400 Words

Start time: 5:29 pm

Writing. So many people in academic environments struggle with writing, and I am no exception. My typical problems include procrastination and overcommitment, which then combine to paralyze me at times. Rather than writing anything, I write nothing (not to fear, I’m still working because there’s always plenty to grade, edit, report on, etc.). For the last several years, I’ve tended to put myself last, which means that writing has been last on my to do list. I would have inner dialogues that went something like this:

Okay, it’s 9 am. Why not give yourself 30 minutes to catch up on email, then knock out those letters of recommendation, check in with the online class, do the manuscript review for the journal, and then you’ll be clear to write your own manuscript for the rest of the day. 

It sounds good, right? By 9:45 I’d be doing letters, by 10:45 reviewing the manuscript, and by lunch I’d be on to my own writing. Only by lunch I’d still be reviewing the manuscript, I’d have more email to contend with, some administrative “emergency” would have come up, and I’d been tired and distracted. I’d then convince myself that I should spend the rest of the day “clearing the decks” so that Tuesday could be a good writing day. After the defense is over, of course — that’s from 11-1, so why bother trying to write before 11? I’ll read the dissertation late tonight, handle email and draft questions for the defense from 9-10, then maybe organize a few documents for writing after 1 … well, after lunch.

It’s almost embarrassing to write all of this out because I can see how much I negotiated with myself about how to put off writing to get everything else done. I miss the days when I had long spans of writing time (pre-family, pre-tenure), but the reality is that my current life doesn’t look that way. I have to teach. I have meetings to attend and administrative and service responsibilities. I’m a journal editor. I’m doing data collection (so much more fun than writing!). Plus I have a family. Somehow I have to balance all of these activities and still squeeze in writing.

I’ve tried various approaches, but the one I’ve been trying most recently (3 months now) is the best one yet. I’ve joined a writing challenge group. You can read the full details here (AGT Monthly Writing Challenge) if you’re interested, but the basic gist is that I’ve committed to write at least 400 words per day, at least 5 days a week, for a month.

In three months, here’s what I’ve managed to accomplish (I’m going from memory here, and I’m not counting a bunch of smaller things that I’ve written along the way):

  • A revise and resubmit
  • A 6000 word journal manuscript
  • A book chapter
  • 3 conference proposals
  • 1500+ words on each of three journal manuscripts (all still in progress — I flit around  a bit)
  • Thousands of words on a longer project

It’s amazing how the words add up. I’ve had some days that have been writing days, and my final word count can be around 2000 words for those days. However, the real impact on my productivity hasn’t been the official writing days, but rather the continuous act of writing. I don’t want to let the ball drop, so I’m writing pretty much every day — no matter what. I’ve started keeping a list titled “low hanging fruit writing” in my bullet journal. If it’s Friday and I was in meetings all day, then had family time, out with friends, and I get home at 10:30, tired, with no writing done yet, I look at that list, pick a topic, and start free-writing (something I never would have done before). Before I know it, I have 400 words. Usually I keep going, following the train of thought, and may end up with 500, 600, or even up to 1000 words. And the next day when I look at those words I typically find that they can be edited down a bit into some pretty useful text that will be sent out in a manuscript.

Now when I sit at a keyboard, the words just flow out of my fingers. Sure, I still have to look things up, and some days I sit and think for a while about how to best phrase something, or how to organize (and re-organize) my thoughts. But I’m writing. A lot. And this has been the magic of writing 400 words a day.

End time: 5:50 pm. Total time: 21 min. Word count: 734 words. 

3 thoughts on “400 Words

  1. Vanessa,

    I know exactly what you mean. Once the writing muscle gets going, it’s hard to contain it. Like you said, as long as the momentum doesn’t get lost, the words will keep on flowing. It also sounds like you got a lot accomplished in the last few months!

    I’m more interested in the data collection you’re doing that is more interesting than writing. If I didn’t know better from taking your class last semester, I would think that that was sarcasm! But, I do, and I am sure the data collection actually is exciting. Are you referring to personal data, or data about your classes, or something else? You may have already blogged about this somewhere else, but I would be very interested to see a post about all of the data that you collect / review on a regular basis.


  2. Wow, you are productive. I really should focus on writing. I had those challenges you mentioned.I checked the writing project which was inspiring. Thanks. I am now considering about participating in it. Haha. 🙂


  3. Hi Vanessa,

    I can relate to your post. It is like that for photography as well. Some times I just have so many other things to do (work, family, exercise, house chores) and I just don’t pick up the camera. Recently I joined a local photography community that has a monthly photography challenge. Members are encourage to head out and shoot some photos according to the theme of the month! This helps to get my ass going and I think it’s the power of community. I find this similar to when having workout buddies. More people in the group and therefore more pressure to stick to the goals.


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