Write in small snack-size nuggets to avoid choking

Working in small bursts can be more productive than binge-writing, an expert tells Olga Wojtas

July 3, 2008

Academics are too prone to "bingeing" when they should be "snacking", according to an expert on academic writing.

Rowena Murray, reader in the department of educational and professional studies at the University of Strathclyde, is urging academics to write in short time slots, for as little as half an hour, rather than waiting until they can set aside a huge chunk of time.

Dr Murray, a keynote speaker at the 12th "Writing Development in Higher Education" conference at Strathclyde last week, said: "A lot of academics feel they can write only in binge mode - five hours, or two months in the summer - as if anyone has that any more.

"They say, 'What can I write in 30 minutes? It takes me 30 minutes to get started.'" But Dr Murray revealed the results of three research projects she has conducted on productive academic writing practices, which show that writing in short bursts can be extremely valuable.

Funding from the Nuffield Foundation, the British Academy and Strathclyde's research development fund allowed her to evaluate initiatives she has developed, including a writing-for-publication programme that suggests snacking strategies.

These can include taking a journal, looking at the types of paper it publishes, and generating a few targeted sentences, or "freewriting", setting things down without any attempt at editing.

Dr Murray found that a year after the course, the participants had reappraised their assumptions about academic writing and developed a much more positive attitude, which prevented procrastination. They fitted writing into the time available and had stopped looking for "more time to write".

But she also found that the culture within departments or institutions could militate against successful writing. Advancing in academic writing might require a retreat from other activities, she said. But despite management support, other tasks could be seen as having more value, and some academics felt they had to keep their writing covert.

Dr Murray's research revealed that being a successful writer required not only skill but also social support within and outside work, and managerial "permission" to write.

"You need all three," she said. But she stressed that it was up to individuals to find what worked best for them.

"The key thing is that people have to be adaptable in how they write. You can use both snack and binge strategies. There may be fallow or low-output periods."

Dr Murray also evaluated "writing retreats" that she has established, where groups of academics spend two or five days off campus, writing together without the distractions of mobile phones or e-mail. The academics were not necessarily from the same discipline, but had peer discussions on work in progress.

The productivity was dramatic: the output included revising a paper for submission to a journal and writing 5,000 words of a book chapter; completing a conference paper and journal article, plus half of the second chapter of a thesis; and writing the first draft of the methodology chapter of a thesis, totalling 10,000 words.

The Glasgow School of Social Work, a joint school of the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow, now uses writing retreats as part of its research strategy. Dr Murray has found that retreats are even more effective if they are repeated.

One participant said: "If I had three or four retreats a year, I would never ask for study leave."

Dr Murray also warned that academics had to develop a thick skin when submitting work and not take harsh reviews to heart.

"There's vindictiveness out there, and it's not neutral, it's political. With the research assessment exercise, it's competitive. If (your article) isn't actually rejected, that's a cause for celebration," she said.

"Sometimes people have just not resubmitted because the feedback is very negative. Your job is to get on with revising and resubmitting as quickly as possible."


Happy snackers

Academics testify to the benefits of tackling the task of writing a little at a time

"I had a date for the publication of my article, so the snacking did really help, and it was surprising how quickly you could get into it and pick it up again. I always thought I would have to sit for at least three quarters of an hour before I got my brain around and into it, but the fact is you could come in and out quickly."

"You don't have to sit for 48 hours writing something up. Do it in half an hour, and plan the time. Commit yourself to a timetable."

"You can adapt time slots. Sometimes (people) don't turn up, or they finish early. It would be good to have an extra ten minutes where I can sit and get my work out."

"Writing had to be fitted in between everything else - kids, family, whatever - and you are just not in the mood to write. So then you just think, I will put this off until later. But knowing that you are able just to write what is on your mind at the time, and then you can go and do something else, was a technique I had never used before. I previously thought, either I can do this in the next three hours, or I cannot do any of it because it's really hard to get into it."

"I think now what I would do is put aside time every week - write freely and then review it after."

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