If you asked me while I was in the first year of my PhD how I would manage the long, unstructured hours of post-course-work dissertation writing, I might have stared at you blankly and stammered out something about supervisory meetings, conference proposals, creating self-imposed deadlines blah blah blah.
Really I would have had no clue. In fact, it took me about three months of post-candidacy-defense panicking to figure out exactly how to write the dissertation (well, how to start writing the dissertation, anyway!). And though my supervisory meetings have been absolutely essential in helping me move along through the program, and conference proposals have helped me clarify and restate my ideas in clear and simple prose, I can honestly say the best thing for my productivity, bar none, has been my writing group. Strike that: my two writing groups.
It was mostly serendipitous, and I honestly can’t quite remember how I started with either one. The first had been going for a while before I became a regular member, I started out occasionally and then became a regular, the second I joined on the suggestion of a friend who didn’t even attend herself. Now they have both become essential not only for my productivity, but for my sanity as well. I need these groups not just because of the habit and practice of writing, which becomes mandatory in the presence of the all-mighty timer, but also because this is time to chat, commiserate, ask questions, and, ultimately, build friendships. My writing group buddies are the people who have offered me support, both in terms of the practice of writing and in the practice of care. These are the people who have helped me prioritize my work/life commitments with with offers of babysitting, dinner for my family, drinks out, and sympathetic ears. We offer each other advice from things ranging from conference attire to encouragement for how to slog through a chapter that’s burgeoning out of control. And, of course, we stop talking and write.
Want to start your own writing group? Here’s how we structure a day of writing:
1. At the beginning of each writing session, we usually state what we hope to accomplish in the session. Working on a portion of a chapter? Writing a conference proposal? Revising an article for publication? We say what we’re working on and what, specifically, we’d like to write during the day.
2. Stick to the timer. Each writing session is usually divided up into several chunks of time, which we dedicate to writing. We set the timer for 25-45 minutes, depending on how people are feeling in terms of focus and goals. Then, we stick to it. The rule is no talking while the timer is running, no internet, no interruptions. After the timer has gone, we usually say what we accomplished during the unit, or describe how it went.
3. Take Breaks. Whether it’s to check email, chat about how the writing is going, or complain about how hard writing is (WRITING IS SO HARD), these are imperative to making the day work. I usually take a minimum half hour break for lunch, but 5-10 minute breaks between timer units are important as well. Our brains need breaks to refocus.
Do you have a writing group? What kinds of habits do you practice?