Generative Writing and #shutupandwrite: Second Edition

Of all the posts I wrote for this blog in the early days, ‘Generative Writing and #shutupandwrite‘ has dated the most. In those days I worked for Academic Skills at the University of Melbourne, ran one of the first Twitter virtual #shutupandwrites in Australia twice a week, and was going along to the regular Wednesday face-to-face Shut Up and Writes… Fast forward 4 years, and I’ve had 4 other jobs at 3 different institutions, and all of those Shut Up and Write offerings are now run by completely different people. So I thought it was ripe for a rewrite.

This is the second in a series of Second Edition blog posts–top posts from the archive of the blog that talk about techniques I’ve been using regularly for the last 4 or more years, that are worth publishing in a new and updated version. I hope new and old readers of the blog find them useful!

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Shut Up and Write is 2 or 4 times of 25min writing sprints with a short break between them. We do it in a group, for motivation and accountability.

Usually, Shut Up and Write happens in face to face settings, in cafés or libraries.  The Thesis Whisperer and Research Whispers set up the first main academic Shut Up and Write in Melbourne, they have a central information page  and Inger writes about her first experience of trying it out ; and a post, ‘Writes Well with Others‘ from Jonathan O’Donnell follows up.  There are a number of sessions that run around Melbourne (see this map) and online sessions on Twitter run under the hashtag #suaw. It’s incredibly successful, and so productive. But why does it work so well?

We usually write in private.  We learn in public lectures. Get books from public libraries. We discuss our ideas in public tutorials and seminar groups. But reading and writing happen in private. In silence. And therefore often in shame.

In her post on Shut Up and Write, Kerryanne Rockquemore writes that academic writers who find it hard to produce are given the

tough-guy, ignore-your-needs, shut-up-and-write approach.

Instead, she thinks

embracing your needs will help you to develop a support system that will move you … towards a healthy, consistent, and sustainable daily writing routine.

In spite of the tough-sounding name, Shut Up and Write groups (and Thesis Boot Camp) are designed to fulfil your human needs for company, breaks, food, and rewards. This is why they are awesome.

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The last time most of us wrote in public was probably at school.  And much of that ‘writing’ was actually ‘planning’ or ‘drafting’ or ‘editing’ or ‘integrating feedback’.  In other words, all the other parts of the writing cycle that aren’t actually writing.  For this reason, a lot of people’s writing doesn’t really develop much beyond what they did at school.  Or they fall back onto an over reliance on the parts of writing that can be taught, that are socialised, that are public: like planning and editing.

This is not how academics write.  When I talk about writing with academics, they speak about ‘just getting the bloody thing out’, ‘the shitty first draft’, and ‘sticking the quotes in later’.  The swearing, the crude, slapdash, violence of the language is important here.  There is a violence and a wrenching that is involved in wrestling ideas and thoughts and knowledge into black letters on a blank page. They are often horrified by the careful, slow, perfectionist writing  of their students.

Instead, many successful academics write ‘generatively’: that is they generate text fast, and then edit and improve it multiple times, using a whole village of supporters, from RAs to colleagues to peer reviewers to get their work to be the best it can be.

So, what if you could skip the pain, lose the shame and have a little healthy deadline?  What if you didn’t need a whole day of uninterrupted writing time in order to get anything done?  What if you could get that adrenaline focus without having to crash for a day afterwards?  What if, instead, you could ‘develop a support system’, and get a ‘healthy, consistent and sustainable’ writing routine?  Sign me up!

So, what do we do?

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Set aside some time in advance to plan. I use the Cornell Method of Note Taking to take notes and plan my writing a day or two before I go along to Shut Up and Write.  This means I am dividing the research-thinking-planning stage from the generative writing stage of the writing.

Time box. My favourite time-box is the Pomodoro technique: you set a timer for 25 minutes of work, then set it for 5 minutes of break, and then for 25 minutes of work.
Rockquemore suggests 30 minutes writing a day. Almost no-one does well writing for over four hours.
Some people find Write or Die helpful–you set a time (say 30 minutes), and a word count (say 300 words).  You decide on your settings (I recommend Kamikaze mode), so if you stop typing for a few seconds the page starts to turn red, then redder, then starts to delete your vowels.  It forces you to keep on writing. It also stops you from wandering off to replan, just do a bit more reading, or search for that obscure quote.

Trust that you know what you need to say and ‘just write’.  The best thing about generative writing is that it promotes clarity, authority and your own voice.  When I look at the writing people have done at Thesis Boot Camp or Shut Up and Write, I often find it is even better than their ‘normal’ writing. It’s clear, it’s authoritative, it’s elegant, it tells a good story. I find it easier to understand and easier to read. That’s not actually all that surprising.
If you are early in your candidature, writing in this way can help you formulate your ideas, and see what works in academic prose.  Late in your candidature, there’s a huge amount of information in your head  You are becoming an expert. You have a lot of technical skill in writing. All of that skill, experience and practice means that you are pretty good writers.
What’s more, ‘just writing’ takes you away from creating a patchwork of other people’s writing: which means you are more likely to write in your own voice, and therefore present your own view (i.e. be critical) and avoid reproducing scholarship (i.e. be original).

Reward yourself. At Shut Up and Write we give ourselves a 10 minute break between sessions.  In those 10 minutes, I catch up with other regulars, have a chat  and buy a coffee.  These are all rewards.
Don’t use your breaks to answer emails, or run errands (more work is not a reward!).  Use the break to eat chocolate, look at owl videos on YouTube, or ring a friend.
For those of you who find kittens rewarding, you may also enjoy Written? Kitten! which rewards you with a new kitten (or puppy or bunny!) picture every time you reach your writing goal (say 200 words). I know a serious Biblical scholar who finished a difficult book in a really busy semester by ‘just writing one more puppy before lunch’.

 

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Don’t hate all over your writing. Show your draft to someone you trust and ask them, ‘Is there anything in this draft that would stop me passing my PhD?’ Don’t ask, ‘How do I make this writing better?’ or ‘is this good writing?’, because that’s not the point (and the answer is like ‘how long is a piece of string?’).

The point is, is this writing of a standard to pass?  And if not, what are the things I need to fix in the editing stage (do you need to erase your writing tics? or <Insert Quotes Here>?)  The point of this writing is to pass your doctorate, or get published (after revisions) in this journal, not win the Nobel Prize.  (Also see above on Trusting yourself and Just writing).

Hopefully I’ll see you soon, in person or online, joining me to Shut Up and Write.  I find your company great motivation and discipline–so thanks for coming along!  Right now I’m at #ltusuaw and La Trobe. 

I’m writing a book on this stuff with The Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, and Sean Lehmann. If you want to know when it comes out, sign up to our mailing list here!

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