Self-congratulation time: I’m getting some writing done! Writing for my dissertation, that is. I’m writing up the second of three or four papers that will come together to make my thesis. This one so far has an introduction, a methods section, a results section, and a couple of paragraphs (plus a bunch of notes) of discussion. (Unlike some people, I don’t write the introduction last. I like to get the first draft of the intro down once I have an outline of how the “story” of the paper is going to go.)
It’s hard mental work, but I’ve been coping with it better than usual. I’ve been working really really really hard to turn off the part of my brain that says, “This writing sucks. This project sucks. This paper is terrible.” That’s the biggest thing that holds me back, I think: the writing anxiety.
So what’s helping?
• Approaching the first draft as a “vomit draft.” (I stole that term from author Catherine Ryan Howard.) The idea is that you dump all your thoughts onto the page, and in the true spirit of a terrible first draft, don’t do any editing as you go. Turn off the little voice in your head that says what you’re writing is bad. Just get words on the page, is my mantra here. You can’t fix what isn’t there. No one’s going to see this draft but me.
• Pomodoro-style time management. I’m using the free online Tomato Timer to force myself to work for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a short break. Sometimes I’m actively writing during those 25 minutes, sometimes I’m reading or looking up numbers or references, but it’s always related to writing. Technically you get a 5-minute break at the end of each, but I sometimes cheat and rest slightly longer depending on how worn out I’m feeling.
• Treating paper-writing as a marathon, not a sprint. Academia teaches—and even valorizes—putting tasks off to the last minute. I often jokingly point out that the freshman-comp essays on which I scored the highest were the ones that I wrote the night before. My research advisor, a widely respected tenured professor, almost always writes stuff a few hours before the deadline. (I know this based on when he sends me proposal drafts.) So getting out of that habit is hard. But it takes away anxiety to say, I’ll do a chunk today, and then another chunk tomorrow.
• Downplaying the importance of the paper in my mind. I’ve written countless “research papers” for classes and internships over the years, so why do I find writing up my own research to be so hard? It’s because academic culture has deified first-author research papers as The Ultimate Achievement On Which You Will Be Judged, and that freaks me out! But freaking out means writing doesn’t get done, so I’ve started telling myself that this is just another class paper. Just another school assignment. You can do this.
• Managing my depression and anxiety. Of course. All of the above techniques don’t work when your brain decides that it’s simply too overwhelmed to do anything today. When you hide in the office and stare at your screen and think, I should write something, anything, but you can’t muster the willpower to lift your fingers. I’ve been having some swings lately but the last week or so has been OK, and I’m hoping to keep it that way for a while. I don’t work in the evenings. I take those Pomodoro breaks. I celebrate each small achievement. (My husband gets a lot of “I wrote a paragraph!” messages throughout the day.)
In many ways, much of this is similar to the “write for 15 minutes a day” approach I tried last year. That proved to have some flaws, though: it didn’t push me to do any of the other hard work of writing (e.g., reading references, making plots, making tables) and thus I found myself not having anything to say in my 15 minutes. My current approach is more holistic, I think.
I’ll keep you updated on how this goes. The current goal is still to have a readable (i.e., non-vomit) draft of this paper in to my advisor my the end of the month, and I feel on track for that.
What works for you when it comes to sustainable writing?