This post comes from Gina Wisker who is head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton in the UK where she is professor of higher education and contemporary literature, runs writing courses for staff, supervises PhD students and teaches undergraduates. Gina’s books include the Postgraduate Research Handbook (2008) The Good Supervisor (2012) and Getting Published: writing for academic publication (forthcoming 2014).
Today is a writing day – it is 12.30, early afternoon and I have defrosted the freezer, dealt with hundreds of emails, planned a course or two and not done any writing. I work best in the morning and now I have traded my writing energy for all those other things which crowd into my time (I happen to be working from home today, meetings and office paperwork can be substituted for these email experiences).
A few years ago Maggi Savin-Baden and I (2009) carried out some research into writing blocks and breakthroughs, and I added some more to that a couple of years later. One of the interesting revelations about breaking writing blocks and actually getting on with that important research-based writing was from an ex-colleague who said, ‘I only have so much writing energy, and if it is expended on bureaucratic documents, then it is gone.’ This has stayed with me among the other information about what we do to recognise and unblock writing blocks and I share this idea of managing the writing energy with writers in workshops and on doctoral projects.
Managing the writing energy is about taking control of your writing rhythms and the times and places in which you can write, some of which are premium – your best time for writing – some are edged in between other events, not in ideal locations. Rowena Murray refers to snack and binge writing (Murray, 2002), snacks being small moments of focused writing in between other things, when you can, binge being a long writing period in which you can really get through a serious piece, finish something off.
A few thoughts from the research and publications, and my own practice:
Planning to write: Find out your best times to write and be realistic about this – mine is early in the morning. Find a slot or two in your work or personal calendar and block it off. Plan to write then but set yourself realistic targets – don’t put in so many writing tasks that you will only experience despair. This is also about finding places and times when you can write. If you cannot write in your ideal time, can you trick yourself into writing later? Some people write well in the morning, some later in the day or through the night. Plan for it, don’t despair if it doesn’t work – find another slot.
Managing the writing energy: If you have to do other work or writing, then deliberately choose to take that time from writing, otherwise try and write when your thoughts are clear – you will make good progress and not ‘waste’ that limited, invaluable energy on the more everyday work. Cut the emails off until you take a break, and capture the thinking, conceptualising and expression energy.
Writing to write: We found many writers said they broke writing blocks and brought their best writing into being through any kind of writing. This includes free writing (Elbow, 1973), writing fast on anything – maybe reflections or a topic – until you stop. Or splurge (Wisker) – writing flat out on and around what you need to write to get your thoughts out, through to writing well phrased first attempts in structured sections of an article or essay, chapter, whatever you are writing. You give yourself the right to write, you write till you have worked the block out of your system by writing about it, or through writing generally. Then you could be more thoughtful about your topic, think it through by writing, and express it very clearly.
Multi-tasking: You can fool yourself that you are multi-tasking, in other words, doing several things at once, and miss out the writing, with the focus on defrosting the freezer and completing the emails. You can also break blocks and just rest your mind by deliberately moving away from the writing and letting your thoughts range freely, or let them focus on a problem of expression, a complex idea or argument, while you are cutting up the supper, sitting in a meeting in which you have to say next to nothing (this does not work if you are chairing or have major items), driving between sites, or going for a short walk outside the building. Focusing on home activities can enable the thought processes to pick up ideas from elsewhere to deal with problems, and to keep going – like having several documents open at the bottom of your computer screen. You can also deliberately choose to listen to music, watch a film, take a long walk or clean out the cupboards. Your writing will be clearer once you return to it. This isn’t wasted time, nor is it procrastination.
Talking to write: I have recently discovered how to make this practice work for me. Sometimes we cannot write down our thoughts but could speak them. Keep a notebook with you at all times to capture what you are writing and a tape-recorder to capture what you are thinking, sometimes clearly expressed, sometimes more hesitantly. This works well if two of you are co-writing, as a recorded conversation can form the basis of the thinking for a first stab at an academic essay (there will be much more hard work to come, but sometimes we generate our best ideas through talking).
Mimicry: When we first start to write in a discipline discourse or for a journal or a particular format, it is useful to research how this looks and sounds, the way arguments are formed and developed, information expressed, and what link words are used. Mimicry (Homi Bhabha) was a denigrating term used in postcolonial theory to suggest initial (at least) copying of others, but in writing it is about learning the language, the forms, expressions and skills. First, we process writing by others in our discipline, and in the format and outlet we want to write for, and see how they argue the points set out in their work. Using the discipline language, we learn to mimic the language and the forms, linking words in an argument (‘in this respect’…. ‘my research suggests that…’). We are not copying their information nor their work; we are learning about structure and expression. We practise until we own the discipline language, the structure and links, and then these are ours to use in our own writing as expressions of our own work.
These are just a few thoughts on practice based on experience and research. One last tip: do not feel guilty if you get less done than you thought you would. Just get on with another strategy, persevere, find out what works for you and use it, take control, congratulate yourself at each piece of beginning or finished, well formed writing, and manage your writing energy!
Peter Elbow (1973) Writing Without Teachers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 77.
Rowena Murray (2002) How to Write a Thesis, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Gina Wisker (2014)’Voice, vision and articulation: conceptual threshold crossing in academic writing.’ in Threshold concepts: from personal practice to communities of practice.
Proceedings of the National Academy’s Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference [E-publication]Ed. Catherine O’Mahony, Avril Buchanan, Mary O’Rourke, and Bettie Higgs January 2014
Gina Wisker (in press) Getting Published, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gina Wisker and Maggi Savin-Baden (2009) Priceless conceptual thresholds: beyond the ‘stuck place’ in writing. London Review of Education 7(3): 235–47.
Gina’s podcast on publishing from your PhD at:
Gina’s podcast on publishing journal articles at:
You can also listen to two podcasts by Gina via the following links: