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Getting writing done

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Most writers, both creative and academic, put aside time to write. ‘Tomorrow’s my writing day’ or ‘I’ve set aside all the afternoons next week to get on with my writing’ are familiar thoughts. We make plans we believe are realistic. We like to believe that our writing day will be uninterrupted and that ‘tomorrow’ and ‘all the afternoons next week’ will, miraculously, be productive.

It’s disheartening when carefully protected writing time is squandered. Also, when we finally admit that setting aside chunks of time for writing is, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, ‘the triumph of hope over experience’, we’re alarmed. If this is what happens when we set time aside, how will we write when we have no reserved time at all? In short, we panic. How on earth will we get our writing done?

The reality check

First, we must accept reality. Writing time is precious but very often disrupted or wasted. Moreover, even if ‘tomorrow’ is uninterrupted and those afternoons stretch out, we’re perfectly capable of sabotaging writing time ourselves. When I set aside writing days, I somehow find it essential to scrub the kitchen floor, reorganise my bookcase and do a little internet shopping. During lockdown, I must have clicked on the BBC news at least every other minute.

Although big chunks of writing time are, of course, necessary for the successful completion of a Masters or PhD, we need to recognise the pitfalls of ‘protected’ writing time and face our own bad habits. Only then can we move on to practical ways of making sure we approach the big chunks of time forewarned and forearmed, and with a much better chance of solid productivity.

The ten-minute burst

I started my university career with three children aged five and under. And I soon came to a counter-intuitive conclusion: the shorter the writing time your day allows, quite often the more you get done. This intuition underpins the inclusion of the ‘Ten Minute Burst’ (TMB) in my workshop for social science, arts and humanities doctoral students, ‘Making the Most of Your Writing Time’. TMBs are exactly what they sound like – ten minutes of writing – but with two key provisos.

  1. To be successful, a TMB must have a specific purpose, for example, first thoughts about an idea; following an argument through two paragraphs; line editing one paragraph; replacing weak verbs with stronger ones over two pages.
  2. Writing is more than just getting words on the screen. A TMB might include thinking about a particular aspect, deciding on a new angle, or ten minutes of further reading.

In other words, TMBs are ten minutes of highly focussed activity, decided in advance. Afterwards, you can say loudly and clearly ‘this is what I did’, and when you start another TMB, you can say ‘this is what I’m going to do now’.

Why ten minutes?

You might argue that ten minutes is far too short a time to achieve anything substantial; in ten minutes you’d never even get started. But think about what used to happen in exams. If your time management had gone haywire, you might write a summary of an essay or a mathematical proof in ten minutes! TMBs harness similar adrenaline, and provided you determine in advance what the TMB is for, once the clock starts ticking, your writing brain kicks into action.

Crucially, by their short, sharp nature TMBs aren’t dependent on ‘tomorrow’ or next week’s afternoons. They don’t need specially dedicated chunks of time. TMBs can be slotted into ordinary daily life. And they mount up. Of course you couldn’t write your whole dissertation or PhD using TMBs alone. But not only will TMBs help move your writing forward, their precise nature will also pave the way for the discipline and focus needed to make the most of your protected writing time.

Expanding your repertoire

TMBs have other uses, too. Say you are writing a dry methods chapter in your thesis or grinding through a grant proposal. If you feel that your writing voice sounds lifeless and your word choices stale, you could allocate a TMB to poetry. It could be a familiar and cherished poem or something random and new; it doesn’t matter. Read the piece aloud. Roll the words around your mouth. Academic writers need word refreshment just as much as creative writers, and ten minutes can be transformative.

Managing your TMBs

In my workshop, I’m often asked, ‘If my writing activity’s going well, should I stop once the ten minutes are over?’ If your day is crammed with other duties, yes. If you have more time, you can sail on or move to another task and start the clock again.

What if your TMB is going badly? Then it’s even more important to stop, no matter how tempted you are to give the problem one more push. Some writing knots need more than one TMB to untangle. If you have time, choose a different TMB and return to the knotty problem later. That’s the beauty of the TMB: the problem is contained, and time spent on it will always feel fresh.

TMBs aren’t miracle cures for writing challenges, but they are powerful, uncomplicated tools in the writer’s armoury. Determine your task, set your timer and off you go.

21 January 2021

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