‘Write regularly’ belongs in company with other notorious writing advice, such as ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘kill your darlings’. Academics are brilliant at unpicking this kind of advice, and showing the complex ways in which writing regularly – or showing not telling, or killing your darlings – is neither possible nor desirable in the real world, where specific pressures and individual styles cut across one another.
And that’s good.
That’s one thing academics do well: they question widely-held beliefs. Or, as historians, show how those beliefs emerged, or which historical processes this kind of conception of the writer sustains.
Yet here this suggestion is. Why? Because these techniques work.
Now it might sound obvious to say this, but they cannot work if you don’t do them. Obvious, perhaps, but important, since the most common response I have encountered among academics to the advice ‘write regularly’ is ‘it doesn’t work for me’. Without wanting to deny that academics do work differently, I think any writer should reflect very carefully before rejecting a piece of advice that has worked so well for so many others.
As an academic, I have my excuses ready. But let’s look more closely at them.
‘I haven’t done enough research’
This may be true. It is frustrating as an academic to start a piece of writing and hit a wall of ignorance.
But frustration is part of the writing process. Have you ever done so much work on a topic that when you came to write you felt there was no additional research you needed to do?
I highly recommend trying writing before you feel ready, because writing is thinking. Two things could happen. You could surprise yourself, and realize that you were ready to write this piece after all, in which case you can send me a cheque by post (address on enquiry).
Or you could realize all of the research you still need to do. This, I find, lights a fire under my research, because it is not an abstract list of things I hope to do with a project, but a sense of what I need to do to, right now, to get it moving along.
‘I haven’t done enough research’ is a defense mechanism, that we use to protect our fragile egos from the potential disappointments of bad writing.
‘It will be bad writing’
Nobody is making you publish the work you write regularly. You ultimately have the first line of editorial control. You choose when something is ready for the world.
I worry that writing regularly will make me prolifically mediocre. But I don’t think it has to. Doing lots of writing, and then lots of editing means I can select from among what I have written. Doing bad writing is a good way to refine what I think good writing is.
‘I’m not in the right frame of mind’
Me neither, but here I am all the same.
I sometimes wonder if academics have an inferiority complex about ‘real writers’, and if, by aspiring (very secretly of course) to being great thinkers and influential writers, we weigh ourselves down with the most unhelpful myths of the tortured genius.
Try this experiment: write until you are in the right frame of mind.
‘I like to write in big chunks’
I like to get together big piles of notes and go through them with a marker pen. I like to spread those marked-up notes across a room and plan, and then use the plan to write solidly for about two days, until I have a piece. That is how I like to work.
This advice does not prevent me (or you) from doing that. But how often do you have the long periods of time to do this kind of writing? And how often do you find that when you get them, you default to ‘I’m not in the right frame of mind’?
When you find that instead of two or three whole days, you only have one day to do some writing, because someone is ill, and some work is late, and you have to go to the hospital again, I want you to imagine an alternative reality, where you begin that one day with 2,000 words already in front of you, because you wrote 200 words a day for ten days during your heaviest spell of teaching.
‘I don’t have time.’
There is no escaping it. You can’t write if you don’t have time.
But what is taking up all of your time? Of course every academic works under different pressures, and some have more freedom to manage their own time than others. Many have caring responsibilities, disabilities, or crushing commutes that eat into their ability to simply sit down and write. Many will deal with all three. Many academics work on punishing teaching loads that squeeze the time they can devote to writing down to next to nothing.
So you might continue to be overworked, underpaid, and unable to do any writing at all. You might have no choice.
But could you include a small amount of dedicated time every day to writing?
Two hundred words a day is 1,000 words a week, or five journal articles a year. What seems like a small change at the level of your everyday life could make a big difference in the long run. Perhaps there is a daily ritual or habit that you could get rid of, and replace with writing?
- Set yourself a daily word goal. Experiment with what you find feasible. If it’s fifty words, so be it.
- Create a spread sheet. Write your goal in it. Write the date into it, and start a running tally. There is nothing more rewarding than realizing how much these words add up.
- Do not punish yourself for failing to meet your target. Ask what you need to do differently.
- Set aside specific time to do this writing. Many writers find that it has to be first thing in the morning. I am one of them. I feel better for the whole day knowing that I have done the thing that is most important to my long-term goals.
- Keep a list of writing projects that you can turn to when you want to do your writing for the day. I only include things I write for dissemination (articles, chapters, books, but also talks) rather than notes or teaching materials, for instance, but you should choose what your writing focus is.
- Try writing some things you are ‘not ready’ to write. If you find you really aren’t, use this as an opportunity to set some research targets.