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Productive Writer No. 1



Welcome to the Productive Writer!


To help you become a more productive writer, we will offer strategies to help you more effectively manage your writing, deadlines, schedule (and maybe your advisor), regardless of your project. 


Whether you are writing a thesis, dissertation, book manuscript, journal article, seminar paper, fellowship application, grant proposal, or job search materials, some of our advice will work for you. 


This one tip will work for EVERYONE: 


Write every day. Write something. Every day.


I know this is easier said than done, right? Here's how you can do it and why it will work to make you more productive.


1. Commit to writing at least 90 minutes every day. 


Why 90 minutes? That's about the maximum time you can endure physically and mentally before needing a break. Write for 90 minutes without getting up from your chair. Seriously. No breaks, no interruptions. ESPECIALLY no checking email or Facebook during your 90 minutes of writing each day. (I promise, you will survive this strategy.)


2. Write every day for two weeks. 


For most of us, that is enough to make writing become a habit. I promise that if you do this, you will discover that you are a much more productive writer. (Start today; do a word count before and after you write. In Word, go to File, Properties, then Words. I see I've written 225 words thus far, and it's taken 16 minutes to compose this draft. Must work faster; it's just a first draft.) Try it.


3. No matter how busy or how tired or sick you are, write for 15 minutes. 


What should you do when you have holidays to observe? Or when you are too ill to write? Or when you can't possibly find even 90 minutes in a 24-hour day? This is when you must write for even 15 minutes each day. Here's why this works:

  • For some of us the hardest part of writing is getting started. We amateurs procrastinate minutes, hours, and days. (The pros-some of the best and most prolific writers you know-report procrastinating for weeks and even years.) We delay because we're afraid we won't have anything to write. We're afraid that what we write will be terrible. We're afraid we're not up to the real pain that good writing requires. It's only when the pain of what we would lose by not writing-fellowships, advisors and mentors, degree completion, book contracts, jobs-feels more real than the pain of actually writing... that we begin to write.
  • Get started, and you've overcome the biggest hurdle. I've never known anyone with the goal of writing for 15 minutes to be ready to stop after 30, 60, or 90 minutes. The trick is that you tell yourself you have to write for only 15 minutes and that you can endure anything for that long. Once you start to write, the anxiety will begin to disappear, and you'll write for much longer.
  • Writing every day contributes to continuity in your thinking and generating the ideas you need to write. Your mind functions differently when you write every day. We all think about our writing every day. But the cognitive processes involved in writing about your ideas are different from those involved in thinking about your topic. Your ideas develop and your project moves forward when you write...even when you write a gosh-awful first draft.


4. One last tip: Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, 1994) suggests this: Place a 1-inch by 1-inch picture frame next to your computer. Then write enough each day to fill the picture frame. I promise you will finish a thesis or dissertation with this method. (You'll finish faster with an 8 x 12 picture frame.) But you must write every day, and the picture frame reminds you to do so.


So commit to writing every day this month. If you are without access to a computer one day, then use pencil and paper. But write every day. If you never have trouble getting started, if you never delay your writing until you've fallen days and weeks behind schedule (or fallen into despair), if you never sit at your computer for hours on end with nothing much to show for it, then don't try this strategy. But if you have not written for 90 minutes (or 15 minutes) yet today, then start right now


You can do this!

Jan Allen, Associate Dean

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell Graduate School