PART I: Snapshots of the Writing and Thinking Roads I’ve Taken
It might surprise you if I were to share that first as an MA student and now as a PhD student in English (Literature emphasis) here at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I have accumulated several 9 x 12 or 8.5 x 11 spiral-bound sketchbooks and that they have played a central role in helping me discover an effective writing process. So too have I used up the last drops of ink in a fair number of colorful pens and markers when writing across these surfaces. Thinking and writing for me, then, are inextricably linked in a visual and tactile process.
Writing is an individualized process; mine is one of many and not the only process. Writers, then, should experiment with processes to see what works best for them. Tracking progress in a log, trying out different mediums, and figuring out when to incorporate freewriting into a more structured rhythm are all places to start for experimentation.
My destination in Part II of this blog post is to further address common writing productivity challenges and provide tips. To get there, though, I want to provide some sketches of my path. I do so to explicitly model the types of reflection that will prove useful to graduate students.
As a first-semester graduate student, it took me a few attempts at sitting down in front of my laptop with a blank document staring back at me to realize that I needed more space to think through how to generate, support, and sustain arguments across different page-length requirements, in various genres, and to specialist and non-specialist audiences. I went back to the drawing board and revived one of my writing sketchbooks leftover from my undergraduate years.
On paper versus a digital screen, I can better sketch my way into an argument, comment on the ideas that I brainstorm and mold or refine them into a foundation for a paper, and chart out what I have and what I need to find to successfully carry out my writing goals. A sketchbook also affords me a space to create an archive of my thinking process. If I write with assorted colors of pens, I can track the development of my ideas and arguments. I find this visual mapping especially useful as I regularly step away and return to my writing with a fresh pair of eyes. I can also ask questions of my writing and try to answer them by freewriting.
I use my example to underscore that practice thinking about and articulating the what, how, and why that underpins your writing project, however short or long that piece may be, will help you develop your confidence in starting, developing, and revising a draft.
PART 2: A Different Kind of Scenic Route or, Practical Recommendations for Writing Productivity
As we like to remind all writers who visit us in the Writers Workshop, writing is recursive. I use questions like those suggested by Joan Bolker in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis to return to a writing project after some distance away. Example questions from Bolker include:
- “What stands out for me most in what I’ve written?”
- “Is there an argument in this mess?”
- “What point do I want to make?”
- “Is what I’ve said here true?”
- “Do I still believe this?”
- “What am I really trying to say in this argument/chapter/section?” (and we would add, in this paragraph or sentence?)
- What words, phrases, or sentences stand out and could be further explored?
Questions like these help me recognize what I have accomplished and gaps or routes that have opened in my writing and thinking.
Reflection will also help you create a writing schedule, identify feasible writing goals, give yourself positive reinforcement, and make steady progress. To that end, here are some additional tips from the community of consultants at the Writers Workshop:
- Take a personal writing inventory to assess what works well for you. Some writers need to vary their environment to stay focused, shifting locations throughout the course of the week or even a day, while other writers can work on different projects in a regular place.
- Once you have determined the best times and spaces, set a schedule and use your calendar to block off time for writing.
- Be honest with yourself about procrastination habits that lead you to put off writing. Productive writers set aside time to write every day—even if only for a couple of hours, stick to that time, and self-regulate to avoid distractions.
- Still, start fresh every day. We are humans and sometimes things just don’t work quite how we intended. In other words, if you missed your scheduled writing time or had an unproductive day, just acknowledge it and let it go. There’s always tomorrow!
- Do not pressure yourself to write something well-polished on your first attempt. Instead, practice valuing a messy first draft, asking questions, and mining that material into succeeding drafts.
- Recognize your accomplishments. What did you do well with a paragraph? A page? A draft? A longer piece of writing? And with your writing habits and process?
In addition to reflecting on your writing and practicing these writing tips, we recommended taking a trip to the Writers Workshop! We offer individual and small group consultations, host graduate writing groups, and offer several workshops throughout the semester on such topics as staying on track with thesis and dissertation writing, making sense of critical feedback, writing a literature review, and preparing materials for the academic job market. Find out more online.
Here’s to your own rewarding writing journey!
Helen Makhdoumian is a PhD candidate in English, where she teaches literature courses as a graduate student instructor. She also serves as Assistant Director of the Writers Workshop. Her research interests include memory, trauma, and genocide studies; diaspora, migration, and transnational studies; and Armenian American, Arab American, and American Indian literatures.