Virtuosity 11.11

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Archive for the tag “writer’s block”

Cultivating a writing addiction

person-woman-apple-hotelPublish 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!




Keeping a Research Journal


Art credit to Leo

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.

Happy Researching!

Writer’s Block is a Lie


Writers write.  That’s the definition of a writer, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  We don’t wait around for inspiration to hit us, because then it is too late; we stop writing and ergo, we are not being writers!  Between graduate school and publications, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for ideas to come to me.  Instead, each day I pay my homage to my muses – my commitment to my words shows the dedication to my work, and my faith that even though today, my muse may not be with me, she will come.  She always comes when I need her the most, because she trusts that I will be faithful – and I am!


Quantity is for the writer.  Quality is for the reader.

An English professor of mine who is a prolific writer told me that writers only publish about 10% of what they write.  Translate this, and it means for every 100 words you put on the page, your reader only sees 10 of them – but they are your best 10!  It is a fatal mistake that we learn in our high school English classes that word count matters.  In my experience, yes, it matters – you must be able to mean more with less.

In order to get specifically to what you mean, you must write.  You must write a lot of words.  I learned this lesson a few years ago in my class, when I needed to write an autoethnography.  Every day, I would freewrite and memo – jot down notes, thoughts, everything that came to my mind.  I wrote over 40 pages, but none of it was focused or really explaining what I wanted to say.  My professor taught me how to take those 40 pages, and code it for the most important topics.  Then, I organized my topics, and rewrote the paper.  This time, I stuck within the 25 paged limit, and did very well on it!  However, it was still not good enough for publication.  It took two more complete rewrites to get that paper down to less than 15 pages.  Finally, finally, my work will be published in November or December of this month!  This process took over two years to complete!

My lesson from this, is that I had to write a lot of words, and rewrite many of my ideas, until I could get them to exactly where they needed to be.  Writing is a way of thinking – it is a process of placing stray thoughts into existence on a page.  Only then, once these thoughts exist, can you shape them to the way you want.  Even in this case, it takes a lot of time and practice, and fussing.  Your finished product, however, may be very small, but it represents your best work.

Remember that readers don’t want quantity.  They don’t want to sift through extraneous drivel to get at your meaning.  Otherwise, you will have already lost them.  Instead, always, put your best words forward.  Hold back the other words, because they are for you.  They are the ethos that you need in order to practice your art!


Everything is crap.  Then you make it better.

It is a lie to believe that the first thing we write is what we end up publishing.  Everything I write begins with typos, awkward sentences, and it’s just poo on a page.  The art to writing comes in the editing process.  When we write with the faith that we can go back and make it better, and we fuss over it to make it better – you write better!  Also, after my 40 paged fiasco, I learned that sometimes, it’s better to start over, and I lost my fear of rewriting.  chalkboard_quotes_twain

I have met people where their inner critic makes them afraid of writing.  It is this fear that causes writer’s block, because people think that you must write brilliantly to begin, or that you must have a wonderful idea before you can write!  What they don’t understand, is that the ideas come when you edit.  The important thing is that there are words there, so that you can catch that idea at the moment it happens.  Sometimes, it is not so much that you catch the idea, but that you build TO the idea.  That may not happen until after multiple rewrites!  You must have faith though, that it will come.  When you work hard enough, the ideas and inspiration will always come.  …and if the idea has not arrived?  It means you must work harder!

Then, once the idea has arrived, you must refine your words.  It’s like shaping a pile of clay into a sculpture – you mold it, and carve away the things that are not needed.  You work on quality, and not quantity, until finally, it becomes presentable!  The hard work is not necessarily in the writing of the words – it is all about the editing!


Beating the so called Block – Make writing a habit each and every day

My friend Aubrey wrote a fantastic post on capturing your muse when you write.  She gives a wonderful list of ideas that you can try in order to keep writing.  For me, I make writing habit:  I write every day.  Although it may not be about my topic, or a specific paper, I still continue to write, because I am in the habit of writing.  Then I edit my work, and put it in the right place (ie. manuscript writing goes to my manuscript binder, RP ideas go into my idea notebook, comprehensive exam goes into comprehensives file…etc.).

Often times, like now when I have a deadline, I don’t the luxury of writing what I want to write, or what I feel like writing.  So instead, I write a lot on the topic that I must write about.  It may not be very good, but given enough time, I know that I can edit it to be better.  In any case, I make progress.  I make something that I can sculpt into what I need it to be.  Writing every day gives you the clay that you need in order to create your art.  Continue to practice, and this process becomes easier, and you develop a trust with your muses.  The muses will always come when you need them, because they know that you are always there to welcome them when they arrive.

I end with a quote:

You only fail if you stop writing.  ~Ray Bradbury

So…what are you waiting for?  WRITE!



Find Writing Time

a9d88bb7802909a508d9da51cff69941The basic goal for any writer is that you must write.  You must write regularly, and often.  The notion of a writer’s block no longer exists when it’s tied to the job market or a pay check, you know?  Fortunately, I’ve gleaned a few lessons from fellow writers – one being my dear friend Natalya, who is also a contributor to this blog.  This post is a piggy back to Nat’s blog on time management, which you can read about here, where she goes into far more detail on the techniques that she uses to manage time and to stay on track.  Totally worth a read!

For me, just because I don’t roleplay often, does not mean that I am not always writing.  As a graduate student in the social sciences, writing academically is a job requirement, and once I graduate, I will be in the “publish or perish” world.  What this means is that my “value” as an employee is judged by how many high impact publications I make every year in my field.  Hence, between my exam papers (the last one is due on October 1), I try to make room to write extra – and I often submit my research papers to journals in my field for publication!  Here’s some things that I do:

Establish a daily writing goal:  First off, my days start with a goal.  A basic goal is to write at least 1000 words on paper each and every day.  Now, this could be notes, it could be memos, stories, observations, etc.  The idea though, is that writers write, so you must accomplish this goal EACH DAY.  It’s sort of like leveling up in a video game.  Each time you don’t hit that goal, the guilt takes a lot of HP from you.

Catch the butterflies:  I’m a bit of a ditz, and my ideas simply flow a lot of times, so I have to be portable!  Ideas can come at any time, so I try to have something on hand to catch them.  Here’s some of the things I use:

  • iPhone – I record my thoughts (especially when I’m on a run and can’t stop to write).
  • Notepad – Here’s the one I use.  It’s a little pricey, but the hard cover makes it portable anywhere.
  • Evernote – This is a free program that can organize your ideas.  You can also have it synced to your phone, so you can capture pictures, embed voice files AND write all in one place.  The best parts?  You can sync it to your devices, AND you can search.
  • Scrivener – I write in “circles,” usually never beginning to end, but starting in the middle and working out.  Scrivener is like an electronic binder – it can keep all related files together.  In fact, most of my writing goes into Scrivener.  Then, when I’m ready to submit anything, I can easily export to Word for formatting.
  • Bathtub crayons – Writing on shower walls with soap crayons beats soggy pieces of toilet paper with blurred writing…

Find a writing buddy:  I have a grad group on Facebook that I must “report to” each week.  There, a bunch of fellow grad students and graduates share their weekly goals, as well as tools to help everyone succeed.  We encourage each other, and it makes us accountable.  My bestie, Nat, is also my sprinting buddy – she and I hold each other accountable for our goals, and it helps a lot that we check in with each other throughout the day.  You can find writing buddies on many different e-sites.  One that I enjoy is  For some of my short fictions, I can “vet out” editors from this site, and get some great critique!

Writing Sprints:  In Nat’s blog, she talks about sprints and the Pomodoro method.  Sprints are when you set a timer for a set amount of time (usually 25-30 minutes).  Then, for that amount of time, you simply WORK.  No distractions… you just do straight up work.  Then you break for a few minutes, and sprint again.  Nat and I sprint almost every day except on weekends.  We can hammer out maybe.. 6-7 sprints a day, if not more.  But what’s nice about it, is that even if we aren’t able to make our goals, necessarily, we know we’ve made progress.  Also, a sprint makes us hyper aware of what we have been doing for the sprint (yes, I’ve had to confess to Nat after a sprint that I honestly did NOT write, and instead, made myself the most delicious snack ever – I’ve done that…).  The goal isn’t to punish yourself or the other person if they don’t make it (unless, like, I know Nat will be very firm with me if I don’t get to writing my last comprehensive exam), but it’s to keep us productive.

Write.  Just write:  Lastly, just write.  Hit that writing goal, no matter what.  If you need to, feed your inner writing critic a giant NOPE sandwich with extra nope sauce, tell it to shut up, and keep writing.  When you don’t write, you’ll feel the guilt of not writing.  Don’t do that to yourself!  Just.  Write. I’ll tell you, most of what I write starts off as formless mind excretment.  I think of it as a pile of mud plopped onto a page, and well, it looks more like a pile of poo.  It’s the editing where the magic happens!  You work with it, and sometimes it takes a LOT of work.  But keep at it, and soon, you’ll have a masterpiece that you’ll be proud of.

Happy Writing!!!

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