Writing is central to your scholarly work and identity. And yet, you struggle to find time and motivation to do it. I argue that it is more effective to focus on the process of writing as a whole and establish an effective writing practice that enables you to pursue your curiosity, create knowledge, and communicate that knowledge through publications.
In this rather long post, I set out the fundamental principles that guide my work with academic writers. There are lots of links to other posts, both here in the Library and beyond, and I plan to update this post and the links regularly. I have also created internal links that enable you to jump between sections. Your browser’s back button should take you back to your previous location. Onwards!
Table of contents:
Writing as process and product
Academic writing is never finished
What is a writing practice?
What does that look like in practice?
The qualities of an effective writing practice
Support for establishing and maintaining an effective writing practice
Writing as process and product
Writing is a core activity for academics and scholars. The products of your writing are highly valued by other scholars, by others who benefit from your scholarly work, and by your employer (if you have an academic job). Perhaps more importantly, writing is a fundamental part of what it means to be you. You are a writer not only because you can point to things you have written (and published) but also because writing is how you process ideas and make them intelligible to yourself and others.
The term “writing” refers to both the process of translating the ideas in your head into words on a page, and to the products of that process. Writing-as-product is the public/published face of your writing. But, like an iceberg, one should not mistake the visible part for the whole.
Writing-as-process isn’t merely an act of transcription designed to produce writing-as-product. Writing is a cognitive process in which you develop and articulate your ideas. You may or may not think in words; writing converts thoughts into words. The thoughts in your head are not arranged in a linear narrative; writing organizes your thoughts into narrative. Writing is a complex activity at the core of your scholarly work.
Academic writing is never finished.
As Daniel McCormack points out in Some Lesser Known Lessons from Academia you are working on long term projects. Even if you only count from the point where you decided to write this particular article (which leaves off all the research, analysis, and writing you did to get to that decision point), it takes years to get from inception to publication. And new projects grow out of older projects in a way that makes identifying the beginning rather difficult.
The never-really-finished nature of scholarly writing becomes obvious when deciding whether a particular product is ready to submit. This decision involves determining whether the questions raised in the writing of it need to be incorporated into this writing product or form the basis of another writing product. The distinctions that underpin accusations of “recycling” your work or self-plagiarism, or that enable you to judge appropriate levels of self-citation are also indicative of the difficulty of distinguishing the borders of your writing. The terms “programme of research”, often used by funding agencies, and “research trajectory”, often used in promotion policies, capture this ongoing nature of the work. (My short guide, The Scholarly Writing Process, says more about this with questions and prompts to help you work with the never-finished character of scholarly writing.)
The never-really-finished nature of scholarly writing can affect both your motivation to engage in the process and your ability to send writing products out into the world. (The first 3 numbered points Daniel McCormack makes lay this out really well.) I suppose you could try to develop strategies that make your writing feel like a series of shorter term projects with milestones to help you feel like you are succeeding at regular points. But it would be much better to accept that academic writing involves working on long projects, figure out how to get better at managing your time and projects over long periods, and find ways to motivate yourself that are not dependent on external validation of your success.
What is a Writing Practice?
This is why I like to think of writing as a practice:
practice (noun): The habitual doing or carrying out of something; usual or customary action or performance (Oxford English Dictionary)
A writing practice may be somewhat analogous to a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. Or perhaps something like running, dance, or playing a musical instrument is a better analogy. You practice regularly. You could run or dance or play purely for the physical and mental benefits it gives you. But you might also prepare for specific events like a marathon or a performance.
You shouldn’t need to force yourself to write. Although there will always be aspects of the process that require more discipline, in general you want to write. Some days it will be harder to do than others. Establishing a new practice will be difficult, and it may take a while before you really acknowledge the benefits and enjoyment it brings. Trying new things within your practice may be difficult. But overall, it is something you want to do and benefit from. This applies to running, dance, music, and your writing.
Think of the articles, books, and so on as the performance or the race. You need to adapt your regular practice to ensure that you are doing all the things necessary to do well in that performance. There may be things you only do if you preparing for a performance/race/publication. These need to be incorporated into your writing practice if you want it to result in publications. And some of the things required for the publication/performance/race may be things that are tedious or unpleasant.
The fact that no one pays you to run/dance/play music and they do pay you to write (or you would like someone to) does not change this. The publications are not the only thing they are paying for. They are paying for the creation of knowledge, which is the whole iceberg even if they only measure the visible part (the publications, the teaching, etc).
What might your practice look like?
It can seem selfish to spend time on something for which you will not have an immediate output when there are so many things needing your attention, especially during a busy teaching term. If you are not currently employed in an academic position that values both teaching and research, it can also be hard to devote time to an activity that is not part of your job even if it is crucial to your identity or your career aspirations.
If writing is a priority for you, then you must allocate time in which to do it. The amount of time available will depend on your other activities and the relative importance of writing. You cannot wait for time to magically appear. There are 3 types of time available for writing. You may have to experiment to find a combination of short regular sessions, perhaps of different lengths, with longer intense sessions to ensure that your practice maintains momentum even if you rarely have longer periods of time to devote to it. If you are using the time that appears erratically in your days, you need to make sure you are really using it, even if it is small.
Your writing practice may involve writing on different devices, from your phone or a small paper notebook to a laptop or desktop computer. It may involve dictating rather than writing per se. And it will involve all the tasks that move your writing projects (and your broader programme of work) forward, even when they don’t look like writing. You will need to experiment with different things to see how they work and tweak things. It will never be perfect, and it will need to adapt to changes in your circumstances anyway.
What other people do may provide ideas for what you can try, but your practice will be uniquely yours. To evaluate your practice, look not to the practicalities but to the qualities.
The qualities of an effective writing practice
The practicalities will look different for everyone but an effective writing practice will have all of these qualities:
- Provides a solid foundation for your intellectual/scholarly work
- Keeps your momentum going
- Adapts to changes in your context
- Builds your trust in your own judgement and your confidence
- Allows you the freedom to pursue your curiosity
- Enables you to submit things for publication
- Allows you to expand your range of outputs
I’m going to say a bit more about each of these elements, linking to other posts that go into more detail or address related issues. Skip to Support section.
Your writing practice is a habit. It may take you some time and effort to get the habit established properly but, once established, it will be a normal part of your work-work balance. Your writing will feed your teaching, your publications, your collaborative relationships, your supervision of graduate students. You don’t need a reason to write. Ideas for projects, publications, and so on will emerge out of this regular writing practice. back to list
Keeps your momentum going
Because writing isn’t the only work you do, your practice will include strategies for overcoming inertia, getting into flow, and keeping momentum going. It will include ways of keeping in touch with your writing projects even when you don’t have much time to devote to them. It will also include ways of focusing intensely and doing deeper work in a healthy, sustainable way. You will be able to move between projects. And you will be able to take proper vacations, or stop writing when the pressure of your other work is too intense, without fear that you will not come back to it. back to list
Adapts to changes in your context
Your writing practice will probably look different during a busy teaching term than it does during the summer or when you are on sabbatical. As you grow and develop as a scholar and writer, your practice will also grow and develop. You will be able to adapt it to collaborative writing if necessary or desirable, and will adapt to different collaborators. When it is difficult or impossible to write the way you normally do for some reason, you will not stop writing but, rather, figure out how to write in this context. As you establish your habit of writing more solidly, you will use that as a foundation to extend your practice. back to list
Builds your trust in your own judgement and your confidence
Once established, your writing practice will provide evidence that you can trust the creative process and your own judgement. You will be less dependent on external validation and become more confident that you can do this job, that you have a contribution to make, and that you will write things that others will read and engage with. You will trust that your process will lead to the kinds of outputs that are valued in the processes that validate your work. (Or, alternatively, you will be more critical of those processes and the narrow range of work that they value because you are confident that you are doing good work.) back to list
Allows you the freedom to pursue your curiosity
Your writing practice will enable you to produce specific products (articles, books, conference papers, etc) but will also include writing for which you have no clear purpose (at the moment). You will write to think, perhaps sparked by something you’ve read or something someone said (in a formal or informal context). That writing may generate ideas for specific products but you will write anyway, even if you don’t know where it’s going. You will be okay with letting go of some of the possibilities even if you’ve spent considerable time working on them. back to list
Enables you to submit things for publication
Your writing practice will enable you to identify potential publications and engage in all of the tasks required to bring a clearly defined element of your ongoing programme to successful publication. Some of those tasks are less enjoyable or even tedious but they must count as “writing”. Your practice will have a suitable place for those tasks and will make it easier to motivate yourself to do them. back to list
Allows you to expand your range of outputs
Because publishing is about communication, you may need to write different kinds of things to meet your communicative goals. As your confidence grows and your practice becomes more established, your writing practice will be flexible enough to allow different kinds of outputs. You may be frustrated as you learn the conventions of a new genre but your practice will support you as you learn and adapt to the needs of these products. back to list
Support for establishing and maintaining a writing practice
Establishing and maintaining and effective practice is easier if you have support: at work (if you have an academic position), at home, and from support networks you create.
If you are employed as an academic in an academic institution, your colleagues should be supportive. Unfortunately this is not always the case. There is a culture of overwork and joking about there being no time for research and writing. Sometimes those who struggle to write will make snide comments to those who do write regularly, suggesting they are selfish, don’t care for students, or even that they don’t really spend that time writing. Do not contribute to this negative culture.
Make your writing practice visible to the extent possible. Put a sign on your door. Mark that time in your calendar. Be confident when you need to say that you are not available at a particular time because you are writing. Even small steps in this direction can subtly change the culture of your department and give others the confidence to do the same. Support colleagues when they reveal that they are nervous about doing the same. Defend them if they are attacked (even, or especially, “jokingly”).
Create a support network locally and more widely. Get together with colleagues to write in community. Get together with colleagues to talk about what you are writing and how your writing is going. This group can be carefully selected and closed if that feels safer. It can be virtual, checking in via text message or Twitter when you start and finish a writing session. You could set up a Slack channel with your group. If you use Twitter, the hashtags #amwriting and #madwriting can be used to find virtual companions. You can also post asking for companions on #acwri. Some people call this type of session a “writing sprint”. You can also follow @SUWTues @SUWTUK or @SUWTNA on Twitter for virtual Shut Up and Write sessions on Tuesdays.
You could also join the Academic Writing Studio. It includes a class called Establishing a Writing Practice, a structured way of reflecting on your writing practice and adjusting it to ensure you have all the qualities you need. A Meeting With Your Writing provides a regular synchronous writing session, in virtual community, guaranteeing you 90-minutes of writing time. The studio also includes regular group coaching, planning classes, and a members-only forum. Learn more about (and join) the Academic Writing Studio.
If you aren’t writing at all, you might start with the 15-minute/day Writing Challenge. You can do it on your own, or with friends.
My short guide The Scholarly Writing Process is a great companion as you write, reminding you of the nature of the particular stage you are in and providing prompts and questions to help keep you writing from the initial incoherent thoughts that spark your curiosity right through to submitting your full good draft for peer review. Finding Time for Your Scholarly Writing will help you figure out what kinds of time you have available and how to make good use of different kinds of writing time.
Enjoy your writing!
Write every day? Covers some of the things you need to think about to decide whether this is right for you.
Why is academic writing so hard by Pat Thomson gives a different perspective on all the pieces that need to go together for successful academic writing.
Start writing & Keep writing: Notes, drafts, proofs, papers by Les Back (on Soundcloud) approaches this from the perspective of how well known academic writers have talked about writing.
The morality of writing “well” by Katherine Firth talks about what it’s worth getting worried about, what it’s not worth getting worried about, and when you might want to seek help.
Do you have a writing practice? by Katherine Firth has some good questions and further links.
An earlier version of this post was published on March 7, 2016. It has been substantially edited. Updated August 24, 2017. Re-edited July 2023.