Avoiding the ‘writing monster’: The power of routine, rewards and restriction

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Director of Research Training, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

“If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn  on you.                                                                           A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight.  It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You much visit it everyday and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!'”  (Annie Dillard – The Writing Life, 1990). 


I was recently asked to give a presentation to supervisors about writing and strategies to engage students. In preparing for this, I stumbled across the quote above in Pat Thomsen’s wonderful  blog (https://patthomson.net) on writing; this quote may well be the most accurate quote I have ever read about the writing process. Please read the quote again, slowly. Thinking about it, does it ‘hit home’ and perhaps explain your and/or your students’ writing experience?

I know this quote really resonated with me, because I had been making significant progress on quite a theoretically challenging paper when – of course – the demands of other work tasks meant I needed to put it aside. It’s been about 3 weeks now (ok, maybe 6 weeks) and I have not returned to it; because, each time I try, I realise that I have lost the thread of the main argument I had been developing. I have lost my writing mojo.  My mistake was not prioritising and powering on with that paper when I was in the zone; now, that file really is a giant monster (I prefer that imagery versus a lion) and I am struggling to find the nerve to face it.

So, how can we (and our students) avoid this wild “writing monster”? 

  1. Routine – the power of a regular writing time 

Every single writing book ever written, along with every blog on academic writing, emphases the value of routine. Set a time for writing, ideally daily. Stick to this scheduled commitment, just as you would with delivering a lecture. You never say, oh I don’t feel like teaching today, so I won’t turn up to run my tutorial or lecture. You just do it. So, tell yourself – and your thesis students – to treat their writing like a teaching commitment. 

Of course, this is much easier said than done, but it really does help to know that you write on Fridays, or every morning 5-7am. Just like it is easier to become healthier and reduce stress if  you become a person who goes to Bootcamp or Hot Yoga every Friday morning, scheduling regular times for writing works in the same way (note that my definition of regular writing activity is quite broad, and includes all the critical ‘pre-writing tasks’, such as planning, outlining, reading key literature, and data analysis).

If you write regularly and commit to a routine, you will improve both the quality and quantity of your writing.

  1. Rewards – the value of bribery 

At heart, I personally am a big believer in consequences for fostering positive behavior change. We need to set writing goals, and then reward ourselves for meeting them.

It might be something simple; you treat yourself to a morning coffee if you spend an hour writing or have written 1000 words. It could be more elaborate, and a movie or dinner or weekend away for meeting a key goal such as a complete draft of an article. Think about the currency that speaks to you and use that to motivate and reward writing progress         [I hesitate to share my strategy, as it is very extreme: as a PhD student, I would NOT let myself go to the toilet until I had finished that critical paragraph or idea. I am a bit more kind to myself now with writing rewards centering around pedicures and massages, but hopefully this illustrates that committing to improving your writing might – at least in the beginning – require some tough love].

  1.  Restriction – the motivation of an external deadline 

This third suggestion captures the value of external motivation; and to be honest, is probably best described as an immovable deadline but I wanted the iteration of the three Rs in academic writing; Routine, Reward and Restriction. I find that an external deadline is something that really motivates me; and a strategy that I use to create them is to search every 4-5 months for ‘calls for papers’ in my research areas. I then work towards that deadline and find that I met it – even if it requires a few late nights / early mornings.

And, miraculously, the next week you do forget the pain that was involved in meeting that deadline. I encourage my students to do the same, and actually use our internal thesis writing deadlines as a way to foster progress in a similar way.

So, what strategies do you use to make your academic writing a priority?

What do you tell your students to do – or not do? Share your tips below. 

(Image is of a lion)



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