November is here, and with it comes #AcWriMo, the month-long Academic Writing Challenge. (PhD2Published started this party a few years ago; if you’re unfamiliar with it, check it out here). I signed on this year, hoping to jump-start a coupled of stalled projects that need to get done so I can move into my new book manuscript. November will be crazy–POD Conference next week, travel over Thanksgiving–but the #AcWriMo challenge will hopefully keep me writing daily, even if it’s just a little bit. I’ve blogged about keeping a writing schedule before, but it bears repeating: We all know that the best way to write productively is to schedule our writing time and fiercely guard it from interlopers, and to do it daily. To get Ass In Chair and WRITE. It’s that simple, as I’ve learned by trial and error (mostly error) writing my dissertation, several articles and chapters, and my first book project (staggering to a close as we speak). But I didn’t always know this good advice on consistent and productive writing. In fact, I was the classic prototype of a binge-and-purge writer throughout grad school and into the early years of my career. If you could do it wrong, I did it wrong without fail. If there was a way to make it more difficult, by god I would find it. Yet, I thought I had it figured out. I wrote good stuff, so the process that got me there had to be the optimal one, right? *Cringe* Well, this got me thinking–what if I had written an advice-to-writers piece during that stage of my writing life? The very thought made me chuckle, and since I’m all about cheap laughs, I thought I’d write it out, just to see the train wreck that would ensue.
So here you go. In honor of #AcWriMo, I give you: My Best Worst Academic Writing Advice.
–An immaculately clean and relentlessly organized workspace is of the utmost importance. The state of your writing mirrors the state of your organization, so clear prose depends upon a cleared desk. Now get to it! Nothing prepares the brain for writing quite like the ritual of cleaning the writing space. Gather all the loose papers and file them appropriately; in fact, now would be a great time to convert to that new filing system you’ve been considering! Get out the label maker and colored labels, and make that file drawer look pretty. OOOOH PASTELS. SOOTHING. If you need more folders, a quick trip to the office supply store won’t take any time at all. Clean and organize all the ephemera cluttering your desk. Sort those paper clips by size. Make a chain of binder clips, alternating small, medium, and large. Can’t be too careful about keeping those things properly together. Pencils and pens can be arranged by color and placed in the proper space, point-down. Always point-down. Why? Because, that’s why. Don’t question. NO WIRE HANGERS.
Now, time to dust. Get that cool compressed-air can thingy and clean your keyboard, desktop, shelves, windowsills, cats (those suckers shed, you know), and whatever else is showing even the slightest presence of dust motes.
–All that dust probably sunk into the carpet. What if you have dust allergies? It’s better to be safe than sorry–you’d better vacuum those floors. After all, they probably need it. Plus, vacuuming in certain directions can leave neat zen-like patterns on the carpet, which brings a purposeful calm and focus. OMMM.
–At this point, you’re probably hungry. Can’t write if you’re hungry–what if your blood sugar drops and you get irrationally cranky while writing the crucial part of your lit review? “While Holt’s argument is an interesting counterpoint to that of Foner and Stampp, it ultimately suffers from BEING WRONG WRONG WRONG SO VASTLY WRONG AND OMFG WHY WOULD ANYONE POSSIBLY EMBRACE IT MUCH LESS REQUIRE THEIR STUDENTS TO WRITE ABOUT IT IN THEIR GODDAMN PH.D. COMPS.”
See? That’d be problematic. Better go make some pasta. Or falafel. Try out that new, complicated vegan recipe you saw online. A healthy body equals a healthy mind.
–How’s that word count looking? A little anemic? Hmmm. That’s not good. Maybe a thorough reconsideration of productivity and workflow is in order–there are plenty of productivity/life hacking/workflow blogs to consult. You should read them all. RESEARCH. Because somewhere out there is the Holy Grail of productivity, a magical and sacred system that-once implemented-will make you a productivity ninja and sovereign liege of the Realm of Workflow. Scintillating prose will dance through your fingertips and your project will write itself once you are freed from the shackles of barbaric, un-lifehacked poor productivity habits. Go ahead: chase that unicorn. Think of the payoff that awaits!
–But wait–perhaps all of this focus on productivity is nothing more than clutter, an empty ritual sacrifice to the Cult of Busyness. Maybe it’s better to empty the mind, to remove all the noise, to mentally reset. Find an activity that will draw your entire focus for a while, allowing you to clear your headspace. How about playing Angry Birds? Yes, that will work. In order to maximize your clarity of mind, allow yourself to focus completely on this activity. Get three stars on every level, in every episode–that ought to do it.
–Still stuck? Let’s get back to basics: nothing is more effective than the tried-and- true method of staring blankly into space and letting your stream of consciousness overrun its banks. Surely, in this unrestricted flow of ideas, brilliant insights will bob to the surface and help you start that introduction. Just let your thoughts go, as you stare into the distance.
That’s an impressive oak tree across the street…I wonder why I’ve not noticed it before…Maybe I need to stop being so focused solely on work and start appreciating nature…Maybe I could do an article on environmental history instead…Why am I doing this project anyway…maybe I have writer’s block because this project is so wrong for me… or I’m wrong for it…That must be it… I should do something else because this project sucks…I suck…am I even qualified to be doing this? Someone’s gonna call me on my BS, right?… Oh, god, am I having an existential crisis? I GAZE INTO THE VOID AND IT GAZES BACK AT ME.
See? All sorts of ideas!
–Hey, look! The deadline for this draft is in two days! Not the original deadline, but the extended deadline you finagled from your increasingly exasperated editor. AWESOME! Let’s get to it! Brew up the coffee–the strong stuff you got from your friend who visited Guatemala–and consider putting it in an IV on slow drip. Start banging on the keyboard in hopes that coherent sentences emerge. Chug coffee. No food–it gets in the way of the caffeine doing its magic! Write more. More coffee. Bathroom break? Not until after this paragraph! OK, now you can go. Quickly! Get back in the chair and check that word count. Progress! Drink more coffee. Write more. Format those footnotes. Start that conclusion. More coffee. Too much coffee? I CAN HEAR COLORS. Spell-check. Word count. Need to edit? NO REGRETS-JUST SUBMIT.
So….Follow this advice. Thirteen hours, ten thousand words, manuscript done. Boom.
Now, freed from the stress of an overdue manuscript, you can start on the next project with a clear head, basking in the glorious knowledge that you’ll have plenty of time to meet the next deadline.
But first, maybe you should clean that workspace a little…