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01/30/2020

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Daniel Weltman

I think one important thing to keep in mind is that there's a distinction between one's writing habits and what one aims at. For instance, having the goal "write every day" is compatible with not writing every day. But maybe trying to write every day is more productive than not trying to write every day, even if one fails to write every day. So maybe it's a mistake to look at productive academic writers who don't write every day and infer "I should not try to write every day," just like it would be a mistake to look at successful 3 point shooters who don't sink every shot and infer "I should not try to sink every 3 point shot." Maybe aiming high is good, even if you miss the target sometimes.

Similarly, I think it's important to distinguish between people who are already productive enough such that they have no particular need to seek out writing advice, and people who for whatever reason aren't as productive as they would like and who are thus looking for writing advice. It might be true that, if one took every philosopher and wiped out their memories and then had them figure out, de novo, what kind of writing habit to adopt, relatively few productive writers would settle on "write every day." But it may also be true that, of those who have not already found a way to write in a manner as productive as they'd prefer, the advice "write every day" is likely to be the best. And so just surveying everyone on their habits won't provide good advice for the subset of people looking for advice. (Ideally, one would get advice from people in a similar situation, and so someone unhappy with their output would get advice from someone happy with their output who used to be unhappy for the same reasons, etc.) Similarly, it may be that if you survey everyone, "go to be earlier than you already do" is going to be bad advice - people go to bed at all sorts of times. But if you're constantly tired and looking for advice about sleeping habits, "go to bed earlier than you already do" is maybe good advice, and it might be the advice you'd get from people who used to be similarly tired.

It's also possible there are things that lead to more productivity once one has already accomplished some amount of stuff. So for instance maybe currently productive writers have lots of practice starting, continuing, and ending projects; lots of knowledge of the relevant literatures such that they can write about topics without being tempted by lots of reading which sill sidetrack them; habits of writing already built up; topics of papers already picked out; etc. Given these sorts of things, the injunction "write every day" might be unnecessary (since it doesn't help them overcome contravening urges to, say, research, since those urges are missing; it doesn't help them build up a habit since they already have the habit; etc.). But for differently situated people it might be different.

Speaking just from my own experience during grad school, "write every day" was quite helpful for lots of reasons it might not be helpful for people who are already productive and who have been for a while. It served as a goal to aim for, so even if I fell short I still made an effort. It helped me buck the impulse to read more stuff before writing. It helped me establish habits. Etc. I don't know if the considerations adduced above suggest that the advice to write every day might be similarly helpful to people looking for advice. But I also don't know if I'd be quite as skeptical as you are, Helen, at least merely on the basis of the Sword article, for the reasons I noted. (I haven't read the Sword book.)

My own habits now and in grad school were mostly binge/inspiration writing - I get most things written when I have larger chunks of free time - but in grad school I tried to write at least 500 words per day, and on days that I wrote, I often wrote more than 500 (since once I got going, it wasn't hard to keep going). Nowadays I do most writing in the morning, these days after breakfast. On days that I don't have other stuff scheduled I can often keep writing until the afternoon. After that I usually start to flag. Lots of days I do have other stuff scheduled, but this semester (which just started) I'm doing my best to keep Thursday through Sunday unscheduled, and I'm hoping to get lots of writing done on those days.

Overseas TT

I usually prepare for my classes well ahead of time, with detailed notes and all. When I do that, I don't do any research and all my time is consumed by prepping. Once I'm done preparing for classes in the next semester, I write several hours a day on most days of the week (including when I teach - what sucks up a lot of time is prepping, not actual classroom time or grading). Overall this method has served me well, and in terms of output I think I'm pretty productive, though at times of prepping it doesn't feel that way.

Marcus Arvan

Many years ago, while I was still on the job-market, I instituted a policy of only working between the hours of 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday, never on nights or weekends. I found this to be vital for my mental well-being, and it actually affected my productivity positively (I wrote and published more papers than before, not fewer).

When I was still on the job-market desperate for a tenure-track job, this meant that I tried to cram some writing in between classes most days of the week. Now, however, my teaching load and other responsibilities mean that I can get almost no writing done during the semester. The most I tend to do is revise papers that are under 'revise-and-resubmit' or write up abstracts for conferences that accept abstracts. That's it.

Nearly all of my serious writing, then, occurs during the summer (May-August) and over winter break (4-5 weeks over December/January). This means, for all intents and purposes, that I only write four months out of every year. But during those four months, I write a ton: basically, aside from a couple of weeks I give myself for vacation, I write from about 9am-5pm every weekday during summer and winter break. Usually, I'll spend the first half of those days (9am-1pm) writing new stuff, and the latter half revising old stuff. It's a lot of writing per day, but I actually enjoy writing philosophy a lot--so it's not a chore!

Sometimes it's hard not to wonder how much more productive I might be if I had a lower-teaching load, but most of my paper ideas come from teaching, so... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Marcus Arvan

I'll just add, since his comment got lost in Typepad's spam filter for about 10 hours, that Daniel Weltman's comment above seems exactly right to me and important for early-career people (grad students and job-marketeers) to think about!

Michel

I completely agree with Daniel above.

For my part, it depends on the stage the project is at. If I don't yet have a working draft of the paper, I need larger blocks of time (2-3 hours) to work on it, and with a 4-4 load that's once or twice a week. But when I have a draft in place, I can easily work in 20-minute chunks, on the bus or wherever. I still prefer longer chunks, but a single small one three or four days a week is fine.

The trick is just to have a lot of drafts ready to be worked on by the time the semester starts.

Polaris

I've come to embrace the hard and fast rule that I write 500 words a day (or more), every working day. (i.e., not on weekends or holidays unless there's a deadline emergency.)

Sometimes the 500 words takes a lot of time if I'm working, e.g., on a literature review part (where much of my time goes to double checking things). Sometimes it breezes by, when I'm writing about an original argument that I have thought about or presented on before.

Any work-related 500 words counts. So if it's a sucky day and I feel like I can't get "real" writing done, or if I'm busy with meetings etc., I will write e.g. an outline for an upcoming lecture or work on getting the references done.

Sometimes if I feel blocked, I write stream of consciousness into a notebook to get the writing juices flowing.

Amanda

I guess I'm an outlier in that I have no particular plan. I write whenever I can, i.e., when teaching and personal life duties aren't in the way. I am always trying to find ways to be more efficient with teaching while also being committed to teaching excellence. Sometimes I wish I could be like those that don't really care/put much effort into teaching. I am at an R1 and it is very obvious that research is the department's priority. I just can't bring myself to do that, however.

Anyway, the above doesn't result in any particular scheme. Perhaps I would be more successful if I did have a scheme. I'm thinking about it. I've done well, but I could certainly do better.

David Wallace

I don’t write every day; I don’t usually turn off email; I mostly don’t focus, timebox, or regiment. In my more self-critical moments I feel bad that I don’t, but ultimately I’m fairly productive anyway.

The only idiosyncratic thing I do (I think) is take breaks: I rarely work weekends unless I’ve got an imminent deadline; I rarely work in the evening. Control of your time is an amazing perk of being an academic, but it’s a double-edged sword: you can forever be feeling guilty for not working, and so you never take clear guilt-free break time to refresh yourself. It’s worth doing - or at least (pluralism) it’s worth doing for me.

David Wallace

(Apologies: I’d failed to notice, but Marcus gives quite similar advice above. So it’s not just me!)

Andrew M. Bailey

I am in full agreement with the pluralistic tone of this post. Different strokes, folks!

I've always been scolded for my writing habits. For years, senior academics have solemnly reminded me that it's better to write a little every day than to write a lot every once in a while. I used to listen to them. And I used to feel guilty that I lacked the discipline to write every day, or every week. Or even every month or every semester.

I no longer feel that guilt, and for perhaps five or six years now, haven't even tried to write every day or week or even semester. Instead, and like Marcus, I write over breaks. Nothing crazy: just three or four weeks of full time writing most summers (5 days a week, 8 hours a day), and a few days of that every winter. My output wouldn't be good enough for someone in an R1 post, to be sure. But for this happy SLACer it's fine. And letting go of that guilt has done wonders for my well-being.

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