of writing. There is a level of focus that my mind seems to be comfortable at. I try to push myself just past this point of comfort so that I am effortfully immersed in my writing. This is both hard work and extremely satisfying. I imagine this is the same satisfaction that artists get out of engaging in their work.

Given that I only do this for about an hour, and given the level of focus that I try to invest, there are some mornings where I only work on a single paragraph. That’s OK, my only goal is that I make at least one substantive change to what I am working on every morning. This goal of one substantive change is sustainable and attainable. It is a small goal, yet it ensures that I am making steady progress on whatever I am writing. No matter what else happens the rest of the day, I know that my current writing project is moving forward. I also find that mornings work best for me to engage in deep writing. My mind tires during the day and I find it harder to really intensify my writing focus as the day drags on.

There are mornings where I wander onto Twitter or I check the news and I don’t make my daily substantive change. These days bother me.

After my deep writing time, I get ready for the rest of my day.

When I get to my office I usually check my email right away. This is probably not an ideal habit, but I am working on improving it. I respond to quick emails and then check my calendar. I have time blocked off for my meetings, classes, conference calls, etc. I also have time blocked off time to engage in more deep writing. Some semesters I can only block off a one-hour writing chunk here and a three-hour writing chunk there, but I always put writing time onto my schedule. Always! It is a habit I developed in graduate school and it has served me well ever since. I like different environments to do my writing. I typically write in my office. I close out of my email. I don’t play any music. I only use the internet for looking up word definitions, finding articles, etc. Sometimes I write at the library or at Starbucks to minimize unscheduled interruptions. No matter where I am, I try to push myself to focus hard and produce the best writing that I am capable of during this time.

I also block off two hours each week for “professional development” where I read a chapter out of a stats text book or I try to learn a new skill. Currently I am using my professional development time to learn RMarkdown/knitr. During this time I don’t do anything else but focus on the new skill I am trying to develop. I also block off an hour each day for “busy work” where I do things like scan documents, fill out travel vouchers, clean off my desk, etc. During my “busy work” time I reward myself by playing music (I am currently listening to Bob Dylan).

Blocking off time for these non-writing activities helps me protect my writing time and allows me to mentally focus during my writing time. However, there are days when unexpected tasks arise, when I need more time than I allotted to complete a task, etc. Some days I miss my writing time. These days bother me.

I try to end my work day in the late afternoon. Most days I have invested enough focus on different activities that I am mentally spent. Some evenings I write. Writing in the evenings typically consists of superficial tasks like light editing because I usually don’t have enough mental energy to engage in deep writing. Sometimes in the evenings I am thinking about the overall structure of a manuscript or if there is an apt metaphor that I could incorporate into my writing. But I try to protect my evenings for non-work to the same extent I protect my writing time during the days. I also try to do non-academic reading in the evenings. I find the different style and pace of non-academic writing to be helpful in training my ear to hear well-written prose.

When I describe my writing schedule, people often think that I have the luxury of being able to block off regular writing time as if I am not otherwise busy. However, I feel like it requires a lot of effort to set aside writing time and then selfishly protect it. Without this effort of imposing control over my time, my schedule would be overrun and hectic.

That’s it. No secrets. No magic solution. No neat productivity tricks. Just planning and focus. In the end, am I the best writer? No. Am I the best writer that I can be? I am trying. 

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