What I have learned from writing every day

Fountain pen and notebook
Fountain pen and notebook

It was a snap decision. My weeks were packed with activity. The teaching and management challenges appeared to be increasing and I just seemed to have no time to engage in one of my core, academic, activities. I needed to write more.

Specifically, I wanted to increase the number of published articles for three reasons. 

First, the process of writing about a topic helps deepen my understanding. 

Second, there are environmental measures for academics that require a certain amount of publishing activity and I felt that I was starting to fall short.

Finally, I like writing and therefore this would address a desire to do more work that was personally rewarding.

When I approach a writing project (and I say this to my students as well), I pay little attention to word or page counts.

The first session is a combination of scribbling notes down, perhaps a bit of “outlining”, and some free-writing.

Free-writing is where I let go of everything and literally just write down everything that occurs to me at that point in time. It often starts with stream-of-conciousness thoughts, but rapidly (within a couple of minutes), the thought of the day becomes the focus and I fumble around the topic.

What I end up with is a good portion of unedited text, that provides the foundations of the eventual article.

Learners often suggest that they want to be strategic, as their time is precious, and therefore do I have any tips for writing to word counts.

Well, my advice for writing to word counts is based upon how to get *down* to a word count, rather than trying to write up to it. I prefer to write and then hone, which means that I write more words than I will use for that article.

Some people don’t get this. There was a time when I didn’t.

But, I have tried both ways, and I find that writing to a word count restricts the flow of ideas, and the depth of my reflection, leading to articles that just don’t convey the same understanding. So I am sticking with over-writing to get what I want.

So, since I new that this worked for individual projects, I reasoned that if I wrote every day, with no fixed agenda, I would at least amass a body of text that I could reflect on, prune and refine for future article submissions. Like clay to a sculptor, it would give me something to work with.

The basic discipline that I wanted to instil was very simple. Write every day, for at least an hour or until one thousand words was produced, whichever arrived first. This should provide around 30,000 words per month that related to my thoughts, which should be plenty to carve something from.

The first few weeks were a struggle, as it tested my ability to sit down and write something rather than waiting until I was in the mood.

I had some advice I received from an ex-journalist ringing in my ears: “Just sit down and write something. It’s amazing what you can churn-out if you commit to this”.

My previous approach to writing articles was not to “churn-out”, but the daily writing practice actually forced me to re-think my behaviour. To get the volume of words, so that I could whittle away and produce additional articles, meant that I needed to produce, to manufacture content. There is no room for alchemy when we commit to writing more.

By the end of the first month the practice was in place. I didn’t always produce one thousand words, but if this was the case, I would have been at the computer for at least an hour.

It was quite satisfying to see the twelve thousand words from that first month. These were an additional twelve thousand words that would not otherwise have been written. I hadn’t noticed any additional missed deadlines, and some how I felt a little bit more productive. I think that this was due to words being tangible; the pages that are produced are a wake of evidence that thinking alone does not produce.

Fast-forward three years and the average word count per month is 60k – a considerable difference – and it is completed in a round one hour per day.

So, what have I learned from this?

1. My writing has become an extension of my thinking. I record ideas, but I also explore them on the page. I can pose questions, answer them, leave them hanging, contradict them. There is no-one to critique the thoughts except me. After years of unconsciously writing for an audience, as I was taught at school to do, my daily exposition of thoughts has liberated my mind.

2. I can write faster now, both in terms of getting my thoughts translated into words, as well as being able to type more quickly. I committed to learning to touch type in November 2017 and I haven’t looked back. Apart from the drudgery of the typing software exercises during the first month, the rest of my practice has been honed by the daily typing of my thoughts.

3. My writing improves my thinking when I am not writing. The time between my daily sessions now includes thoughts that are better developed as a result of the writing discipline. I can (and do) take an idea and watch it unfold and progress over a period of time. As each day passes, my thoughts mature and these of course are recorded also. This has the additional benefit of recording  my thought processes, which themselves are interesting journeys to observe and reflect upon.

4. My reflection is much deeper and swifter. The evidence upon which I can reflect is now right in front of me. There is always a danger of not being too sure of the accuracy of your memory when a situation is recalled. There is no issue with this at all with the daily record to consult. And if I think that there is an issue with how I have recorded something, that is itself something worthy of exploration.

5. It took me just over three months to have the daily discipline become automatic. Before then, I got to the stage of feeling a bit guilty if I had missed a day after the first month, but I still needed to remind myself to make the entry. Once three months had passed, it became as normal as getting washed!

6. I have now taken a greater interest in how I write. People write about how you should “find your voice” in your writing, and use various rules and guides to writing style to improve the quality and readability of what is produced. I used to find this a bit stale and uninspiring. It seemed to be just another hurdle to overcome.

But now that I have established a writing practice, I am more interested in making some aspect of that behaviour into a deliberate practice. I am more interested in how my thoughts are represented, and I have the motivation to want to improve.

My regular writing has emphasised the importance of persistence. To achieve things that are worthwhile requires commitment, and an amount of time. I am not entirely sure where the critical points of understanding or enlightenment occurred; the writing habit felt like it was in place around the three month mark. From then onwards, the benefits have been considerable and were enabled *because* I had established a writing discipline.

What next for my writing?

Ironically, the original reason for developing a writing practice was to increase the quantity of articles that I publish. This has become reality, though I haven’t published as many additional articles as I imagined that I might. From zero to 60K words per month would suggest that the new articles would be flying out…

What I have noticed though is that the impact on my thinking has resulted in much more profound effects on the way that I work. Writing is making me more conscious of what I am thinking about, as well as my actual thinking process. The act of recording enables me to mine the information for interesting insight, and lines of enquiry for me to pursue about my research.

As such, I now have a perspective that has been shaped by an extended period of writing. I’m not convinced that all of the advice to “write more” is necessarily the final answer; for me it is one step forward that has helped establish a discipline that is serving me well. The next step now is to refine the discipline, by introducing new rules that govern the ways in which I spend my writing time.

For instance, the free-writing has been helpful in terms of allowing me to explore  and process ideas. I shall now be restricting this to only ten minutes per day, to see what the effects of that might be. It might be (as I suspect), that a small amount of free-writing may deliver similar benefits to more extended periods.

By constraining the free-writing I can then focus on writing to prompt questions, that have arisen out of my free-writing musings. This direction may help me produce text that is focused on some of the challenges that I am experimenting with.

Writing everyday as a habit has changed some aspects of how I go about thinking and exploring ideas for publication. I did not expect it to change the way that I think, nor did I anticipate the way that it has influenced how I think between writing sessions.

As an academic, this is a significant realisation, and one which validates a continuous process of risk-taking, experimentation, monitoring and evaluation, that is not just limited to the subject of my research. Applied to my own behaviours, the whole process as been enlightening.

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