Effective writing routines can set you up for continued success in any academic, alt-ac, or non-academic professional environment. More than just a matter of sitting down at the computer, writing regularly is a skill that involves time management, creativity, mindfulness, and discipline.
Despite the fact that academia revolves around writing, how to develop strong writing routines is rarely taught in higher education spaces. It is instead presumed to be something faculty and graduate students have already picked up along the way. This unfounded assumption leaves many of us, especially those from marginalized or vulnerable populations, floundering in the face of something we supposedly should already know how to do.
Cultivating a writing practice that works for you is a challenging process, one that should be understood as such without shame. It takes patience and commitment, and a willingness to try different approaches. Here are some targeted tips for how to regularly fold writing into your life through routines and writing rituals, and some bigger lessons to hold on to in the process.
Beyond a pen, paper, or laptop, the first thing writing requires is your attention.
To successfully establish a writing routine, you should be honest with yourself and realistic about when in the day you are best cognitively prepared to take on complex intellectual tasks. Morning pages are a classic approach, but they may not work for you and that’s okay.
What time of day are you most focused and alert? When is your energy most steady? You can’t always work your schedule around your optimal writing time. But during winter or summer breaks when your days are more flexible, try out writing during different times of day to test what feels best.
The issue of when you write also involves the question of how long you write for. You don’t necessarily have to write every day, but ask yourself, how long can you sustain the attention level and mental clarity necessary to write? Do you work best in short, daily spurts of 30 minutes? Or does your writing flow more easily if you block out a few hours, several times a week?
One of the most crucial aspects of successful writing routines and rituals is learning where you write best. We don’t all have the luxury of a clean, safe, or private work space. But when building a writing habit, it can help to at least reflect on what kinds of spaces help you feel centered.
Be attentive to the sensory (not just intellectual) experience of writing. Do you work best with music or in silence? In dim or bright lighting? Are you energized or lulled by the hum of a busy café? And perhaps most importantly—do you absolutely need internet access to accomplish your regular writing tasks? Or would writing somewhere without it, where you’re forced to unplug, help you get more done? Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us that the environment we write it and the objects we surround ourselves with in the process go a long way in helping us get those projects done.
The work of finding a place to regularly write should also involve deciding whether you will write at home or on campus. It may be important to you to write outside the home to preserve the sanctity of the space where you rest. If you are struggling with your relationship to the university and campus is a trigger, seek out spaces in a different neighborhood, or that have a different vibe from your campus office or cubicle.
Seek companionship and accountability
Determine whether your writing thrives in the company of others or in solitude. If you work best with others to hold you accountable, check out whether your graduate student center or home department has established writing groups or a writing partner matching service.
It is crucial that you not be afraid to “shop around” for the right writing partner or group; remember that establishing a writing habit requires making productive decisions that prioritize your needs (and that friends don’t always make the best writing companions).
Academia can be a very goal-oriented space, for better or worse. However, setting small, realistic, and regular landmarks you want to reach in your writing can be a smart, strategic way to build a regular habit and get a sense of your progress. These approaches can be built on a number of metrics, including:
Try free writing, where you write for a given amount of time, usually 10–30 minutes, without stopping. Or try longer blocks of time wherein you write, edit, or outline your project without a break. Structuring your writing routines and rituals around chunks of time is the simplest, most tried-and-true strategy for developing a writing habit. It can be an especially accessible approach if you are starting a new project. But if you are restless by nature, or at a stage in your project where it matters more exactly what you write in each sitting than the mere fact that you wrote, it’s not the only way to go.
Page or word count
Setting a goal based on page or word count can help when you are working on a project that has a well-developed outline. If you know where you want to go and it’s just a matter of getting it down on paper, set an intention for how many words or pages you want to write by the end of that day or week.
Taking a content-centered approach writing can be a bit more complicated if you are just beginning to establish a regular writing practice, but it is still one worth playing with. Base your daily or weekly goal on completing a portion of an argument, or a case study for a book, dissertation chapter, or journal article. It can take some practice to determine appropriate scope, so you will need to be flexible with this technique, and be prepared for some failures along the way. But it can be deeply satisfying and motivating to get an entire idea (or portion of a larger idea) on paper by the end of the day or week.
The act of writing is vital, exciting, stirring, and engaging; an opportunity to hone your thoughts and amplify your message. But it is also, at times, a deeply uncomfortable, even distressing process. Building any habit can be jarring and boring at the start. You might have to stare at the blank page a little (or a lot) to figure out what works; get comfortable with being uncomfortable, mentally and even physically.
The other side of embracing discomfort is knowing when to practice self-care and step away from sources of stress and anxiety. Just like you can learn how to set yourself up for a good start, you can also learn when to listen to your body and step away from the keyboard. The purpose of this work is to build a strong foundation for regular writing, not burn you out completely. As you test out writing at different times of the day, in different places and in different company, you will begin to learn what does—and doesn’t—work for you.
Best of luck, and remember: writing, like anything else, takes practice.