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Moving beyond ‘binge’ vs ‘snack’ writing

‘Binge writing’ is a common term, which I see used globally by people talking about why it’s better to write a small amount every day.

For example, in her series supporting summer academic writers, Kerryanne Rockquemore suggests we should move away from the ‘tough-guy, ignore-your-needs, shut-up-and-write approach’. (Shut Up and Write the writing program is a joke on this idea–actually you get to talk, you get to work with others, you get snacks and breaks, and you get a bit of writing done.) Instead, she suggests:

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.

[Now the series is excellent and I recommend it highly. I previously quoted this section in my original Generative Writing post too, because her bigger point is spot on. I’m just going to unpick some of her language here, as an example of a wider trend.] Roquemore, in a common rhetorical move, implies that the guilty, pressured, private, angst-filled self-loathing that we feel as a deadline looms and our writing is not yet done, is like an eating disorder.

I increasingly have a major issue with the term ‘binge’ writing as I have tried to make my writing and thinking less ableist. There may be some people who find that the comparison with bulimia helps them to move away from long all-nighters loaded with shame and anxiety, but I don’t think it’s helpful to describe all periods of extended and intense writing as ‘binges’.

Instead we need a more inclusive way to talk about intense and fulfilling writing time.

I’m really productive, I enjoy writing, and I am pretty creative, but I do not write every day. When I do write, I often write in long bouts where I enter a state of flow.

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I have seen how intensive writing retreats like Thesis Boot Camp can transform people’s candidature. We don’t recommend doing TBC more than once, but for late-stage candidates who have a huge amount of information in their heads and a need to get it all on the page, three extremely intensive writing days pushing out a total of 10-20,000 words is liberating, life-affirming and healthy.

I wrote my PhD in some of the most happy and productive years of my life in series of three day marathons, sometimes writing for 10 hours a day. I don’t now find it the most effective and efficient way to write, not least because my back can’t manage to be at a desk for that many hours. But I don’t think it helps to characterise this period of intense flow as inherently unhealthy.

I had some research leave recently, where I wrote the full first draft of my sections of the new book I’m working on with Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer) and Sean Lehmann (want to be informed when it’s coming out? Sign up here!). For a month, I was on full-time leave. I wrote intensively and every day (they weren’t marathons, but I might write for 6 or 7 hours on a day when things were really moving).  I didn’t feel shame or guilt, I didn’t procrastinate. I prepared, looked after myself, and celebrated my chance to write. I felt some pressure–I only had a month!–but it was good pressure. Because of my back, I made sure to take a break every 90 minutes, and to exercise three times a week.

For me, this intensive writing period wasn’t a binge, it was a feast.

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Then I spent two months on part-time research leave. I didn’t write every day, only on my research days. Again, I spent hours at my desk on each writing day, working through my to do list, and got that writing done. I met my personal deadline, of a shitty first draft before I started my new full-time academic job.

Now I’m working full time, I only write once a week, usually at Shut Up and Write. Typically I get in 8 pomodoro writing sprints (occasionally I’ll write a bit more, or a bit less). I prepare for my weekly writing in advance, I think about what I’m going to write, I do research before I sit down at the computer, I might even make a plan. But I’m not doing that every day.

I cook ahead for the week on a Sunday afternoon. I go to the gym twice a week. I go to Shut Up and Write most weeks. I do all my laundry on the weekend. I find this gives me a chance to be efficient, to stop these tasks smearing all over the week.

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It also means they are scheduled into the pattern of my routines, it’s a habit: I know it all fits, I know I’ll get to it most weeks. I also know that I can get myself into the right headspace to hit flow for things that are creative and require focus (like writing or cooking)–or get out of the wrong headspace and into my body for things like exercise.

I don’t want this post to suggest that writing a little bit every day isn’t a good strategy. For lots of people it’s a great strategy. But there is room for lots of different ways of writing–there’s no right answer, only answers that work for you. 

It’s okay to bundle your writing–as long as it’s productive and helping you. It’s okay to break your writing down to tiny little sections and spread them across the week–as long as it’s productive and helping you.  Know your self, go forth and write!

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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.

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