Write Early, Write Often

When I’m not embroiled in editing (a very pleasant chore in many ways, let me tell you, given the calibre of contributors we’ve found for The Hobbit and History) or taking care of the various mundane chores of Real LifeTM, I’m writing.

Even as my sabbatical winds up this very day (sniff!), I’m writing. I have two chapters to finish, an article I’m trying to wrestle into shape and various bits and pieces for the book project, all important and pressing professional obligations. Plus there are a few other pieces I’m writing for fun. . . .

I spoke with a colleague this week, who’d just read a book of writing advice for academics. What she drew from it was unsurprising and coincides a great deal with how she’s successfully worked to complete a book project despite her own heavy teaching and service loads. It also fits in well with what I’ve been reaffirming over this sabbatical. I don’t need fancy tools (though I would love to learn more tricks for using Zotero). I just need to follow my four rules of writing productivity.

  1. Write Early. Not early in the day. At least not for me, although I don’t open my email first thing since I’ve learned that’s a way to quickly get hijacked into serving another person’s priorities. For me, early is in the timeline of the project. I try to psych myself out with an even earlier deadline. I start with schematic plans of the project that are very loosey-goosey at first, often just a few paragraphs and points for what will be a chapter-length piece. Then I can spot the “holes” where I need to add more and research more (hence the two most recent interlibrary loan books sitting on my coffee table: The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115 and Queen’s Apprentice). As the research is completed and the archival material is organized, I fill in the holes and keep on trucking.
  2. Write Often. Daily if at all possible. Five days a week if not seven (I’m of two minds about keeping weekends free from professional writing since I often lose chunks of weekday afternoons or evenings to other responsibilities.) Even if I can only get out a hundred words one day, or flesh out the outline another two or three points, that’s better than nothing, isn’t it? Five hundred words in a day is my best steady output. And if you’re aiming for a six thousand word chapter or a thirty-five page article, you can break it down into chunks. Five hundred words a day gets your chapter done in twelve decent writing days, leaving time if I’ve started early to put it aside and then return with a fresh eye to make all those vital revisions.
  3. Anything Will Do. Editing, yup: it’s necessary, but not when I’m writing. I have to strangle that inner editor when I’m trying to get writing. Editing doesn’t count in my daily goal-setting. I do my best now not to edit more than I absolutely must before a first draft is complete. I might leave notes that remind me I want to reorganize the second section to clarify the chronology or split up the economic examples across the entire chapter, say, but I don’t do that until I’m done. Otherwise, perfectionism rears its ugly head and slows me the heck down. (This is the lesson which took me the longest to learn!)
  4. Accept No Substitutes. I’m often asked to work on a policy document or edit a student’s work, sometimes on very short notice. During teaching terms, I have almost unending piles of marking. (Seriously, I have had dreams that it multiplies just like the brooms did in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.) I can’t count the other stuff I’m doing in my daily achievement. It might fill up my day, you betcha!, but even then, I can usually squeeze in a hundred words or so on my real writing priority.

What’s on your list of ways to get into your writing groove? I’ll check back in once I’m done with today’s writing!



Filed under academe, personal, writing/editing

8 responses to “Write Early, Write Often

  1. Sm

    #s 1 and 3 are particularly good!

  2. jliedl

    Thanks! The third took me a long time to recognize how important it was to not get bogged down in endless revisions. I try to make notes about changes that have come to mind but then just power on past them.

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  4. Those are great rules. I particularly like number 3 and your work around of putting notes to yourself in the text. Do you use a convention for those? I used to use square brackets. It made it easy to use the “search” function to find all those notes when I was in an editing phase.

    • jliedl

      I use the @ sign to mark off the notes as start and finish since i use the brackets to mark pagination in any extended quotations I’ve transcribed. (All my project-specific research transcriptions are in a separate word processing document, so that they don’t get mucked up and lost.) You’re right that having a symbol to search for helps the process along when it comes time to edit!

  5. I too thought that no. 3 was very pertinent. I don’t believe there is a person on the planet who writes a good first draft. People who edit while writing their first draft become very dispirited because not only is draft one always bad but it is not even finished!

    • jliedl

      You’re so right! If you edit as you go along, the progress can slow to a crawl. Making notes of changes I’ve realized I’ll want but no more than that as I’m in the process of writing keeps me moving forward1

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