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Six reminders to help you and your students get to the writing

It’s no secret that writing is hard, whatever our experience, stage, or state. Academics aren’t the only ones who abhor writing. It’s likely that anyone who ever had to write anything abhors writing. With academic writing, as any other kind, it’s usually hard to get started. Even if we’ve had an initial flush of enthusiasm and are amazed at having produced the first few pages, it’s too easy to sink into a frozen torpor.

Yet writing represents some of the most important aspects of our professional work. And too often we avoid, procrastinate, and rationalize why, instead of writing, we must polish the car or clean out the refrigerator.

In my work as a dissertation and academic coach and editor, I’ve developed several techniques to help us all sneak up on, sidle up to, and finally sit down to write what we need to, whether it’s a course paper, dissertation, another major project, an article, or a great Bond-rivaling movie script.

Of all the topics that could be addressed, I’ve chosen a few that have helped the students and professors I serve, and me, in the endless battle of staring at blank screens, stalling, feeling guilty, forcing out a sentence or two, and eating instead of writing. You may already be familiar with some of these suggestions. If so, let them serve as gentle pokes goads reminders.

To begin: We all need to keep two principles in mind. They serve to fire us up, and keep our engine at least a little warm when our writing desire drags.

A. Choose topics in your field you care about and are even passionate about.
B. Choose topics you believe can make a difference in your field.

1) The All-Important Scheduling

Schedule your writing time. As obvious as it seems, we must all make time for writing. Of course, when a deadline looms, making time is a little easier; the deadline hangs over us like the sword of tenure. So, the very first step is to decide on the time to write and, especially, keep it—as inviolate as you would an oil change or playoff game.

For scheduling you can keep, pay attention first to your necessities. Several time management and writing experts recommend calendar sheets or books where you block out the necessaries—teaching or taking classes, preparation time, committee meetings, house and car maintenance appointments, next episode of Dancing With the Stars.

When you’ve entered all those necessities on your calendar, look at what’s left. Maybe you want to reserve Saturday afternoon for the kids, but what about Saturday morning? And a couple of evenings after dinner?

As you’re deciding, ask yourself a very important question: When do I work best? For me, early mornings are the absolute worst, but somehow I perk up after lunch and into the evening (before the gym). Other people—and I’m sure you know them or are one—love those predawn hours before the day’s commitments, when all is quiet and the only sound is the percolating of the coffee. Or do you ignite at10:00 pm and work into the night? No right or wrong, only what feels best to you.

When you admit to yourself what feels best, you’re honoring your body, your body clock, and preferred working times. So, schedule what’s “normal” for you.

Remember too that, even though we feel we never have enough time, time is not your taskmaster. It’s a flexible servant. You really do have more time than you think. Enter your writing times on the calendar and stick to them.

2) Tiptoe Toward the Project

To help you stick, tiptoe toward the project. Once you appear at your desk, the first thing—and this relates to knowing your best work times—is to feel physically and emotionally well. If you’re tired, hungry, angry, or worried about something other than your current writing project, you’ll defeat yourself and the work. Better to work for 45 minutes at high energy and produce some great stuff than drag along for 3 hours for mediocre output. So, take a nap or a snack, or vent your anger or worry to someone. When you feel good, you have the energy, focus, and interest to concentrate on the work at hand.

Even when you feel great, though, that ol’ devil Procrastination may pop up—with rationales to click on the enticing homepage headlines, open emails, check out Facebook, etc., etc. To make it easier to keep that appointment with yourself, here are three techniques to manage the anxiety of starting.

3) Set a Timer

It’s all about promise and reward. And realizing how much better you’ll feel after your stint. We know we can’t write forever, and shouldn’t. Set a timer for whatever you feel is reasonable—15 minutes or 45 or 60. Promise yourself a delicious reward when the timer bongs (food, TV, current issue of The International Journal of Obscurities). If you think the session you’ve chosen seems ridiculously short, do it anyway. You’d be surprised what can get done in 15 minutes.

This method helps greatly because you’re doing something, anything. You often also get into the momentum, known as the Flow, and may surprise yourself by wanting to continue writing. Sometimes when I’m in the Flow, I don’t even hear the timer, and it’s six inches from my elbow.

4) Create Separate Files

For a major paper, dissertation, scholarly article, and certainly a book, make separate files: prefatory pages, introduction, individual sections or chapters, reference list, appendices. Set up the files according to the format—course paper, university handbook, journal or publisher’s specifications. Later, you’ll combine all files into the finished work.

This seeming baby step benefits you in several ways. When you separate the work into manageable chunks, you feel more organized. And like you’re really writing something, even if it’s only a title. The parts of the work start to take shape and make sense. And more—say you’re in a chapter or section, and a fabulous idea occurs to you for another, as it often does once you immerse. You can quickly click to that other file and type in your dazzling insight for later development. Another very tech savvy idea a professor gave me: today, you can put your files on your phone. So, when you’re in the mall parking lot and a great idea pops up, access the file and text it in.

5) Make a Master List

As you think about the work, all kinds of tasks will bombard you (research 1,200 articles in the last 4 years, organize them by subject, read at least two, see all those pretested surveys, look up multicollinearity) [I can’t even pronounce it]). The tasks threaten to drown you.

To avoid sinking, make a list of everything you can think of. This step shows you the tasks are not quite as endless as you thought. And—miracle!—eventually you really will check off items. You’re primed too for the next technique . . . .

6) Use the Diaper Method

I developed the Diaper Method (patent pending) when an author friend with two small children complained that all she was doing was diapering instead of writing. The light dawned on both of us: Diapering could be applied, metaphorically, to writing of all kinds.

The Diaper Method, I was recently informed, is hardly original. A professor proudly told me his illustrious father, in writing his seminal zoological tomes in the mid- 20th century, “diapered” all chapters of his outlines except the one he was working on. I am not sure what materials he used but glad to give him credit.

For the Diaper Method, I thought immediately of my clients suffering through piles of higher and deeper [PhD] course syllabi, instructions, rubrics, research articles, multipage handouts, endless PowerPoints meant to help, and seventeen contradictory research books. The students often become immobilized, not knowing where to point their pen or cursor.

The Diaper Method comes to the rescue. It is almost embarrassingly simple: From your master list, choose, for example, from the required dissertation subheads an easy one to start with. Whether on paper or computer screen, isolate this subhead. If you print out your paper or chapter subheads, cover everything elseon the page—diaper it above and below—with large scrap of papers, Post-its, or leftover giant tortillas. If you’re on a screen, press Control + Enter so this subhead is the only thing on the page.

Now you can concentrate on what you see. Start writing. Within the timeframe you’ve decided on, your goal is to create text for this subhead only. When you finish, whether or not you intuit that more will be needed, move the diaper so it reveals your next choice. That’s it.

I had to devise an expansion of the Diaper Method, and maybe it will servew you too. Like me, you probably have files and piles of half-finished, quarter-finished, barely embryo’d projects threatening to pull you in all directions. So, expand your diaper to a blanket. Push all those projects into a corner and throw a blanket, beach towel, or handmade embroidered quilt, over them. Out of sight, out of guilt.

The Diaper Method is like dissertation blinders: you focus only on the task before you. At the same time, you’re handling those horrible thoughts of overwhelm and endlessness. And you’re knocking off something. You start to feel an unaccustomed, sweet sense of achievement and dare to allow yourself a little excitement at your progress.

These six tips/pointers should help you, and your students, start writing. If you’re still having trouble, decide on one (e.g., set the timer), make your promise, and press the button. Even if you have to watch the seconds ticking by, at some point you’ll get tired of that or disgusted with yourself. And you’ll finally get to it—a few words or sentences or paragraphs down and you’ll feel proud that you have and maybe even rarin’ to keep writing.

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

© 2021 Noelle Sterne

Guide to Making Time to Write
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Available as a print and eBook.

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Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at