There are many blogs and books published and still being published on writing. My two most popular posts on this blog concern writing tips and sentence constructions, despite this not being a writing blog. This is all quite telling. A lot of the online academic community like to read about new ways to plan, structure and carry out writing. It suggests there’s a lot of uncertainty about writing. Are we a community suffering from writer’s block? This post and a follow up share my experiences with some of the writing and planning tools and tips that I’ve tried for my own writing lately. Not everything works for everyone; I’ve tried a few methods to help kick start or maintain some projects, and record my successes or failures. I’m going to start with things that have not worked for me.
750words.com is a “blank page” web-based tool designed as a clean space in which writers can record anything they like. The thinking is that 750 words, or three pages’ worth, is a good start each day, while being enough to feel you’ve accomplished something. I signed up for the free trial which is 30 consecutive days. The web site stores all your writings by the day, can export anything you actually want to use, and awards you points each day you write anything, go over 750 words, and for consecutive days’ writing. There is also a daily email reminder to write your 750 words.
I liked seeing the total word count go up. However, could I say that these were good words? Were they words I could use? Am I “brain dumping” everything in order to start from a fresh mind, those annoying thoughts put aside? It is nice just to be typing: I can see how it is a useful warm up. Other fun things are the gamification of it: once you’ve finished you can look at the stats with graphs and pie charts on how fast you write and how long each day it takes you to get to 750 words (for me, average of 60 minutes), what the main emotions in your writing are. Then you can win badges, for things like writing three, five, ten days in a row, or writing fast. I managed only a three-days-in-a-row badge (it’s a picture of a turkey, which also appeals to my tenpin bowling side). That tells me something. It tells me that I am not truly concerned about writing a 750 word brain dump every day. That maybe I need to be writing quality prose and I don’t think I can do this on a blank screen away from all my previous writing and planning. I feel that when I do that, I am not writing the best writing I could, or it is substance-less, because I am not drawing from the reading and outlining I have already done. I wrote 7000-ish words more than I would have written that month, but I didn’t always find that they were words I could do something with.
Another problem I have is that I am often not online when I would like to be typing 750 words. For instance, on the train to work would be a great time to use for getting started on writing something, even if it is just warm up or brain dump. However, as it’s web-based, I can’t get 750words.com loaded on my wifi-only tablet on the train. Writing in a notepad like Google Keep and then pasting it in when I get to work would be ok, but it messes with the stats on how fast you write (750 wpm!), if you care about that sort of thing.
After a month, at the end of my trial, I saw I’d used 750words.com on about 50% of the days. For me, that is not enough to justify even the low subscription rate of $5 a month. I really like the idea of it, and it is good value for many people, but I found myself looking for more structured tools.
There are probably similar reasons at work in my failure to stick to using the Pomodoro Technique (simplistically, blocking 25 minutes at a time for a task, followed by a 5 minute break) – 25 minutes feels at once too short to do any work yet too long to avoid other demands – although perhaps I am just not protecting my time properly, which is a key objective in successful pomodoro use!
While I started out using the Academic Writing Accountability spreadsheet very well (you’ll find me listed up until June) for first draft writing, once I got into editing it had less purpose for me. The idea is to record your daily word count and, like 750words.com, see your progress building up; there’s space for recording your monthly total, your writing aims and whether you have achieved them. Once you’re editing however, and not producing but cutting words, a daily total of -500 words is less motivating. Some users record instead their pomodoro use: “five pomodoros today”, for instance.
The thing about any writing suggestions is yes, try them all out, but you will need to find one (or a hybrid) that works best for you, and stick at it. Not jumping between different suggestions. If you do 25 minute pomodoros, do that. If you want 750 words first thing in the morning (that you might then edit later in the day), do that. I’m going to turn next to some techniques which have I have found personally more successful.