Becca is in her final semester (she hopes!) as a dissertator in the Composition and Rhetoric program at UW-Madison. She is currently serving as TA coordinator in the UW Writing Center, and writing her dissertation conclusion – one 750-word day at a time.
During a workshop I led recently for dissertators entering the proposal stage, a student raised her hand and asked “I feel like I hear a lot about daily writing lately, but can you talk about how it actually works?” Her question stayed with me, because I suspect a lot of academic writers feel this way. Daily writing gets a lot of good press, and for good reason: it works. There’s strong evidence that daily writers are productive writers. Brian Martin uses the metaphor of athletic training to make the case for daily writing: athletes don’t work themselves to the point of collapse once every few weeks – they achieve their best results by training moderately every day. We would never encourage a new TA to binge-grade an entire set of papers in one weekend, or tell them not to do any planning unless they have time to finish three or more lessons at once. That would be a crazy way to approach the work of teaching. But as Martin points out, this is an extremely common attitude towards the work of writing.
Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot outlines excellent strategies for increasing productivity through daily writing goals, and Rebecca Steffy Couch wrote a great post last year about how effective his approach can be for working on a large-scale project. But if you’re seriously stalled out on a project, or if you have no idea how or where to begin writing, it might be hard to see how daily writing could help. Even after reading detailed advice like Silvia’s, you’re still left asking “…but how does it work?” It’s common to feel like you aren’t ready to write, or that you don’t know what to say, or that you simply aren’t capable of writing that much or that often.
I hope this post can help writers at all stages think about how to use daily writing, as well as help tutors think about how they might frame daily writing for students struggling to make progress in their sessions. But most of all, it’s written for anyone who’s seriously struggling with a large-scale writing project – whether it’s a dissertation, a senior thesis, an article, anything. When we struggle to write, there’s more at stake than just our project timeline the timeline of our project. Failing to meet writing goals can lead erode a writer’s confidence – in our abilities as a writer, in the value of our project, in our capabilities as a researcher.
The Emotional Toll of Writing Failure
It’s extremely common for academic writers to hold unrealistic and even irrational expectations about writing large-scale projects (Miller 25). For writers, this tends to be variations on one of two themes: “I can only write when I have a large block of time” and “I can only write when I’m feeling inspired.” These statements are probably all too familiar to anyone who’s undertaken serious academic writing, or who has tutored such writers. They start off as desires or goals, but over time, these desires turn into requirements; anything less that these ideals is not worth doing. This thinking leads directly to binge writing – long sessions of writing driven more by guilt than inspiration; these sessions are too exhausting to become a regular routine, creating a cycle where the writer spends more time stressing than writing. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that this kind of writing is inefficient and unproductive (Kellogg).
It’s also emotionally exhausting. Failing over and over again to live up to the expectations you hold for yourself about what and how you should be writing takes a toll on more than just your project’s timeline. It can erode your confidence – as a writer, as a researcher, and in the value of your project as a whole. Constantly struggling to motivate yourself to write about something you’re supposed to be passionate about can poison even the strongest relationship with writing. And even with an open schedule and a strong will, it’s hard to stay motivated about something you’ve come to dread.
I know firsthand how difficult it can be to break out of a writing rut once it’s gotten deep enough. But daily writing made just such a breakout possible – not because it made me so productive (though it did that as well), but because it helped me reclaim my voice and confidence as a writer.
My Daily Writing Story
My dissertation project was – is, I suppose – a qualitative one, using interviews with undergraduates about their casual online activity to learn about how they experience written language in the digital landscape. I felt sure that if I understood those experiences better, I’d be able to create better writing experiences in the classroom. When I turned in my dissertation proposal, it was with a sense of excitement: now I could start figuring things out.
But before I knew it, months had gone by and I had made almost no progress beyond receiving my IRB approval. And then they just…kept going by. I collected and transcribe the interviews I needed, but I still couldn’t manage to write anything for the dissertation itself. Thinking about the project began to make me feel anxious and resentful; I fell into binge writing and unrealistic expectations, which just made those feelings worse. I knew I could write this dissertation, but I no longer had any confidence that I would. I stopped keeping a teaching journal. I stopped keeping a personal journal. Any writing I did just reminded me of the writing I wasn’t doing. I recently found a document in the depths of Evernote from the end of this period called “Getting Your Writing off the Ground – for REAL!” The note is completely empty.
It must have been around that time that I mentioned to my adviser that I didn’t know how to transition into writing. (A huge understatement, obviously.) He recommended I set myself a 750-word daily goal. Not 750 polished words, he emphasized; not necessarily always continuing where the last day’s writing left off, either. He told me I should concentrate on writing about what I saw in my data, on turning the ideas in my head into words on a screen, any way I could. “Just write,” he told me, “until you understand what you want to say.” His advice made me see the project, and the writing I needed to do for it, in a completely new way – as something that was about my ideas.
From past experience, I knew that my idea flowed most freely when I wrote in what I called “academic discourse optional” style. Basically, this meant I wrote about academic ideas in my own voice. Usually this ended up looking just like my normal academic writing only clearer and more fluid – but anytime I got stuck or frustrated or felt myself getting hung up on re-writing one sentence over and over, I would drop into an extremely informal voice. This allowed me to keep the words flowing, while simultaneously ensuring those sections would get attention during revision. I’d only ever used this strategy for a page or two at a time, and never as a way to advance on the “actual” writing part of a project. But it turned out to be exactly what I needed to make daily writing work for me.
I know broadly what each of my chapters would focus on, but not much beyond that. I’d done the most thinking about Chapter 1, which dealt with digital interfaces and writing, so I started my daily writing there. For four weeks I worked through ideas about how interfaces were working in students’ experiences as they came to me; when I got stuck, I moved to writing about another angle, another student’s responses. By the end of week 2 I had figured out what I wanted to argue; after another two weeks I had a picture of how the chapter would look as a whole. So I moved on to writing about what students had said about their online reading, my focus for Chapter 2. Rinse, repeat.
It was incredible how different writing felt almost immediately. Writing was once again a tool I was using to learn – in this case, to learn what was interesting about all these students’ experiences with digital writing. My goal wasn’t to write a chapter, so I didn’t feel stressed about not knowing what that meant. My goal wasn’t to enter the conversation about digital writing, so I didn’t feel anxious about what I had and hadn’t read. When it became hard to keep writing about one thread, I would wrap up and move on. I trained myself to push past the temptation to re-word the same sentences over and over. I learned to think of assembly as the next step, rather than letting it limit my options in the moment.
After four months I had more than 90 pages of writing that covered all three of my chapter topics. I knew what was interesting about each of those topics, and had a good idea of what I wanted to argue. I’d also built a reading list for each chapter, things I knew would help me turn my ideas into actual chapters. It was time to assemble my chapters – and with all this at hand to do so, I felt more excited than anything. Because here was all this evidence that I could write – and that when I wrote, I had something to say.
Different Kinds of Goals
My experience left me a firm believer that daily writing can benefit anyone, no matter where they’re at in their project or their mindset. But achieving those benefits is not just about discipline. You also have to understand clearly what the goals of that writing are – and what goals are best suited to your needs at the moment. Daily writing can make you more productive and help alleviate those negative emotions about your work. Or rather, it can make you more productive by alleviating them.
Below, I suggest three goals for daily writing that aren’t purely about production – but that may help you find the motivation to stick you’re your routine and thus reach those productivity benefits as well. They’re meant as starting points, to help guide you through your concrete goal – the means of approaching those 500 (or however many) words each day.
Let yourself experience success: Daily writing challenged me to be disciplined – to stop hiding from the problem and actually do something. Before I felt powerless, because I thought only in terms of what I ought to have accomplished by now. Now my job was defined – you write three pages a day. And I knew that if I followed my rules for this writing – my ideas, in my own voice, with minimal re-writing – I could do that job in one morning’s work. This turned writing from a constant failing into a series of small victories. It gave me permission to feel good about writing: “You did it!” instead of “You didn’t do enough.”
Take a second honeymoon with your topic: Daily writing did make my page count grow – a lot. But far more important was the way it changed how I felt. Oh yeah, I remember thinking around Day 7, I chose this topic because it’s fascinating. I caught myself thinking about my research in the shower, or while taking a run. For the first time in years, I felt good about writing my dissertation. Making progress towards concrete goals like chapter drafts and literature reviews is important. But if you’ve been stalled out for more than a month or two, consider making one of your goals for the first few weeks to reconnect with what interests you most about your topic. For me, this meant starting with the interviews I found the most interesting, and building out from there. When you notice you’re interested in something – an idea, a piece of data, whatever – literally type “Why is this so interesting?” and then run with it. Focus your writing on what makes you excited that day. Just a week or two of this can make a major change in your mindset overall; meanwhile, you’ll likely find that this writing naturally develops into something you can turn towards a concrete project goal. And those feelings stretched beyond the dissertation as well. I started blogging about my work regularly, and returned to keeping a personal journal.
Reclaim writing for yourself: In telling me to write only from my own ideas, my adviser challenged me to rely on myself to write, and to respect my own voice enough to set aside time for it every single day. I had fallen into thinking of my dissertation writing as separate from myself, as purely a function of my academic self. Writing like that is like trying to play catch with one eye closed and a hand tied behind your back: it’s a lot more work for a much poorer outcome. Yes, any serious academic project requires attention to the ideas of others and adherence to disciplinary conventions. But it also needs to be yours in some significant way. Daily writing is a good way to put yourself at the center of your project for awhile, so you can see those insights more clearly. How long it’s useful to write that way depends entirely on your nature as a writer and the nature of your project.
But even if your project is quantitative, or you already know what your arguments will be, spending a few weeks writing every day in your own voice can transform how you think about writing overall. You may learn that you think through certain things much better if you write them out – research plans, negotiating long-term timelines, identifying blocks in your analysis or workflow. Or, like me, you might just remember that hey – you’re better at writing when you relax about it. Approaching daily writing as a place to use your voice to explore your research can be extremely productive – both for insights into the research itself, and into your relationship with writing as a whole.
Ronald T. Kellogg. The Psychology of Writing. 1999
Brian Martin. “Want to Publish More? Then Train Like an Athlete.” 2012.
Alison B. Miller. Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All!: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on with Your Life. 2009.
Paul J. Silvia. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. 2007.