The key to productive writing is steady engagement with a project you find rewarding. But academic writing projects don’t always feel rewarding—in fact, they often feel like predators lurking in the jungle, ready to attack. Who wants to engage with them?
Your first instinct, when your writing project starts to feel like a wild animal, may be to keep your distance. But that just makes things worse. You need to find ways to tame it and reestablish safe, steady engagement.
When I was unable to write my dissertation, I discovered three interrelated project-taming techniques. They reduced my fear, helped me deal with some fundamental personal issues, and led to the successful completion of my dissertation. I still use them, whenever I feel anxious and overwhelmed. Here’s a rundown of how they help me:
Create a project box.
I compose on my laptop, and save written files there. But I organize my project using a real box, and it works for me. The project box, first suggested by David Sternberg in his 1981 classic,How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation,is a straightforward way to open and close an organized set of project-related files. I’m old-school and use an actual portable hanging-file box, available at office-supply stores for under $20. It has a lid that locks, and it holds a small number of labeled hanging files. Perhaps you can do this electronically, but most writers I work with find the project box helpful. The point is to keep the work contained and separate from all your other commitments.
My hanging files are labeled: Outlines (various overviews); Questions (that I want to answer through the project); Next Steps; References; Chapter X Notes (ideas and outlines for each chapter or section); and the crucial Ventilation File (explained below). That’s all. It may not sound like much, but it keeps my project from overwhelming me.
Scholarly projects expand and mutate. It is disorienting to deal with an ever-changing collection of possibilities. A box of hanging files, including outlines and questions, allows me to create structure for, and place limits on, an always-proliferating project.
I also need to be able to fully engage—and disengage—from my writing. I need ways to stop feeling like “I ought to be writing” all the time. Without a project box, my writing can feel like an intrusive heap of loose ends and false starts. With a project box, the chaos of intellectual work is corralled into organized sections, and those sections seem to be waiting patiently for me to return to them every time I open the lid.
Use a “ventilation file.”
Even when safely corralled, my project can start to feel toxic or pointless. I begin to avoid and doubt it, and I resist working on it. That is where the amazing power of what Sternberg calls the ventilation file comes in. It offers me a confidential space for every hostile, resentful, negative thing that comes up when I try to write.
The ventilation file has changed my writing life. It’s a mental and physical space where I express the misery that academic writing can generate.
If I have a project box organizing my writing, if I’m committed to opening my project box for at least 15 minutes a day (see below), and I am still stalled or resisting, then something is up. The problem is not structure or time. It is something else. And if I ignore that “something else” it will just get stronger or come back in another guise. That’s when it’s time to vent.
The great thing about this technique is that it acknowledges and incorporates my resistance to writing into the project itself. Rather than trying to ignore or overcome my writing issues, the ventilation file invites them in for a chat. I get to explore why I don’t want to be writing at all.
I write about how stupid, boring, wrongheaded, and pointless the project is, or I feel, or my life seems. The ventilation file gives me a way to safely engage my own self-generated writing obstacles. Once I’ve written them down I can set them aside or deal with them through other means—therapy, talking with friends, advice from a colleague. By giving supportive space to whatever is standing in my way, the ventilation file lets me get on with my writing.
So give yourself this nonjudgmental arena to express your misery. You don’t have to reread what you’ve written, and you can erase or tear it up if you prefer. But if you do reread, you will find out at least some of what you are telling yourself about the project, your abilities, and your situation. This negative stuff deserves your attention. The ventilation file allows the resistance in. As the Buddhists suggest, one of the best ways to deal with your demons is to invite them in for tea.
Write for 15 minutes a day.
So the project box corrals, and the ventilation file decontaminates. But what about the 15-minutes idea? Surely no one can get a scholarly writing project finished by only writing 15 minutes a day?
Well, yes, you can. I first heard about this technique in Virginia Valian’s engaging 1977 essay “Learning to Work.” When Valian was beginning her academic career, 15 minutes was the maximum amount of time she could force herself to write before being overwhelmed by anxiety. She asked her boyfriend to time her, and she collapsed as soon as her 15 minutes ended. But as she met her time commitment, over and over, her anxieties diminished, and she was eventually able to connect reliably with intellectual work. She has had a long and admirable career as a psycholinguist.
Research on writing productivity confirms her experience. Studies show that brief, consistent contact (daily is best) with a writing project results in more creativity and productivity than long, intermittent writing bouts. In other words, we do not need huge swaths of time to do writing work. Instead, what works best is contained, inviting “research minutes” as often as possible.
Anyone can find 15 minutes a day. I recommend six rather than seven sessions of writing each week, so that you always can take a day off, guilt free.
So that’s it—three tools that let you contain, cleanse, and reconnect to writing. Are they really all you need to write productively for the rest of your life?
Yes and no. Just as most diet advice is some version of “eat less; move more,” most writing advice is some version of “fear less; write more.” My next columns will explore in detail how to create more time, space, and energy for writing, as well as how to deal with the various writing “demons” that deflect us. But all my advice is predicated on your willingness to apply these three techniques whenever necessary.
It is reasonable to feel overwhelmed by a project that has no boundaries. It is also common to be distracted by unacknowledged writing issues, and deluded about how much time you actually need to be writing. Under these conditions, your project starts to feel unsafe, and so you start to avoid it, which just makes things worse. These three techniques break that pattern. They allow your project to feel less like a wild beast lurking in the jungle, ready to devour you, and more like a friendly pet—waiting in the backyard, ready for a daily walk.
Photo: Clyde Beatty, the lion tamer and circus owner.
Update 1/5/14: This article was updated to credit David Sternberg for the "project box" and for the "ventilation file" ideas, both suggestions in
his 1981 classic, How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation. We regret the omission.