The second virtual DTP skills session was aimed at helping students cultivate writing habits to make writing enjoyable and more productive. In this interactive writing workshop under the guidance of Dr Jenny Rivas Perez, students reflected on writing goals and exchanged advice on overcoming writing barriers.
Research in the 1990s categorised academics as snackers or bingers, based on those who were writing often and those who only wrote when there was an impending deadline, cramming all writing in a couple of days. Exploring this concept further, students in the DTP skills session discussed the benefits and drawbacks of writing and not writing. Highlights from this discussion included “a better understanding of the topic” and “helping pick out knowledge gaps” as benefits of writing. Surprisingly, there are benefits to not writing, such as “having a moment of reflection” or “stepping away from writing to be in the lab or going about your daily activities”. However, prolonged writing inactivity can have drawbacks too since “it can be really hard to fill the gap(s) of not writing”. For instance, having to refer to potentially five lab books when writing your thesis can be a big time-sink. Conversely, allocating time to write a summary of your daily endeavours is essentially writing to yourself in the future, making information readily available.
“Until you start writing about what you think you know, you don’t realise the gaps in your logic” suggested Dr Jenny Rivas Perez
Dr Jenny Rivas Perez mentioned the concept of ‘writing to think’. Writing can help you sort out your thoughts and put what you think you know about a topic in paper. Sometimes that can take more time than you think. Therefore, scheduling time to write will ensure you prioritise writing. Indeed, booking ‘writing slots’ in your calendar is more likely to encourage you to write and less likely to prioritise lab work.
Overcoming writer’s block and other writing barriers
When it comes to writing, many people won’t even make it past the first page. Being faced with a blank page, a lack of time, being scared of addressing a big project or having second thoughts (potentially due to imposter syndrome) were all reasons cited as to why some students find it difficult to start writing. In a discussion during this writing workshop, DTP students offered tips which they have found effective in overcoming writing barriers from their own experience.
One of these manoeuvres includes beginning with the title of the thesis (or publication) chapters, then breaking each of those down into bullet-points and ending up with a sentence as a primer for each paragraph. Having such a structure in place will facilitate building up from each section with more determination as there will be indications as to what should be mentioned.
For some people picking the right environment can be critical for drawing inspiration to write. Being in your house can be a barrier, so why not switch from your personal study room to the sofa in the living room, the quiet rooms in the library or a well-lit busy cafeteria? Equally, some people work better alone whereas others need a nudge from being around other people. Signing up for a writing retreat or a ‘Shut Up and Write’ session could mean that you can get support to be productive whilst surrounded by a group of peers.
Perfectionism during writing is another common enemy. The objective of a first draft should be to write down essential information required to build a ‘scaffold’, and as such, no time should be invested into editing. The concept of ‘free writing’ works great for practicing this. In this exercise, you start writing on any topic and you must carry on for 6 minutes – no restrictions on proper structure or grammar apply. For example, you can start writing up a grocery list or a to do list. If you run out of things to say, you can write that too, just keep the pen (or text cursor) moving.
Lack of focus or procrastination resonated with many students as to why they give up writing or stop shortly after starting. If your attention is distracted because you check your phone every 10 minutes, the Pomodoro technique could be your salvation. Setting up a timer to plan for 25-minute intervals of uninterrupted writing, interspersed with 5-minute breaks, over an hour could minimise prolonged distractions. An alternative way to ward off distractions is to use an application that blocks other applications on your phone. In one ‘environmentally-oriented’ app, ‘Forest: Stay Focused’, when you set a timer for writing, you plant a seed that over time will grow into a tree. However, if you exit the app, to use social media for instance, the tree dies.
Stop writing to write more
Of course, sometimes writer’s block or a lack of focus can be relieved by taking a break. Dr Jenny Rivas Perez recommended going outside to get some fresh air or doing some physical activity to clear your mind. Equally, it is important to take time off from writing, e.g. by having weekends off or booking holidays.
Just because you stopped writing doesn’t mean your draft stopped progressing to the final stage. Asking for feedback is a key step of finalising a draft and doing so regularly, is bound to give you a fresh perspective on the subject. Getting feedback from others whilst taking time off is a strategic use of your time. You don’t need to ask experts in the field to review your writing – people outside your field can equally add value to your writing. What you should be asking them is:
- ‘Does this make sense?’
- ‘What do you think I’m saying here?’
- ‘Is there anything missing from the explanation?’
Writing doesn’t have to be associated with an insurmountable blank page and a text cursor flashing like a ticking time bomb. If you don’t enjoy the binger writing style, you can adopt some ‘snacker’ strategies. Come up with a writing plan, clarify goals and targets and set aside time to address them. Making notes of what you did each day or jotting down your thoughts on a topic will accumulate into a crude draft over time. Once you refine that into a draft, take a break, revise and ask for feedback from people you trust. Finally, don’t forget to celebrate milestones by giving yourself a treat, being nice to yourself and telling people about it. Self-care is an important aspect of this exercise too.