Summer: A Season for Entering into a Zone of “Writing Under Construction”

22 May

I’ve have liked my “Shut Up and Write” days (a December 2011 TILT topic) during Winter Break and Spring Term 2012, and have observed a range of positive motivational and organizational, as well as creative and productive impacts on colleagues here at UMinn and in the UK.  I tend to see, as do many of my colleagues, these warmer northern hemisphere summer days and weeks as having the shimmer of “sorta sabbaticals” when I can pause academic calendars and publication cycles.

These weeks at the end of May are when I hope to leave behind the “traffic jammed” intersections of teaching, administration, meetings for projects, advising, research and writing – and return to planning for those summer work in the office and at home days that favor the work of writing.

Yet, of course, it’s summer in Minnesota as I write this, which brings an intensified season for road construction – just a look outside my office window or a walk in my St. Paul neighborhood means encountering all manner of road construction project linked to a light rail track that is still almost two years out.  And, yes, my desks at both locations are hubs for my own academic road construction – piles of notes and paper and books awaiting the couple of day’s I’ll devote to planning for doing the work of writing this summer.  Planning that is also impacted by how we will construct holiday, term break and family vacation plans, and by the  “things to catch up on” list I’ve carefully constructed in anticipation of summer.  Summer.  Sorta Sabbatical Summer.

To make this all work, I’m calling these two May weeks the start of Summer as Writing Under Construction Season. 

In that spirit, this blog post will share ideas and resources from writers who’ve written about their moves from including an “I’ll write those articles” item in the “catch up on” list to their  practices for incorporating ways of writing as an ordinary act with varieties of practices and emphasis across a year of writing on one’s own and writing with the support of – and sometimes the company of – others.

In sifting through the articles and blogs focused on writers and writing, those I’ll share in this post can be adapted to the writing planning and practices of  upper division undergraduates composing honors theses and graduate students simultaneously researching and writing to faculty working 2 to 3 projects to completion.

1. What Do You Need [in order] to Write?

This is Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s question in a summer Inside Higher Ed blog:

What do I need to maximize my writing this [break]? Academic writers have lots of different needs. For example, some people need to physically share space with others while writing, some need a stern authority figure to answer to, some need solitude and the kind of support that is silent, some need a quantitative accounting of their progress, some need to be in groups with similar others, some need to be regularly inspired, some need ongoing substantive feedback by those in their specialty field, some need regular cheerleading, some need therapy, and some need an occasional exorcism (from the demons of bad academic socialization). It’s even OK if you need all of these things at different times! The important thing is to identify what you need without judgment, shame, or self-flagellation.

Knowing what you truly need to maximize your productivity is what will allow you to construct a writing support system that is effective for YOU.

I need to write before I’m ready to explain core ideas to other people, to exteriorize – which Robert Boice notes as including acting “to put private notes and formative manuscripts [out] for public comment” among my a group of colleagues also in the midst of writing.  I need strategies so that I am more often in the third group described in Robert Boice’s study of fauclty writers, reported in “Procrastination, Busyness and Bingeing” (Behaviour Research and Therapy 27.6 [1989]: 605-11).

Participants were divided into three groups:

(a) The first group (“controls”) did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in 1 year they wrote an average of 17 pages;

(b) the second group wrote daily and kept a daily record; they averaged 64 pages; (

c) the third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group’s average was 157 pages.  (Reported by Tara Gray in this easy to access “Publish and Flourish” essay.)

While I need “The Faculty Writing Place: A Room of Our Own” described by Peter Elbow and Mary Deane Sorcinelli – regular days of writing in a room with others, that’s not going something I’m going to be able to create this summer for myself or others, informally or officially.

That’s when I turned to Carmen Werder and Karen Hoelscher to gather ideas about taking Time Out to Write.  Their post reinforces a graduate school teaching mentor’s one rule, in two parts, for us:  make appointments each week using your name and a name for your writing project to name the two parties to be in attendance, and let someone know your scheduled meeting plan.  Each week, we’d share one ideas with this person, or we’d tell them we’d cancelled a meetings  Accountability.  Make that Supportive Accountability and an Ear to Hear Ideas.  We kept appointments.

And I will be using the Pomodora process a bit more regularly as it’s time to connect and deepen and expand the generative writing I accumulated during Spring Semester days into full length pieces.  But I don’t get to do this until  I see in my own handwriting the 3 goals that will shape my Summer Writing Plan.

For now, in Section 2, I’ll recap the Pomodoro process as a writing Time Out and Mindset; this process is immensely useful for building from a collection of interrelated  short writings (the Spring writing  generate and merge and discover ideas) into a fully drafted article or essay.  In Section 3, I’ll share three resources focusing on planning for success in the production of finished drafted writings.

2. You Say Tomato, I Say Pomodoro

The Pomodoro Technique is one Shut Up and Write strategy that’s suitable for a winter break day or weekend or series of days  when I know that what I need are on-going, semi-structured, not exactly predictable periods of writing that I can sustain as chunks of activity nestled between planned for breaks.

Like Pasta Pomodoro – which mixes fresh tomatoes with pasta, olive oil and basil for a quick and light meal that leaves you nourished and ready for a next course and maybe even for the pudding course – this Pomodoro requires few basics: a writing task, place to write, writing tools, and a timer for an intial two hour chunk of time.

Here’s the pattern

1a. set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes

1b.  work on the task until the timer rings; record that stopping place with an X

1c. take a short break (5 minutes).

Repeat these components three more times, so that a full pomodoro includes rounds 1abc, 2abc, then 3abc, and finally 4abc.  A two hour chunk of writing.  Followed by a longer break:

At the end of four pomodoros, you’ll take a a 15–20 minute break- time to walk away, to take a walk, to do one part of an exercise routine, to taste the cup of tea or coffee, to let your mind wander to the next Tomato Round.
A lovely thing about these four tiny pomodoro excursions in one session is that as as writer you get to watch ideas grow and you get to feel motivation build.  As Inger Mewburn notes,  one full Pomodoro is a heck of a way to get to 1,000 words in a day – and maybe even during a break week for the cumulative writing that crafts a 4,000 word article in draft.

And for those who, like me, value a visual alongside things that involve a flow of events, the Pomodoro Technique Flowchart.

3. Planning for Luck

In “Plan to Be Productive This Summer!” blogger and PhD candidate Tanya Golash-Boza breaks down just how to make a plan for the 12 to 15 weeks of summer – starting with taking a break, and following up with

1) develop[ing] a better idea as to what you can reasonably accomplish; 2) set[ting] clear benchmarks for yourself and ensur[ing] you are making progress; and 3) …hav[ing] a realistic idea as to what you have and have not accomplished.

Planning for luck isn’t all that different from designing courses, syllabi, or presentation – start with idea outcomes / learning goals  you want to reach by the end of a conference session or class.  Then select the couple of writing strategies (as you would select teaching or learning strategies in course planning) that will enhance fluency, sustain you through difficult moments, and become comfortable through use.  Don’t feel shy about building new knowledge about writing strategies by asking your friends and writing colleagues what has worked for them.

Finally, determine how you will build in time for reviewing the work you’ve completed – noticing what works or doesn’t work in order to adjust the patterns, or talking with a peer to speak ideas aloud as they are just taking shape, or gathering several pages of drafting together in order to complete a planned revision/editing period of time.  The long-time writing teacher in me can’t help but pause here to interject this: Writing, revising and editing are three separate activities.  Of the three, writing deserves the biggest allocation of time, so give it lots of space.  Let the revision period be about finding and honing intersections of ideas, with the editing follow along as the fine-tuning work of helping ideas hold together through tracking/sign posting analysis,  developing transitions, and making word and punctuation choices that enhance readers’ understanding. 

In “Taming the Publishing Beast: The University of St. Catherine Scholars’ RetreatCecilia Konchar Farr, Joanne Cavallaro, Gabrielle Civil, and Susan Cochrane write from their experience as faculty at the University of St. Catherine – a small liberal arts college with evaluation and conversational emphasis on teaching and learning, The ideas they set out in this essay for Change Magazine demonstrate the ways in which goal setting, writing time, and a community place in which could gather in small groups simply to be in the presence of other writers “began to transform our community” so that the community “overcame a Midwestern institutional culture of reticence about scholarship and got people talking about it.”

The full article sets out specifics regarding set up, evaluation, and sustaining of the Scholars’ Retreat – as an entity on campus, and as an on-going practice through the year-round support through weekly “Writing Wednesdays” on campus at a specific time and place.  Two key sections are quoted below as the practices of Goal Setting and establishing Writing Time can be adapted by individual writers as well as peer responding groups either starting to form or looking for strategies to reinvigorate an established group:

Goal Setting

A key function of the small groups is to help scholars set and realize goals. On the first day, participants describe the overall goal for their writing project to be accomplished by the end of the retreat. They then break that goal down into specific daily tasks—a number of words or pages or a time commitment, for example. We found that clarifying, declaring, and witnessing goals in the small groups helped scholars organize their writing projects and move them forward; it held them accountable to their colleagues.

At the end of the retreat, participants also set goals that help them continue to prioritize writing in their everyday lives and come up with strategies for creating accountability. Since working with a writing partner or group is particularly effective, we now have several writing groups meeting regularly on campus.

Sacred Writing Time

The core of the retreat is Sacred Writing Time, the time allotted for everyone—facilitators and participants—to work on scholarly projects. This work includes any part of the scholarly writing process: brainstorming, researching, number-crunching, data entry and assessment, drafting, or proofreading. Sacred Writing Time is dedicated to making progress on the project. Marking out specific “sacred” hours helps writers build strong productive habits that are transferable (with some determination) to our everyday schedules during the semester.

Making a Summer Writing Plan, then using it – modifying it, supplementing it, living happily with the more productive writing time that comes with a plan – this  is  about Establishing Habits of Writing in Writing for Academe.  This is the core of Planning for Luck.  From InsideHigherEd, the “Establishing Habits” post recaps some of the research on practices for writing in academe that I’ve not discussed here, and then links ideas set out in this post with to process for “Aligning Writing Projects With Departmental Expectations.”  Again, a way to Plan for Writing in ways that we might also, already be using in creating courses, syllabi and presentations.

Writing as part of academic life has required of me ongoing willingness to walk away from writing in order to refocus on goals at regular intervals, to write through the rough parts in order to remake practices that will sustain my writing in next difficult moments, and to recognize that there are any places in my daily work where I can write out or work out or test out ideas that I’m developing for publication.  Writing with a Plan has also allowed me to see all the forms of academic writing I complete in a given week – but that’s another blog post.

May this be a Summer where you, too, are the one setting out the Changed Priorities signage to mark the work of your own Summer of Writing Under Construction.

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