Reflection on AcWriMo 2012

Phew! I survived AcWriMo 2012, a month long initiative of focused academic writing (more information here).

My pledge for AcWriMo was to write 100 minutes every day and to produce 6 specific outputs, including revising and resubmitting one paper, writing a book review and working on other articles.

In the end, I wrote an average of 70 minutes per day. There were several days with no writing, some days with short writing spells and a few more with lengthy blocks of writing (see figure 1 below). As for the 6 outputs, I achieved 2, partly achieved 2 more, and made no progress on the final 2.

Figure 1. Minutes of Academic Writing per day

AcWriMo data

In addition to the dedicated writing time and the outputs, there was something else I gained from this experience: I was able to reflect on how I write, what helps me and what hinders productivity. Here are some of my conclusions.

Having limited time to write is great for productivity

Often I had to fit writing around other commitments such as a meeting or the school run. Knowing that I would need to stop writing at a particular time, and that I would not be unable to work on the paper for several hours (or even the rest of the day), meant that I become very aware of how I was spending my (scarce) writing time.

Ambitious goals help with productivity

At the end of the each day, before switching off my computer, I listed what I was going to work on the next day. For instance, I might set a goal of reworking 2 sections of the paper. Sometimes, the goals were very ambitious, sometimes they were quite comfortable. Either way, I usually achieved my goal…  but I rarely surpassed it.

It is great to have co-authors

I have been working on some co-authored papers and some sole-authored ones. No prizes for guessing which papers moved during the month and which ones didn’t! Co-authors help me improve the output by spotting gaps or flaws in what I write, by suggesting a reference or angle I did not consider before, and by not being impressed by how much work I have done (only what I produced).

Moreover, co-authors keep the paper moving when I can’t (e.g., because I am teaching). Also, the meetings or phone calls that we schedule to discuss progress work as a kind of deadlines, which also helps with productivity.

Have several projects on the go

If I have several projects on the go, while my co-author is working on one of the projects, I can move on to the next project and keep productivity up. In fact, I can still benefit from working on several projects simultaneously when I am the only author when papers are at very different stages of writing – e.g., drafting vs. editing.

There is a place for binge writing and a place for snack writing

Binge writing is when I have a big block of time to work on something. This type of writing is essential to move forward with the project. But snack writing – where I fetch 20 minutes here for a quick read of the paper, 20 minutes there for an edit, 20 minutes more to jot down some ideas, etc – is important, too.

Snack writing keeps the paper moving, it is not daunting and keeps the argument fresh in my mind. Also, the breaks (i.e., the time in between the ‘snacks’) give me a chance to think through the issues I picked up during the quick read or quick edit or writing attempt.

Accountability matters

Inspired by jenn’s studious life, I created a spreadsheet to record how much time I spent doing what. Keeping a record of my writing time was really useful. It helped me to see how much time I was investing in academic writing (or not, as was often the case!). It also helped me realise how I use my writing time. Moreover, it made me stop before I did non-writing tasks in my writing time (e.g., check e-mail) – much like keeping a food diary, makes you more aware of what you are putting in your mouth and may encourage you to make healthy food choices.

Effect of conditioning

Frustratingly, I can write in certain places but not others. Sure, it might have something to do with the writing environment but I suspect that conditions are not the whole story. For instance, I mostly write at home and find it incredibly difficult to focus on writing when I am in the office. However, I can get lots done in a café or a busy airport lounge. So, when I need to progress with writing but can not avoid going to  the office, I use the time to browse a journal database, check submission deadlines, etc.

The good news is that I am carrying some of these lessons into December. What about you? What helps your productivity (writing or otherwise)?

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