Writing daily FAQ: “How do you know what to write every day?”

Hi friends! I am starting a little series of follow ups to my “how I write everyday” post because I get some questions about how writing daily works for me. Today, let’s talk about the dreaded moment where you sit down to stare at the blank word document: How do you know what to write every day.

To quickly recap, I changed my entire freaking academic life by breaking the cycle of binge-and-avoid writing during my last year of my PhD. Following guidance of many wise academics before me, I started writing every weekday for 30 continuous minutes. The steps are simple:

-Sit down.

-Set a 30 minute timer.

-Write.

-When the timer beeps, you’re done.

I should add that this writing system also treats writing very broadly: anything you do that advances a research project (not teaching!) is writing. Collecting, reading, and summarizing articles? Writing. Analyzing data? Writing. Answering student emails? NOT WRITING.

But this system still leaves a big question which is “what do I write?” The way I solve this question is by treating my writing as a continuous stream of tasks that I thoroughly document. I organize my writing by high-level project, mid-level schedules, and small-level goals. Here’s what I mean:

High level projects: I have a running list of all my projects, including things that are on my “someday” list, things that are on my “in the next few months” list, and things that are on the “this is real and there is a deadline” list. The someday list is HUGE and full of every possible idea/stray thought I have ever had (this is a good way to force yourself to finish projects and stop chasing shiny new ones, btw…just add them to the someday list).

Things move to the “next few months” list when they feel timely, urgent, based on data that’s gathering dust, etc. The “next few months” list also promotes spontaneity, which I love. If someone pitches a co-authorship idea to me where they don’t know exactly what we should do, sometimes the list of upcoming ideas helps us fill in the gaps.

The “right now” list is usually tied to conference submissions. Academic conferences are a great way to add structure to my writing because they make a real, very in your face, due at midnight type of deadline. I move things from the someday list into the “forced first draft for conference” pile to make myself just start a project. Then, after I submit to the conference, I budget another chunk of time (usually a month) to edit, revise, and prepare that project for publication.

Mid-level schedules: But wait, there are more lists! The next thing I do is make a semester syllabus. This is where I break my semester down by month, then week, and assign a project to each period of time. This semester I was coming up on a big deadline so I dedicated January and February to that deadline. I left time in March for writing a new conference paper. I dedicated April to final details for the bigger project and room to either start a new project or revise and resubmit a journal submission. In May I budgeted time to submit the conference paper for publication and start reading/researching for a project I’m planning to write with a co-author over the summer.

Is the schedule always right? No, of course not! Especially when I began daily writing I had no idea how long projects were taking me. That’s the advantage of using a timer and tracking my writing. Now, I know that literature reviews in brand new areas do not get done in a week 🙂

Small-level goals: Next, I make weekly goals. My weekly goals are EXTREMELY concrete. I look at my semester syllabus to see what project I’m working on for the week. If the project is brand brand new the goals for a day of writing might be “search for key articles” and “read and summarize 2-3 key articles.” As projects get going goals can be things like “add 1 paragraph to discussion about X” or “write 1 paragraph about participants for methods section.” As you can see, my goals are not #goalz, they are more like a tedious to-do list. But the to-list is important! Sitting down and thinking “I’m going to work on my conference paper” is an overwhelming thought and not nearly enough of an idea about what to do to get me started.

One more important thing: when the timer stops, I write down my goals for the next writing session. This has been super helpful because it makes me assess if I met my goals for the day (if I didn’t, maybe they need to be smaller or maybe they just roll over to the next day).

There you have it! If you have other writing questions you want answered let me know!

2 thoughts on “Writing daily FAQ: “How do you know what to write every day?””

  1. Hi,

    I just came across your blog. Not sure why/ how it was recommended to me. But it’s fascinating. As a PhD student, who is also interested in fashion and thrifting and struggling to fit into an academic life, it’s very helpful! Am so glad it’s here!!

    Like

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