Ages ago, I wrote a post about ‘snack’ writing and ‘feast’ writing, which I still agree with, but I was writing against some ableist language that I see used often in the writing community, and I kept my new terms in the same metaphorical terrain. But I think the eating metaphor isn’t actually that much like writing (when we write, we build things, we don’t consume things), and the metaphor falls apart pretty quickly when you try to extend it. So! A new metaphor for planning your writing time.
Are you a ‘Spreader’ or are you a ‘Stacker’? In your writing time, do you prefer to spread it out by writing a little bit every day, or to set aside a ‘writing day’ and stack up all your writing blocks in one go?
When I talk to writers, the question of how to structure their writing time is one of the most common and also one of the most contested. It’s also extremely varied, so whenever I refer to it it needs some messy phrase like ‘your 15 minutes a day or “golden hours” or whatever regular writing pattern that works for you’ (from ‘What would it mean to make your writing sacred?’), or as Helen Sword would call it Air & Light & Time & Space (discussed in ‘Are you “inspired” or are you just breathing?‘)
This is boring for me to have to type out every time we have this conversation (stretching back about 6 years now!), and probably annoying to read, so it’s time for a shorthand term that works for us every time. The new metaphor has to be value neutral (it doesn’t matter if you are a spreader or a stacker, both are great ways to get your writing done!), and it has to constructive (writing is about making something), and it has to suggest that there is a limited amount of a thing (writing time, writing energy) that has to be distributed. So: ‘Spreaders’ and ‘Stackers’ of ‘writing blocks’.
What is a ‘writing block’?
A ‘writing block’ is whatever writing fits in the typical ‘time box‘ you use: whether you prefer to work in 10 minute increments, a ‘Pomodoro’ of 25 minutes, or something more like 90 minutes. At the end of your block, you might get up for a quick break, and then return for another block, or you might finish writing for the day and go on to other tasks.
You might distribute your boxes across days, weeks or fortnights. Most people aim for between at least 1 hour of writing across the week, up to about 20 hours. This might be based on the time available, or other constraints. Or it might vary depending on where you are in the writing process: for example, in the weeks before submission, most people are writing as much as possible; whereas in an experiment or field-work phase, you might just be quickly making notes towards a later draft.
A few people are able to get work done in even shorter ‘boxes’ than I have suggested, I know of at least one academic who would write a few sentences between each student appointment. I don’t recommend having a box much longer than 90 minutes, for the sake of your back/eyes/bladder. Between these two extremes, that’s a pretty big set of options.
Whether your writing blocks are tiny little mini Legos or great big Duplos, it’s now time to decide whether you are going to build something that is spread out, or something that is stacked high.
Do note that many of us are neither totally Spreaders or totally Stackers, in fact it’s more effective if you do a bit of both!
Who is a ‘spreader’?
A Spreader prefers to ‘spread’ their writing across their week. You might try to write for fifteen minutes before or after work each day, or get in an hour at least a few days a week.
Spreading the writing out makes it feel manageable to you. There’s a small amount of it happening a lot of the time, and this means you know you are gradually making regular progress. You never need to worry that the writing is piling up. By spreading it out, you feel you are always on top of the writing.
You might not be a Spreader by preference, but Spreading might be the best way for you to make progress in your current situation. If you are fitting your writing around other work, have small children, or are living with a chronic illness, there may never be long spaces for you to sit down and work uninterrupted. Learning to be a Spreader might give you the option of continuing to write your PhD.
Because ‘Spreading’ is adaptable to these kinds of every-day ‘challenging’ writing circumstances, it is often encouraged by writing advisers. But, like any strategy, there are opportunities and limitations.
For example, if you spread things too thin you may never do enough writing, even though you feel you are always writing. If you only write for 5 minutes here and there, and it adds up to maybe 20 minutes a day, 6 days a week, then you feel like you are writing all the time, but added up it’s only a couple of hours of writing a week. That might not be enough to meet your deadlines, especially if you are a full-time student. Make sure your Spread adds up to enough writing over the week to make progress.
Another challenge can be spreading out your writing in order that you can be interrupted, but then not giving yourself enough space to focus. If you spread so you can be interrupted, you will be interrupted—but you do need to be able to do your work! The size of your block isn’t important, but focus within the block is essential to think new, original, difficult, logical ideas and put them into words!
So ‘Spreading’ can be a good strategy, but so can ‘Stacking’.
Who is a ‘Stacker’?
A Stacker prefers to ‘stack up’ their writing blocks as high as they physically can. You might prefer to put all your writing together with a writing day each week, or a long weekend each fortnight.
Stacking the writing all together makes it feel manageable to you. You find a task that spreads out feels messy and uncontrollable, so having it all neatly in one place feels more doable. Or you might find that you are slow to ‘get into’ the writing, and so you value a longer stretch so you can warm up and really dive deep.
You might not be a Stacker by preference, but stacking might be the best way for you to make progress in your current situation. You might work Monday-to-Friday, and so stack all your writing into a Saturday session like Melbourne Write Up. Or you might find a writing intensive like Thesis Boot Camp really helps you to get over the line.
Because longer writing events are easier to organise than little writing blocks scattered throughout the day, institutions are more likely to offer writing retreats or intensives.
Again there can be limitations as well as benefits. For example, if you try to stack the blocks too high and they become unsustainable and unstable. Your body and brain have limits. If you are writing for a long day or two, you will be really tired afterwards. If you write for too long in the day, without enough breaks, your eyes, hands, back and hips will all start to wear out. So pay attention to your stacks, and keep them at a height where you know they won’t fall over.
Another possible challenge is if you don’t get to your Stack frequently enough. If you think “I’ll do all my writing in the summer”, then you are planning to stack all your writing into 2 months of the year, which makes those months super high stakes. If anything else gets in the way of writing (like taking a break, seeing family, getting stuck in your thinking, or getting sick) then your whole Stack is endangered. People who don’t get to their Stack regularly often also find it takes a really long time to get back into writing. You should try to get to your writing about once a fortnight, to keep the writing momentum going.
Maybe you are between the two?
Like playing with Lego or Duplo, there are no limits on the ways you could arrange your blocks, so you don’t have to be only a Spreader or a Stacker. For example, if you go to a couple of Shut Up and Write sessions each week, we could consider that like a couple of Spread-out mini-Stacks.
The possibilities are endless. You might shift your Spreading or Stacking in different ways across your candidature. Perhaps Spreading more in phases when you are more focussed on researching; perhaps Stacking more as you get towards the end. Maybe you had a baby half-way through your PhD and had to rejig your habits, but then the baby starts childcare and you need to rejig them again.
Many people use both strategies: even within a week, with little writing blocks scattered where you have time and then a full research day once a week… or across the year, like using Spreading during semester, and Stacking your writing time in the non-teaching periods.
Seeing ‘Spreading’ and ‘Stacking’ as two effective, adaptable, techniques for imagining how you organising your writing time can help you to plan your time strategically, and get writing done.
You can vary your Spreads and Stacks to match where you are in your research, your candidature or your life. There is no morality, no shame, and no progress between a Spread or a Stack. Both work well in certain circumstances. It’s likely you will do a bit of both sometimes, or move between the two. This is not an immutable personality test, it’s a chance to identify your preferences, and your practical needs.
Spreading and Stacking strategies work well with other techniques: like finding a compatible writing group, or breaking down your big project into manageable tasks.
What’s your preference, and how have you used Spreading or Stacking to reach your writing goals? Join the conversation over on Twitter.
If you like writing every day or most days:
- Your writing starter
- Robert Boice, on Academics as Writers (see this blog post for a preview);
- Raul Pacheco-Vega, Designing and implementing a Publications Planner;
- Erin Marie Furtak wrote on My Writing Productivity Pipeline: Write a lot, and often, we are told — but no one shows us how to keep track of all that work;
- Pat Thompson has written on how blogging keeps her writing ferment going
- Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis
- Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns, Turbocharge Your Writing: How to become a prolific academic writer
If you like writing in other patterns:
- Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space
- Any of my books!
- And all over the blog: in Getting Back to Writing After a Break, or Beyond “Binge” vs “Snack” Writing, or The Morality of Writing “Well” or Do you Have a Writing Practice.
- Or any of the travel metaphor posts, like climbing a mountain or making a map or going up stairs or running a race or just running.
- In ‘Are you “inspired” or are you just breathing?‘, and some personal reflection about ‘writing oxygen‘, I use breathing metaphors in reflecting on different patterns for writing.