Warriors create themselves through
trial and error,
pain and suffering,
and their ability to conquer their own faults.
Publish or perish. In the doctoral world, success is based on written communication. This writing starts early – the culmination of nearly every course you take in grad school ends with a 25-paged paper. For the sake of survival, it is important to develop good writing habits – or even better, a writing addiction.
Peg Boyle Single’s blog post addressed two writer’s myths – the belief that one must have large, focused blocks of time and waiting to be in “the mood” to write – can actually impede the writing process. Realistically, having several uninterrupted hours to write is a rare luxury in the life of a Ph.D. Furthermore, impending deadlines do not wait for mood swings. The solution, Single suggests, is to dedicate a regular time to write each day. Her article talks about the rationale behind this and offers tips to help cultivate the writing habit.
Although books on the subject offer anecdotal evidence on the benefits to everyday writing, there are several studies that provide empirical evidence that regular writing does, in fact, lower performance anxiety and increase writer proficiency. A classic case study by Boice (1981), for example, helped six academics get over their chronic writer’s block through the use of scheduled writing days and specific writing activities. In all six cases, “small but consistent amounts of writing over extended periods of time” (p. 206) minimized anxiety, the need for perfection, and writer’s burn out. In another paper, Zimmerman and Risemberg (1997) reviewed several empirical studies on the self-regulation strategies of successful writers. Among the list of strategies was, of course, writing on a regular basis.
It took a series of trials and errors before I was able to establish a fairly successful writing habit. At first, I started by establishing a word count for myself every day. This didn’t work, because often my days involved many hours of reading before I had gathered enough information in my brain to synthesize what I’ve read. By then, the day would be over. Then, I tried to make myself write for at least 30 minutes a day. This, too, failed. Again, it felt as if I did not know enough to be able to write for this amount of time on a daily basis.
Finally, a book called “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” by Joan Bolker reframed the way I thought about writing. In her book, she goes beyond writing as a habit, and talks about creating a positive writing addiction: “Positive addictions can focus us; they have their own built-in motivation, complete with withdrawal symptoms.” Thus, it was less about what you write, and more about just writing. A lot. Periodically! …and going into withdrawals when you don’t write.
After reading her book, I remembered the habit loop described by Charles Duhigg in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” which can be used to create and/or change the habits that we have. Duhigg talked about the three parts of the habit loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward (p. 13). The cue is a trigger – a psychological button that starts the behavior. The routine is the behavior itself, and the reward comes after you’ve completed the routine. In order to shape bad habits into positive ones, one had to adjust something in this habit loop. For example, if a nail biting habit is triggered by an uneven edge on one’s nail, carrying a nail file to eliminate that cue can change the habit. Similarly, the use of a rubber band to snap one’s hand when they felt the urge to bite their nails reroutes the routine of biting, as well as the reward – a snap to reset the neurons.
In order to cultivate my writing habit/addiction, I had to have a cue, a routine, and a reward. My habit had to be reasonable (not the 1000 word count, or the 30-minute writing block) and doable, so that I could experience success at it every day. My habit loop was fashioned after already existing cues in my daily routine – the cue to pee after I wake up (yes, this is funny, I know, but at the same time, it works for me). After I relieve my bladder, I sit at my computer and write for 10 minutes. Just 10, because 10 is extremely doable. Afterward, my writing habit ties into an addiction of mine as a reward – COFFEE! After I write, I go and get my coffee, because I’m not fully human until I get coffee. …and you know what? This habit loop works for me!
Some lessons I learned about creating a writing addiction:
1. Make your goal something you can ALWAYS accomplish, no matter what.
I have, on occasion, brought the laptop into the bathroom with me. For me, there is no excuse for not making my 10-minute freewrite, and I often go over this time quite easily.
2. It’s about writing. JUST writing.
Don’t worry about what you are writing. Just WRITE. I’ll say more about freewriting in another post, but for now, just stick to writing – even if it’s, “I can’t think of anything to write so I’m going to just list my favorite ice cream flavors.” JUST WRITE IT.
3. Tie writing to a cue or an addiction.
This was key for me – because I love coffee so much. The fact that coffee is a reward for writing makes writing even better for me – and now, it doesn’t feel right to have coffee without writing, first (yes, folks – I have a bona fide writing addiction)! Perhaps your cue is sitting at your computer, or it’s the notepad you put at your table while you are eating breakfast. It’s much easier to form a habit when it revolves around your other habits. I have, before bed, often written writing prompts for myself to address in the morning. That way, in my groggy before-coffee state, I can still manage to write something (although whether that something is intelligible is up for debate).
4. Give yourself an incentives and rewards.
I need my coffee in the morning. However, I also use something else – I put a few of my friends (thank goodness for Aubrey!) in a Facebook group, called, “Write before coffee.” You are welcome to join it if you like, and you are not required to do any posts if you don’t want to. Here, I’ll post my freewrites – as terrible and as awful as they are, for personal accountability. I’m expected (because I said I would) to write each day – so I do! However, when I talk about my own research in my freewrites, I include only a partial post there – because I’m bound by ethics. …but I post each day – because I have witnesses!
5. Make it a habit – periodic, persistence, tenacity
On a blog post in Forbes Magazine, Jason Selk debunks the myth that habits form after periodically doing them for 21 days straight. Instead, he claims that a habit doesn’t stick until you face a challenge during your routine that potentially breaks your streak. When this happens, the act of overcoming these challenges and persisting despite the challenge will help the habit stick. In his blog, he says that the more times one “fights through” these challenges, the more likely the habit will form and stay. Be tenacious!
6. Don’t give up. Find something that works!
It took me almost three years (and a lot of coffee) in order to cultivate my writing addiction. I had to go through a lot of trial and error to figure out a routine that worked for me. Don’t give up, but DO change things up if things are not working. In “Write Good or Die” Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, “No amount of ‘forcing’ myself got me to change my habits. I had to figure out where the problem started, and nip it in the bud.” Knowing what keeps you from forming a habit is just as important as the habit, itself. Find out what those challenges are, and strategize on ways to overcome them.
7. Be patient and gentle with yourself.
Habits don’t form overnight. However, each time you write, spend a moment to say to yourself, “I FINISHED!” and let that glory soak in. When you don’t accomplish the habit, say, “I will do it now. Challenge accepted!” or, reassess your goals and see if you need to make them more reasonable. However, don’t beat yourself up. You ain’t got time for that! Success, after all, is a series of failing betters.
What are your habit-forming strategies? Care to share in comments below?
Happy writing to you!
I work alone on my own schedule. Although there are many perks to working alone, I found out very quickly that finding the personal motivation to put in eight hours of work a day can be difficult. It is very easy to become distracted, and with doctoral work, you must set aside time to write, read, and think.
Fortunately, a number of my classmates and friends have developed systems for keeping each other accountable and motivated. For me, I rely a lot on writing sprints to get me by. A writing sprint is a designated amount of time (usually 25 minutes to an hour) where you work, nonstop, without any distractions. I do several of these every day!
In future articles, I will share some of my strategies for eliminating distractions during my sprints. For now, let me explain how my sprints work:
Because of summertime schedules and varying goals, there are some days when I may have three sprint partners, and other days where I may end up sprinting alone. I stumbled across an article by Story a Day, which outlines how to host a Twitter-based sprint with anyone using #writingsprint as the hashtag. The article had a lot of good ideas, which I will be trying.
Are you interested in sprinting with me? I’ll be posting #writingsprint hashtags on my Twitter when I’m working. Hope you will join me!
#acwri – hashtag for all you academic writers out there!
Happy Writing and Researching!
When I started my Ph.D. program, I kept a research journal as a requirement for one of my classes. My research journal consisted of a simple Word document that contained all of my daily entries, separated by a series of dashes. Each day, I would go to the top of this document, enter the date, and then write. In this manner, my most current entries would be at the top and the older entries would appear at the bottom.
Throughout the semester, my professor had us try different things in our journal, such as: inputting notes from our readings, thinking memos, highlighting important things (through boldface, blinking text, or side comments) that we may want to revisit, and adding daily “to do” lists. Through my journal, I learned how to paraphrase my readings, and to quickly synthesize several works into one or two paragraphs. I later found that my notes were incredibly useful to use for later papers – especially toward the end of the semester.
My research journal quickly became a personal repository for processing my thoughts, theories, and experiences in both life and grad school. Peg Boyle Single, in her blog on developing good writing habits, said that “Motivation occurs when you have done the necessary planning steps so that when you sit down to write prose, you have had time to subconsciously play around with the ideas and you only have to retrieve and type down the ideas, not to think them up.” The research journal teaches you to do this sort of prethinking every day.
Later, I moved my journal from Word to Scrivener, which enabled me to keep my entries separate within a single electronic “binder.” Each entry could be tagged, labeled, and summarized so that later, I could go back, search, and even categorize my entries by topic or subject. This was incredibly valuable to me when I went through my comprehensive exam process, because I could compare my entries side-by-side to the actual working document that I needed to write.
Now, as I tackle my dissertation proposal, I have started a new section of my journal, where I keep my daily 10 minute freewrites. In addition to developing a daily habit of writing, my journal has also taught me how to think by writing – a necessary skill for navigating through my frequent trips within the cognitive muck of research.
If you are interested in keeping a research journal (it is never too early or too late to start), check out this blog post by Anuja Cabraal. She outlines the process of starting a journal, and provides suggestions for ways to use it effectively in our work.
I had the great fortune of having my blog visited by Kathy. If you haven’t dropped by her blog, it’s worth it. She is one of those inspiring people who is living her dream as an artist, and the things that she creates are quite amazing. In one of the comments she left me on my blog, she said, “…Practice makes perfect and sometimes it takes a long time. Perseverance to become the best is a virtue.”
If you do a Google search on “Failure quotes,” you’ll find a surprisingly large amount of them talk about what happens after the failure. It is a fallacy to believe that successful people have never failed, or that they were simply lucky in all their endeavors.
More often than not, successful people fail all the time. The difference is that they persevere until they no longer fail.
In other words, failure is just another challenge – and we can either pick ourselves up, or let that failure defeat us. However, defeat is only a state of mind. If we persevere, and continue to try harder, wiser, and smarter, eventually, we succeed. Sometimes, it requires a change in ourselves to get there, but, if you persevere and are determined enough, you eventually will.
and opened her mind;
released her thoughts
and let them find
the fire in the butterflies.
Its seems at the start of every large writing project, I find myself at the edge of a cliff with a large net. The sky is full of colorful butterflies – their wings dazzle and catch in the light while they fly erratically – teasing, nearing, then flitting unpredictably away, while luring me from my safe space, daring me to step off that safe cliff rock to fall into the dark abyss. I am mesmerized by their brilliance, as wings collide and dance in front of me. I only need to catch a few – but they must be specific kinds! So I watch, and try to shake myself out of that overwhelming stupor – the confusion of having so many ideas and thoughts spiral around me. I spend days there, focusing, concentrating on that single butterfly that I must catch. Sometimes, I find them in my net, and am fooled – a stray petal or leaf, but not the butterfly I want. At other times, I catch so many, and I must only pick a few. Their brilliant colors confuse me, and before I can get out my collecting jar, they have all flown away.
Find me today, on the edge of the cliff. I’m catching butterflies, again. I hold my net and my jar, eyes locked onto the swirls of color… I just need a few. Only a few. Just a few to light my way.
Then, I will be ready to jump!
Shelled pistachios on a porcelain plate – the salt still lingered on my tongue. Sweetened by honeyed kisses with traces of Moroccan mint and green tea, your lips curve into that knowing smile, slightly parted with breath that stirred the steam dragons wafting off of my coffee; you made them dance. They framed your face as you looked at me with a twinkle in your eye – as if you and the autumn morning shared a secret. Indeed, I touched your fingertips across the table, carefully splayed to hide the last answer to our daily Sudoku, and I leaned in, eager to listen. My heart opened to hear you, and with the soft brush of your warm lips against mine, you passed the secret over to me, reaching beyond the framing of simple words so that it could be fully felt and enjoyed. Together, we left the past, let go of the future, and unwrapped the present.
One lesson that hit me fairly hard when I left the world of roleplay and ventured out into the world of authorship was that you couldn’t make everything up as you go along. That’s where research comes in.
Don’t get me wrong. If you’re writing a book about elves in a fantasy world, you can fake a lot. You can’t really research a race you just created by yourself. What you can do is read other fantasy books that fit into the genre you are going for to see if your take is unique or if it at least brings something to the table that was not there before. That’s the fun kind of research. And really? If you want to be a better writer, reading and writing more are both the best ways to improve.
Right now I’ve few projects I’m working on, but even the more fantastical required me to do research. One of my projects is heavily drenched in Norse Mythology. I’ve had to dive into reading over legends from Scandinavian over and over again, and even though I’ve altered some of that history, I still needed to know my stuff. It was important to have some understanding of the muddled history of Norse lore, if only so that I knew what changes would work for it.
In roleplay, I play Natasha Romanoff. She’s a soviet spy from an era long dead. I am neither Russian nor a spy. I rely on both google translate and many Russian language sites to help me figure out some basic phrases to use in my roleplays. I also love comic books, so I have an extensive collection of issues she has been in, both in physical and digital form. For roleplay, that is the kind of research I love to do. I adore getting absorbed into 20 issues and binge reading them like there is no tomorrow.
Like most comic books, Natasha’s history has been revised and retconned quite a bit. Since I have a particular fondness for spies, I’ve also taken up other forms of research. In truth, this isn’t just to play Natasha. Right now most of my writing projects are very fantasy based, but the idea of someday writing a spy thriller appeals greatly to me. So I’ve subscribed to podcasts about spying, I’ve bought books about spying (specifically about the history of the KGB, which so far is fascinating) and I watch for other reference material about it.
Now for roleplay, not everyone is going to want to go that deep nor might they have the time to. I’ve met a few RPers who base themselves in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and they have met with people who feel if they don’t read the comics, they aren’t truly playing the character. I disagree completely. Though research is helpful and essential to good and informed writing, roleplay is just a game. Anyone should be able to come to a game, play what they want, and get some fun out of it. If you don’t like how they play, that is okay, there is a chance there are many other characters to play with, perhaps even a version of that same character.
A story must start with a hook – something that catches the reader, frames the story, and sets the stage. Successful authors have a variety of ways of hooking the reader in, and I thought that a careful examination of these story beginnings may help us with the telling of our own stories.
Hence, I begin my series of posts on story beginnings with one of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, and her book, Beloved:
“124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver where it’s only victims the grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, in the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time he was 13 years old – as soon as nearly looking in a mere shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny handprints appeared the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in the heat on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once – the moment the House committee what was for him the one insult not to be born or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving the grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio have been calling itself to state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.”
What I love about this beginning is that Morrison puts emotion into objects, such as the house, from the very onset. Moreover, in one paragraph, she has introduced two of the main characters, Sethe and Denver, as well as some of the background characters: Baby Suggs, Howard, and Buglar.
Notice that this intro focused on a place – the house, and also on what the house did to its residents. It isn’t an ordinary place, like one of those, “Once upon a time, it was a sunny day” type of places, but a place that possessed as much personality, SPITE, as any character in the story. Moreover, the word choice is important. Victims, instead of residents. Fleeing, running, shattering of mirrors, and the “dead” of winter. Although Morrison does not explicitly say so, we know the house was haunted, and it was haunted by something angry – something so angry, that it tormented its victims.
After reading the first paragraph, I had questions:
Why is the house haunted?
Who haunted the house?
Who are these people being tormented?
What happened to the poor soul that haunted the house – why is it so spiteful?
These questions were spaces that, as I continued to read, I hoped would be answered as I turned to the next page of the book….
So, as for our own writing, how can we use this to our own advantage?
Stay tuned for more story beginnings. I’ve got a whole collection of them to share with you!