What I learnt from Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo

November is Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo when academics set outrageously optimistic (and often public) writing goals. The idea is to write like there is no December.

My goal was to write for one hour every work day on first author peer review papers. I had three papers I wanted to work on and I identified what I needed to do for each:

  1. For my mass media anti-smoking campaigns paper I needed to tweak the intro, polish the results, trim the methods, write the discussion and submit it.
  2. For my PDPT chlamydia paper I needed to write the discussion and circulate to co-authors.
  3. For my student centered assessment paper I needed to write a spew draft.

acwrimoI wrote this plan on my office door, and added a note inviting people to ask me about my progress. I shut my door when I was working so everyone knew they would be interrupting my writing hour.

This is what happened:

I produced a spew draft of paper 3. I did a lot of thinking and writing for paper 1 but it is not ready to submit. I read paper 2 and marveled at how close to submission it was then failed to finish it.

I remembered how much I love writing. I was enjoying myself and keen to use my writing and thinking muscles where ever I could. I wrote several blog posts and the draft of my promotion application (tbh this took a lot of my writing time). I wrote lots of tweets and sketched out plans for new papers. I finished a report. Ideas flowed and my one hour commitment meant I had the space to pursue them. It was bliss.

Here’s the ‘but’

When I’m writing I have a highly developed ability to pretend nothing else in the world needs doing. Once I’m in the flow, all my deadlines and obligations melt away. I was often writing for more then my set hour, occasionally all day, and often quite intensively for several days. This was bad; while I was highly productive with my writing I got way behind on other important things (marking anyone?). Two weeks in and I was buzzing but exhausted. I was getting home in the evening and feeling like a zombie (and shamefully directing my toddler to activities that required little input from me). By week four I’d fallen over: my other work demands caught up and I was unable to muster the energy to do my hour of writing. I felt great and now I feel flat.

So at the end of November let me say this: AcWriMo is a terrible idea. AcWriMo is about binging. Binging is writers’ crack.

The writing books and experts tell you that binging is bad. Binging can be a delaying tactic – I can’t write until I have a free day/week, and what academic has that kind of free time? It is exhausting, then every time you think about writing you remember how exhausted you felt the last time so now you feel you don’t have the energy to write. And of course binging means you’re not doing the other things you do need to do. I love this quote from Paul Silva (How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing; 2007)

parker yawning“Binge writers foolishly search for big chunks of time, and they “find” this time during the evenings and weekends.  Binge writing thus consumes time that should be spent on normal living. Is academic writing more important than spending time with your family and friends, petting the dog, and drinking coffee? A dog unpetted is a sad dog; a cup of coffee forsaken is caffeine lost forever. Protect your real-world time just as you protect your scheduled writing time.”

I teach writing in my research methods course so I knew all of this. I try to provide my students with tools and strategies to build a sustainable writing practice. This is where my one hour goal rather a word count goal had come from. I often did my hour before I opened email. Sometimes I stopped in a cafe on my way into work to do it. If I couldn’t start my day with it then I’d work out when I had to leave the office and make sure I stopped what ever else I was doing an hour before this. I walked away from corridor catch ups and excused myself from over running meetings: “Sorry, I have to go do my hour”. An hour a day meant that writing was front of mind and I had scheduled the time to do it (i.e. no writer’s guilt).

I won’t do AcWriMo again. But I have discovered what I need to be a productive writer and I was reminded about how much joy I get from writing when I give myself the space to do it. My original goal to write one hour a day and to identify specific pieces of work was a good one. The failure was not having the discipline to restrain myself. Stopping myself writing for more than an hour a day feels counter-intuitive, but I clearly have a writing problem!

(The always thoughtful Raul Pacheco-Vega has written several blog posts on his changing relationship with AcWriMo that resonate for me) [edited to correct Raul’s name]

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