Nearly halfway through already!!

AcWriMo is already near the mid-point. The register is filling up nicely as you record all the words and editing you have produced so far. Those theses will soon be ready for submission…

I’ve had a few conversations recently that remind me how some people have really great ways of pushing their writing along step by step (what is sometimes called ‘serial writing’ and the basis for my workshop on ‘500 useful words every day’). It seems to me that the concept  of ‘writing up’ at the end of the project is a very good way to make writing both stressful and boring. Not many people can sit at the computer and write effectively and productively for 8-12 hours a day, day in, day out!

I really like Dunleavy’s concept of storyboarding research to build the writing into the process – check it out: Storyboarding research: How to do smarter, proactive planning-and-realization of projects, reports and articles, from the outset.

What are your strategies for mixing up the writing with other tasks?

What do you do while you are waiting for experiments to conclude or while analysis is running? While you are waiting for supervisors to provide feedback on a draft?

And how do you make efficient use of time on other tasks to help towards the writing? I’m thinking here of how you document your own thinking as you are preparing figures, or record your explanations to supervisors and then transcribe those words into paragraphs.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for writing efficiently. With your permission, I’d like to quote you on this topic for a DoctoralWriting post and credit you with your name and institution. I will, of course, check with you first before publishing anything online – authorship matters!

Please add your comments in the reply box below.


  1. While writing a dissertation for my Master’s degree in Japan I was also co-teaching a few undergrad courses with a professor in the same field as my dissertation. I was co-writing course content, designing visual illustrations out of lecture notes to be drawn onto the blackboard and delivering 3-4 lectures during each 2-month course. What I learned from 2 years doing that was how my writing is most productive when I have a secondary task that feels just as important and cognitively stimulating to me, makes use of one or more of my creative skills (it helps fuel creative thinking), sort of has a deadline and sort of has some connection with the writing project.

    I haven’t done teaching since I moved to Australia, but I have been working as a freelance embroiderer with a local vintage clothing shop called Adelaide Vintage in Rundle Mall Myer. They would give me some clothing items to design and create embroideries on and then sell them. There is no restriction on what I can do with the clothes, no actual deadline but I will only get paid (half the price of each item) when somebody buys them. Same as with knitting and crocheting, if you do enough of embroidery, you don’t really think about it while doing it. I’ve found doing (up to an extent) mindless work really helps me think through my writing, like how to structure my ideas, how they are connected or even how to phrase complex or tricky ideas, etc. It’s similar to how you come up with great ideas or remember things you forgot in the shower or while washing dishes. But in this case it also keeps my creativity and organisation motor running cause at times I do need to navigate my embroidery idea content (shape, size, color combo, type of stitches, thickness of threads, length of needles, etc.) with the specific item I’m working with (shirt, jacket, jeans, top, etc.). Less often but my writing helps with my embroidery decision-making. The only downside of this method is that I do sometimes tend to want to finish a design almost as badly as I’d want to complete a paper for journal submission to move on to the next one (doing thesis by publication). So sometimes even when I’m no longer stuck in a writing phase and could continue writing, I still refuse to listen to the little voice inside my head ‘Ruby put the need down and return to the keyboard, change your weapon’. I need to work on that urge but so far I feel the pros outweigh the cons.

    At times when I’m sick of embroidery yet still need a creative task to motivate my writing routine, I’d turn to painting, either paper or rock (no scissors). I’d make a trip to the beach, pick up a couple smooth surface rocks and bring home to paint. Or I’d work on the next birthday/anniversary/holiday gift projects for my beloved. Essentially it usually has to involve making something for me to feel accomplished enough to confidently take on my writing tasks.

    On lucky days when the stars just simply align and I don’t need thinking aid, I’d still need two or more writing tasks to work on throughout the day. Thanks to the hybrid nature of my thesis, I could work chunks of different papers that use findings from the same source of data analysis, or I could work on my traditional chapters such as Methods or Lit Review, or writing up paragraphs for my survey results to familiarise myself with the data (recommended by Cally), or preparing my conference poster/presentation.

    Even on my lucky days, I find that the weather, the location and time of day could affect my productivity. Personally I work best after sunset (I can’t stand Australian sun, yeah yeah I’m either a weakling or a vampire you never know :P). Cloudy or stormy weather helps a lot too. I rarely work well in my campus office space. Ideally I would choose an open space, with some nature things to look at, some background noise and people doing their own things. If my cat naps on me while I write, I can hit my writing goal without much struggle (they just have powers imo).

    Finally, I find playing sound-focused ASMR videos while writing helps me focus better (try Goodnight Moon, ATMOSPHERE or Moonlight Cottage ASMR if you’re curious). When it comes to writing music, Chopin and Luke Faulkner are my most go-to. Bossa Nova jazz and Ghibli instrumental are brilliant too (tip: play a rain/ocean wave sound video at the same time as your instrumental music for better effect).

    Well, knowing your supervisor has your back without questions asked is obviously a great source of motivation too. They might not send you feedback quickly depending on their schedule and other commitments, but they’ll make sure you know without fail that you’re an important commitment too. It’s easier to be understanding and motivated to find other tasks to do when you’re not wondering if they’ve forgotten you. I’m very secure in that aspect thanks to someone 😉

    1. Hi Ruby – working on other creative tasks certainly helps with the creativity needed for research writing, as you’ve demonstrated many times! Taking your mind into another space that is completely absorbing seems to make space for new ideas and energy.
      Walking is similarly helpful for me. I’m so grateful to be mobile, especially when I see older people who are no longer able to walk comfortably – makes me feel I should make the most of it while I can, and use it to help my thinking 🙂

  2. Hi everyone,

    I’ve been very grateful for these last two weeks and the chance to participate in Shut Up And Write sessions with ANU researchers. I wouldn’t frame my progress in terms of efficiency, but I do think I’m beginning to see how the tortoise approach to writing a PhD thesis may end up being more effective in the long-term than my usual flat-out-til-you-run-out-of-steam approach. I am used to writing in very intense and concentrated sessions during which I tend to lose myself in my writing. These are efficient (I get lots done and once I’m on a roll I don’t have any problems getting the words on the page), but they are not effective. They are generally followed by an intense need to rest and recuperate, which can last for weeks… By this time I have lost any sense of connection to my topic and I spend huge amounts of time trying to “emplace” myself in my research again. I suspect this is more of a problem for students in the humanities, since I have no fieldwork or lab work to keep me on an even keel. It is also compounded by the fact that I’m a distance student; I just have my books and my relatively solitary thinking processes for company.

    The things I discovered over the last two weeks and found really useful:

    I have found the obligation to stop writing each day just as important as the obligation to start. It seems to be a way of training myself in sustainable writing practices! By avoiding burning myself out on any one day, I have (almost) managed to sustain a daily word goal. The dailyness of it has been important too. If I’d had an objective for the week, I would no doubt have gone all out at some stage and then slacked off for a few days. But it is when I slack off the writing that I lose the connection to my research. So avoiding these moments of disconnect has kept my engagement alive and the ideas ticking over in the back of my mind when I’m reading, when I’m washing up, when I’m walking etc. And watching the words pile up each day has really boosted my confidence that, if I can just keep up a regular practice, I can finish the thesis.
    My thesis is in critical legal theory so my fieldwork is intense thinking. The last two weeks have confirmed for me that my best thinking happens at strange times. During my daily walk today I was thinking about Ruby’s comments. I too find low-key physical activities—sewing (uncreative sewing in my case: repairing clothes or sewing my pointe shoes), doing the washing up, walking, writing out by hand—very conducive to thought and to making connections. I wonder whether the repetitive, rhythmic, almost linear nature of the physical activity imposes some kind of linearity on my thoughts, which tend more naturally to spiral off in all directions at once.
    On the other hand, when I need to shut off my brain, I resort to intensely creative/demanding physical activity (dance in my case). And during these times, which I need just as much as the thinking time, I am physically unable to think about anything else except my movement.
    I have found the Shut Up and Write sessions super helpful. I didn’t think these would be a big deal for me since I don’t have a problem sitting down to work. I was wrong. It has been a huge inspiration to feel less alone on my PhD journey and to see others progressing on their PhDs/articles/milestones. I feel an obligation to get the words down with my fellow SUAW-writers. So thank you SUAW!
    I feel amazing when my writing is done first thing in the morning before I wake the kids up. And this sense of fulfilment generally carries me through the rest of the day, making me more productive in my other activities. I could get addicted to this feeling…

    So far AcWriMo has ticked all the boxes for me. 🙂

    One thing I’d love others’ thoughts on is how to apply the same kind of tortoise method to my reading. I am a binge-reader as well. I lose myself in reading all the time. I find endless interesting references in whatever I’m reading. I look these up. I start reading the referenced material, which again has endlessly interesting reference rabbit holes into which I could disappear. The days are never long enough. There is no method to my reading. Does anyone have a similar reading problem and apply AcWriMo-type sustainable-reading methods to channel their energy??

    Happy third week of writing!


    PS: Thank you Cally for spending some of your writing time on words for us each week! I loved Dunleavy’s article on storyboarding and went and listened to Dustin Lance Black’s practice of storyboarding when he’s working on a movie screenplay—fascinating! It seems so organised and detailed compared to my PhD outline work…

    1. Lots to think about here, Katherine! It’s very interesting that we often expect intensity when doing this high-level intellectual work, but the slow and steady approach is what makes it sustainable in the longer term. Perhaps there is something here about the way that semester-based coursework at uni (school too, for that matter) requires different skills and capacities from the longer, more spaced out rhythms of bigger research projects.
      Reading, too, can be all-absorbing, and those rabbit holes will be very familiar to most researchers! I guess part of it is thinking about why we are doing any of this: if it is to enjoy the learning journey, that’s good; if it’s to get the degree, a more pragmatic approach to establishing a reading list and working methodically through it might be more effective. Reading is, after all, a great way to avoid writing 🙂
      I’d be interested in what others have to say about how they manage the reading – please feel welcome to add your thoughts, AcWriMo-ers!

  3. Hi Cally,

    I’ve really enjoyed the AcWriMo month so far, even though I have not been able to meet my goal every day. It’s great not to give up, just to get back to it on a fresh new day. The new tip I have been trying this month is to hand write some of my notes (my wrists have been achey from a lot of typing and this helps, plus I find it more creative sometimes) and then I dictate the notes into a Word Doc rather than typing them out. It’s also helpful because if I have an idea and am not near my computer I can just write it on paper and dictate it into my phone whenever I have time.
    Now I should read the blog and see if anyone else has said this already!


    1. Great tip to give those hands and wrists a rest from time to time! And I agree that moving into a different writing mode can change the thinking – sometimes seeing the ideas in a different way on the page also helps make new connections or suggests new ways of organising them. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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