Generative writing & #shutupandwrite

As the person who runs Academic Skills Twitter feed, @AcadSkillsMelb, I run a virtual Shut Up and Write session twice a week (both on Wednesdays). As I say in under 140 characters: “#shutupandwrite is 2 times 25min writing sprints with a 10min break between them. We do it in a group, for motivation and accountability”.  Usually, Shut Up and Write happens in face to face settings, in cafés.  The Thesis Whisperer is the main source of knowledge about the idea in Melbourne; she has a central information page  and she writes about her first experience of trying it out ; and a post, ‘Writes Well with Others‘ from Jonathan O’Donnell on the Research Whisperer site, which follows up.  There are a number of sessions that run at RMIT, and around Melbourne (see this map) and some spontaneous online sessions, suggested by tweeps like @jasondowns (sometimes under the hashtag #suaw). MSGR runs a one hour face to face session (that I regularly attend) on Wednesdays at Tsubu café, and it’s the basis of our (newly award winning) intensive three-day Thesis Boot Camp. It’s incredibly successful, and so productive.

We write in private.  We learn in public lectures. Get books from public libraries. We discuss our ideas in public tutorials and seminar groups. But reading and writing happen in private. In silence. And therefore often in shame.

In her post on Shut Up and Write, Kerryanne Rockquemore writes that academic writers who find it hard to produce are given the

tough-guy, ignore-your-needs, shut-up-and-write approach.

Instead, she thinks

embracing your needs will help you to develop a support system that will move you from the occasional shame-induced writing binges towards a healthy, consistent, and sustainable daily writing routine.

She suggests therefore, that the guilty, pressured, angst-filled self-loathing that we feel as a deadline looms and our writing is not yet done, is like an eating disorder. But unlike eating, which can happen in public and therefore we can learn what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ by watching others (even if we also engage in sneaky, guilty snacking when no-one is watching), writing always happens in private.

The last time most of us wrote in public was probably at school.  And much of that ‘writing’ was actually ‘planning’ or ‘drafting’ or ‘editing’ or ‘integrating feedback’.  In other words, all the other parts of the writing cycle that aren’t actually writing.  For this reason, a lot of people’s writing doesn’t really develop much beyond what they did at school.  Or they fall back onto an over reliance on the parts of writing that can be taught, that are socialised, that are public: like planning and editing.

This is not how academics write.  When I talk about writing with academics, they speak about ‘just getting the bloody thing out’, ‘the shitty first draft’, and ‘sticking the quotes in later’.  The swearing, the crude, slapdash, violence of the language is important here.  There is a violence and a wrenching that is involved in wrestling ideas and thoughts and knowledge into black letters on a blank page. It’s for this reason that writing is often compared to giving birth, even if labour and the labour or writing are not really the same thing (no-one ever died of writing the wrong way). Particularly when we write best when fuelled but the adrenaline-high of a nearing deadline. And everyone writes best when facing deadline.

So, what if you could skip the pain, lose the shame and have a little healthy deadline?  What if you didn’t need a whole day of uninterrupted writing time in order to get anything done?  What if you could get that adrenaline focus without having to crash for a day afterwards?  What if, instead, you could ‘develop a support system’, and get a ‘healthy, consistent and sustainable’ writing routine?  Sign me up!

So, what do we do?

Set aside some time in advance to plan. I use the Cornell Method of Note Taking to take notes and plan my writing a day or two before I go along to Shut Up and Write.  This means I am dividing the research-thinking-planning stage from the generative writing stage of the writing.

Time box. My favourite time-box is the Pomodoro technique: you set a timer for 25 minutes of work, then set it for 5 minutes of break, and then for 25 minutes of work.
Rockquemore suggests 30 minutes writing a day.
Some people find Write or Die helpful–you set a time (say 30 minutes), and a word count (say 300 words).  You decide on your settings (I recommend Kamikaze and Strict), so if you stop typing for a few seconds the page starts to flash red, then redder, then starts to delete your words.  It forces you to keep on writing. It also stops you from wandering off to replan, just do a bit more reading, or search for that obscure quote.

Trust that you know what you need to say and ‘just write’.  The best thing about generative writing is that it promotes clarity, authority and your own voice.  When I look at the writing people have done at Thesis Boot Camp or Shut Up and Write, I often find it is even better than their ‘normal’ writing. It’s clear, it’s authoritative, it’s elegant, it tells a good story. I find it easier to understand and easier to read. That’s not actually all that surprising.
If you are early in your candidature, writing in this way can help you formulate your ideas, and see what works in academic prose.  Late in your candidature, there’s a huge amount of information in your head  You are becoming an expert. You have a lot of technical skill in writing. All of that skill, experience and practice means that you are pretty good writers.
What’s more, ‘just writing’ takes you away from creating a patchwork of other people’s writing: which means you are more likely to write in your own voice, and therefore present your own view (i.e. be critical) and avoid reproducing scholarship (i.e. be original).

Screen Shot from Written? Kitten!

Reward yourself. At Shut Up and Write we use the pomodoro technique, and give ourselves a 10 minute break between sessions.  In those 10 minutes, I catch up with other regulars, have a chat  and buy a skinny latte.  These are all rewards.
Don’t use your breaks to answer emails, or run errands (more work is not a reward!).  Use the break to eat chocolate, look at cat videos on YouTube, or connect with a friend on Facebook.
For those of you who find kittens rewarding, you may also enjoy Written? Kitten! which rewards you with a new kitten picture every time you reach your writing goal (say 200 words). I know a serious Biblical scholar who finished a difficult book in a really busy semester by ‘just writing one more kitten before lunch’.

Don’t hate all over your writing. Show your draft to someone you trust and ask them, ‘Is there anything in this draft that would stop me passing my PhD?’
Don’t ask, ‘How do I make this writing better?’ or ‘is this good writing?’, because that’s not the point (and the answer is like ‘how long is a piece of string?’).  The point is, is this writing of a standard to pass?  And if not, what are the things I need to fix in the editing stage (do you need to erase your writing tics? or <Insert Quotes Here>?)  The point of this writing is to pass your doctorate, or get published (after revisions) in this journal, not win the Nobel Prize.  (Also see above on Trusting yourself and Just writing).

Hopefully I’ll see you soon, in person or online, joining me to Shut Up and Write.  I find your company great motivation and discipline–so thanks for coming along!   


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Listen: sometimes it helps to wish your writing well

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment with your writing, but there may be difficult feelings there. It can help to move from rehearsing how badly you feel, to articulating a beneficial wish for everything and everyone around you, including yourself. And apply it more specifically to your writing practice. 

Maybe you could dial up the positive talk, to yourself and others. How does that feel? What grace could be experienced?

Read More

Get the latest blog posts