Know Thyself: The Ultimate Lesson from a Writing Retreat

Hello again, all!

In my last post I shared about some of the tools I use for writing. I also shared a little bit about how these tools have helped me to learn more about my writing habits and also in examining why I think/feel/act the way I do when it comes to daunting task of writing. People who write about habit change or change in general talk a lot about insight – about how in order to change something you have to be aware of what is actually going on. Changing something that you don’t understand typically doesn’t yield good results (we know this from our research training, too! We’d never go off manipulating variables without understanding what we’re changing, right?)

I attended a breakout session at the Writing Retreat that was a game changer. The professor leading the session is a BOSS and gave incredible advice for building long-lasting writing habits and I picked up so many tidbits for writing improvements (shout out to Dr. Stacey Waite for sharing your genius methods!).

The overarching piece of advice I took from the session was this:
Know Yourself and Your Writing Will Improve.

Easier said than done, right? Well, actually there are a lot of ways to get to know your writing self. Here are some of the ways we can do this.

First, examine the stories or myths you tell yourself about writing.

I shared a little bit in my post on writing trackers how I have a TON of these stories about writing. As with any other situation that is anxiety-provoking, writing can provoke our inner critic (or inner asshole/IA as Jen Pastiloff says) resulting in a shit-storm of stories about ourselves and writing.

Here is a selection of some my inner narratives about writing:
1. I can only write at night.
2. I can only write when I’ve had coffee.
3. I can’t write at home.
4. I should only write when I want to (rebel tendency coming out there)
4. I can only write at coffee shops.
5. I can only write if I have more than two hours open.
6. I will catch up on writing this weekend/summer/winter break.
7. I don’t know how to write.
8. Writing is too difficult and my work will never get accepted anyway, so why try?
9. I wish I didn’t have to write.
10. I can only write when I’m inspired.
11. I will write better if I watch a little Netflix/read a few pages of this book/meditate/cook dinner/plan my week/research alternate careers first.
12. I can’t write. It’s too hard.

Wowza. And that’s just a selection of them. Once you have taken a little inventory of what your stories are around writing, I would take the next step.

Next, dig into this further using the questions below.

Take out a piece of paper (or turn your word doc orientation to landscape) and divide the paper into six columns. Then put the following short questions into each column kinda like this:

What? When? Where? Who? Why? How?

(short for:
What do you write?
When do you write best?
Where do you write best?
Who do you write best with?
Why do you write?
and How do you write best?)

Mine looked a little like this:

During this exercise I remembering thinking things like, “Oh yeah – these are all pretty accurate! I know myself pretty well!” I mean I have been fighting with my writing since day one of grad school FIVE YEARS AGO so it probably feels like I know a lot of things. But once I looked further into these statements – they really seemed more like impressions, preferences, or worse – EXCUSES.

These questions can reveal how many ways we try to talk ourselves out of writing. Probably because WRITING IS HARD.

Anyway, the professor’s next bit of advice was to take some of these “I write best when/with/at ____” statements and devise an experiment to test them. (HERE’S WHERE OUR RESEARCH TRAINING COMES IN HANDY!)

For example, I decided to experiment with one of the statements at the core of my identity as a night owl – “I write best at night, the later the better.” This writing retreat happened to be occurring for a full week starting right at 9:00am each day. So, after this talk I challenged myself (attempting to do so with an open mind) to an experiment – is it REALLY true that I can’t write in the morning? That nights are BEST?
Well, no. It wasn’t true. I was completely able to write in the morning. This experiment taught me a lot of things that worked well in the morning (I got less distracted with emails and other tasks since I knew I had the REST of the day to deal with those things; I felt less anxious throughout the day since my writing was done FIRST; and it provided me with evidence that I COULD write in the morning).

Dr. Waite’s essential tip included challenging as many of these tips to an experiment to see what ARE true statements for you. For me, I DO write best when I have at least two hours, when I can see outside (by a window or with a window in sight), when I’m the right temperature (now I bring sweaters, blankets, and extra socks to the coffee shop), and when I’m not at home.

Have you attended a writing retreat? What have you learned? How do you write best? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment, go follow my page on instagram (@thegradschoolgrind), message me on the contact page, or shoot me an email at thegradschoolgrind@gmail.com

In the meantime, I’ll be writing away in the stacks. Keep grindin’!

-J

How to Track Your Time to Meet Your Writing Goals

Happy July, readers!

I have found myself having the inevitable gripey conversation with colleagues and friends about how summer has already shockingly FLOWN by. Why is it that time always speeds up when we have more time and flexibility to get our work done?

I hope my prior post on the How to Write a Lot book encouraged at least one person out there to inspect their writing habits like the grad school detective I know you are!

Despite this jump in the speed of time, my writing this summer has been going good-er than most summers of my graduate career. I attribute a lot of this to the habits that were kickstarted by the on-campus writing retreat I attended in early May that helped me to reflect on my behaviors, thoughts, and emotions (hey-o #CBTinreallife) related to writing. I attended this same retreat last summer but at that point my writing habits were pretty inconsistent and fraught with feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and confusion. Now, let’s not get it twisted – I still have plenty of messiness all tied up in my writing habits, but I’ve gotten a lot better!

One part of the How to Write a Lot book that has kept me on track with writing is consistently tracking my writing. At first read, Silvi’s description of keeping an excel DATABASE with his writing session “data” made me internally eye roll HARD. But, of course, the thing that sounded the dumbest/most ridiculous ended up being the most important tool for me (UGH LIFE WHY YOU GOTTA BE SO RUDE?).

Thus, I want to spend today talking about
WRITING TRACKERS.

Before we jump in, a little background on why keeping a record of my writing sessions has been so crucial for me:

1. They reveal point-blank that my inner narratives about writing are mostly false. At any given moment, I guarantee that I’m telling myself all sorts of stories about how introspective I am and how I know myself very well. (E.g., I don’t need to track my writing, I know it in my gut when I’m on track and when I’m not.; Tracking my writing is too uptight and will backfire – it will make me want to write even less; It’s ridiculous to add another task to writing, I’ll end up only spending time tracking and no writing) – spoiler these are all false stories.
2. They hold me accountable without room for excuses. I am pretty good at the whole work-life balance thing in general but sometimes I get super caught up in the life side of that balance. In my first few years of grad school I would sit down to write and be SHOCKED that I had no idea where to start or where I left off because 1) it felt like I had written last week when really it was sometime last month and 2) I had no notes on what I did the last time I wrote something. When I look at my trackers I easily see that wow, I said I’d write 5 times this week or 20 times this month and I haven’t touched a writing project in 10 days, OR helps me to see when I am on track which is naturally reinforcing.
3. To re-iterate a prior point, the trackers SAVE TIME. I no longer spend one hour digging through the most recent draft of a paper to figure out where I left off. I spend less time fucking off (since my pomodoro tracker reveals even further how much/little I can get done in 25 minute increments) and can easily see in numbers when I’m wasting time. When I sit down to write, I mostly spend that time writing.
4. Best of all, the trackers decrease my anxiety around writing. Not feeling like a flounder each time I start writing helps me to feel like I have a little more of an idea of what I’m doing. Even better, seeing when I AM on track helps me to counter the impostor syndrome that I will never be a real researcher.

So what does this writing tracking business look like?

I use three different documents to track my writing:
1. Writing Tracker Word Document
2. Writing Excel Database
3. Pomodoro Block Tracker

Each time I sit down to write, I open up all three of these documents to set up my session. Here’s how I use each one.

First up: The Writing Tracker Word Doc.

Image of my Online Writing Tracker Word Document

I use this (extremely large and lengthy) word document as my virtual notebook for writing sessions. Each session I create a new section of the document and note:

1. Date
2. Total minutes (to be filled in at the end of the session)
3. Goals for today

In the goals for today session I usually list the different writing projects I’m working on that day. Underneath each project I make a short list of tasks I would like to tackle. These serve as a to-do list but also serve as my place for making comments on what comes up while writing.

This is my most important writing document. It has saved me so many times when I don’t remember what approach I took to writing a section, where I left off, or what the hell I was thinking when I decided to take a certain direction in a paper. Since it is a running document, I can look back at any prior writing session to see what I was doing/thinking.

Last thing about this document: I keep this in my Dropbox and edit it exclusively online using the Microsoft Word Online feature so that I never have to download/re-upload,etc. and risk not having something saved in there. I often work from different offices, work stations, and computers so this has been essential for me.

Next: The Writing Excel Database.

Image of my online writing excel database

I use this file to simply track the “data” from my writing sessions. I don’t keep notes in here, only track the where/when/what/how much information inside (the location column is hidden in this snapshot, but I also note where I am writing each session). This file is my ULTIMATE accountability partner. As you can see from this snap shot, I can EASILY see when months are totally lacking in writing sessions and when others are looking pretty good. I’ve also used this file to examine my writing habits during certain times of the year, month, and week as well as which locations I tend to frequent. (More on examining your writing habits using experiments soon!) This snapshot is the first tab of the database.

The snapshot below shows the second tab of the database.

Image of my online excel writing database

I added this second tab as a way of summarizing my number of writing times per month last year (2018). Based on my writing days last year, I set a 2019 goal for writing days and this is how I keep track of my progress. I also try to challenge myself to do better than the prior years’ performance which helps to motivate me. If you recall from my prior post on The Four Tendencies applied to writing, I don’t respond well to inner or outer expectations very well so this is a sort-of-external but not-actual-person source of accountability for me and it works beautifully.

Last up: The Pomodoro Block Tracker.

I just added this document to my writing routine during the writing retreat I attended in May. I know, I know, THREE documents to use as trackers seems like a lot. And it might be too much for you! I truly think that part of tackling your writing is figuring out what works for you (which I’m going to cover more in my next post). If one of these documents (or zero) is enough to help you meet your goals, rad!

The Pomodoro Block Tracker fit a hole in my writing routine I didn’t know existed until I started using it. This document was distributed to everyone who attended the writing retreat (I did not invent this method), so I decided to try it out. Basically, the document has you identify a “big abstract” goal you want to meet. Then, it’s broken into several sections, each one representing one Pomodoro round (25 minute work block) and a break block following (I typically do 5-10 minutes for the break). The left column has you outline what you want to accomplish in the Pomodoro block, while in the right column you note what you actually spent your time doing during that 25 minute block.

This technique showed me how much time I was wasting in a 25 minute period. Seeing that motivated me to stay focused during the next 25 minute block. Again, another external-ish accountability strategy that helped keep me in check. The Pomodoro tracker has also helped me to see over time which tasks tend to take a long time and which ones can actually go pretty quickly (since my internal gauge of this gets pretty wonky).

Right now I have created an electronic version of this piece of paper and keep a running version like I do with the other trackers. I just create a new page for each writing session and start tracking!

Aaaaannd, that’s it on my writing trackers! What strategies and techniques do you use to stay on track? Any questions about the ones I shared? Ask away below and I’ll be happy to answer!

Happy Writing, y’all!

-J

P.S. If you’re wanting to learn more about the Pomodoro technique, here are some links to check out!

http://getalifephd.blogspot.com/2011/10/how-to-enhance-your-writing.html
https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia: TGSG Must-Read #1

Hello, friends! I hope your summer is off to a great start. My university hosted a summer writing retreat for grad students, post-docs, and faculty members which whipped my summer writing into pretty good shape. I’ve been feeling inspired by the content of the retreat and want to share my thoughts/tips/questions with you!

Before digging into that content, though, I wanted to share Book #1 of The Grad School Grind’s Must-Read List! Over time I’ll be sharing books that have been essential for my grad school process and I’ll call these posts “TGSG Must-Read”s.

I’m stoked to kick-off this category of posts with the book How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva.

It sounds dramatic, but I really mean it – this book may have saved me from failing out of grad school.

I came into grad school with great writing ability but TERRIBLE writing habits. There are probably many graduate students out there who tackled this problem in their undergraduate or post-bac days, but that was not me.

I had no idea how to develop a writing routine, good writing habits, or what scientific writing really looked like. I knew from my college writing and psych classes that I could write well (course papers, journalistic pieces, standardized writing tests, posters, sections of a research manuscript). However, I had no idea until well into my first year that I had no idea how to get myself to produce a scientific manuscript. I’d read plenty of empirical articles, proofread peers’ submissions for journals, contributed as a co-author on sections of a manuscript, but I’d never seen a paper out from start to finish. Long story short, I knew I could write, I knew I needed to write, but I couldn’t bridge the gap between the writing skill and producing a manuscript.

I tried a lot of things. Different coffee shops, different kinds of music, different times of the day, different outfits (cozy v. professional), different types of planners, different goals – I was going NO WHERE.

I wish I could recall how I came across How to Write a Lot, but in all honesty it was probably a product of late-night high-anxiety google searching “how to write” that brought me to it.

I like a lot of things about the book including that:
1. It’s short
2. It’s funny
3. It’s easy to read
4. It calls you out on your bullshit excuses
5. It works for all of the four tendencies
6. IT WORKS

This book probably won’t solve ALL of your writing woes but it is a GREAT starting point. This book got me writing, tracking my writing, and seeing through all the BS I was telling myself about why I “couldn’t” write.

A preview of some myths this book helped me dispel:

Myth #1: I’ll write when I’m inspired/in the mood/feel like it. (as a Rebel Tendency this one was pretty central to my academic identity)
Myth #2: I’ll write a TON this weekend when I have nothing planned/over summer/winter/any holiday break.
Myth #3: I already know how to write well, I don’t need to keep a schedule or track my writing.

Enough talk from me, go read it already!

Already read it? Let me know your thoughts here or over on social media! Has this book helped you with your writing too?

Looking forward to brainstorming better writing habits the next few posts – happy summer grind y’all!

-J

P.S. I just saw that there is now a second edition of the book. I haven’t read this edition so all of the above links route to the first edition. I can’t imagine the second edition is any worse but let me know your thoughts if you read it!

Want to Tackle Your Writing Routine? Understand Your Tendency

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How do I get better at writing?

I think this may be one of the few questions that plagues EVERY graduate student (and even you high achieving undergrads and post-bacs, in preparation for grad school).

Regardless of area of expertise or specific grad school structure or requirements, nearly all of us have to tackle an extremely difficult task: WRITING OUR THESIS/DISSERTATION (capstone project, honor’s thesis, first author publication, etc.).

And just like many of you out there, I have REALLY struggled with writing. And I’m here to let you in on one of my biggest writing tips:

 

KNOW YOUR TENDENCY AND APPLY IT TO YOUR WRITING HABITS.

 

What tendency am I talking about? Where you fall within Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework.

Before diving into this framework, let me demonstrate where I was at before harnessing my tendency to improve writing habits:

It seems like there’s a good reason pop culture depicts professional writers as brooding, dark, home-dwelling, robe-donning vampire souls… WRITING SUCKS THE LIFE OUT OF YOU.

Writing can be especially plaguing on those days when you’re coming up with elaborate schemes to plan, brainstorm, procrastinate, or ultimately avoid the writing. I have had countless “writing sessions” spent vacillating between googling “how to start writing a manuscript” and in a panic, convinced I was admitted to grad school by mistake.

I have often even fantasized about standing on a library table to scream out, “WHY IS WRITING SO HARD???!!!!” Yup. Tantrumming just like a toddler.

It’s not like I didn’t understand the steps to take. Yes, I took an undergrad class that taught us the structure of a manuscript and how to write it. Yes, I took the stats classes that taught me how to describe my results. YES I HAVE READ HUNDREDS OF EMPIRICAL ARTICLES AND UNDERSTAND HOW AN ARTICLE IS SUPPOSED TO FLOW. But all of this “knowledge” didn’t seem to improve my writing.

What I didn’t understand: my habits/patterns and strategies to change them.

My problems included:

  1. I. COULD. NOT. GET. STARTED. It seemed like an endless ascension JUST GETTING STARTED. A LOT of the time I got stuck here. I’d spend hours at the library, without writing a single word.
  2. I felt like I didn’t have time to write. Since it seemed to take me HOURS and HOURS to write a damn paragraph, I felt like I did not have the time. I tried the whole “schedule writing time” tip, but that didn’t work AT ALL for me (add in the tendency and this makes sense)
  3. No matter how often people (including myself) told me “you have to write,” I could not make it happen. It felt like I was on a mission to do the opposite of what I needed to succeed.
  4. The goal of “finishing a manuscript” was too vague, broad, and unfathomable. I was staring at one paragraph in word, attempting to imagine myself publishing this idea of a paper “some time” down the road.
  5. Nothing catastrophic happened when I didn’t write. As I’m still learning, graduate school is flexible and encourages autonomy (which I LOVE – add the tendency insights below and this makes a lot of sense). But it also requires a lot self-discipline, and good habits (which I HATE, again – makes sense considering this tendency stuff). Unlike my undergrad days when I knew a caring professor would consult me if I was behind on something (ahhhh… Loma), literally NO ONE freaked out when I was behind on writing. If I was meeting my bare deadlines, staying up on most things, I could get away with a lot of not writing.

Since writing has proven to be a distinct pain in the ass for me the past four + years, I’ve always been on the hunt for strategies to help with the problems above.

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Fast forward to Fall 2015 (the start of my second year in graduate school): I was introduced to “The Four Tendencies” framework by science writer and podcaster, Gretchen Rubin.

IMG_20171022_151037

I’m going to do a more in-depth review of her book on this framework (The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) later this month, so stay tuned for more on this.

In short, her framework explains the four different patterns in which people respond to expectations. In our lives, we face both inner and outer expectations. Inner expectations are those that we expect of ourselves (e.g., “I want to eat healthier,” “I want to meditate,” “I want to publish a manuscript this semester”). Outer expectations make up the things that others expect of us (e.g., “This assignment is due the Monday of finals week at 4pm,” “Thanks for agreeing to pick up dinner tonight – see you at 7!” or “I need a full draft of your introduction by next Friday”).

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There are four possible combinations of how a person could respond to (meet or resist) to inner versus outer expectations. Here they are:

  1. The Upholder: Readily meets both inner AND outer expectations
  2. The Obliger: Struggles to meet inner expectations, but readily meets outer expectations
  3. The Questioner: Easily meets inner expectations, but resists outer expectations
  4. The Rebel: Struggles to meet both inner AND outer expectations alike

Seems simple, right? It IS. But that’s the beauty of this framework.

Graduate school is chock full of both inner and outer expectations. Each tendency comes with both strengths and weaknesses (I’ll cover this in my post on the book). And I’m telling you: knowing yours can SUBSTANTIALLY improve your writing habits (and really any other habit you’re trying to tackle).

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Here are a few writing strategies for each tendency:

Upholders: Set a deadline for yourself or utilize your mentor’s deadline. You will make the deadline. You always do. BUT – protect and prioritize your writing time. You know better than anyone else that if you agree to do something, you WILL. So, be sure you’re not over-promising yourself or others in other areas of expectation. Say no to a few things to make sure you can say yes to writing.

Obligers: Create external accountability. “Huh?” What I mean is: structure “your” writing goal/habits in a way that makes you accountable to others in the process. Example: join a writing group/partner and agree to send ___ number of pages/words to them each week. This accountability will drive you to accomplish your goals. Also, create deadlines with your advisor and ask them to hold you accountable to the deadlines.

Questioners: Create your own writing deadline and goals, breaking them down into achievable steps, and continuously revisit your motivation for writing. Questioners often thrive when they understand why they need to do something.

Rebels: This is so tough (I’m a rebel, so I feel you rebels out there). Rebels are driven by values, often by knowing the consequences, but usually only want to do things when they “feel” like doing it (which never happens with writing, but more on that later). Take some time to sit down and reflect on why you are going to write. Try to think about how writing reflects your values as a graduate student (e.g., “I value flexibility – I want to publish ___# of manuscripts to allow maximum flexibility in career choice;” “I value exploration – I want to finish my dissertation before internship so I can enjoy the new city I’ll be living in,” “I value personal responsibility and dependability – I see myself as someone who follows through on their word”). And then just write.

How did harnessing my “rebel” tendency help my writing habits?

  1. Now I know that I naturally resist ANY expectation outright (this includes scheduling, accountability groups, telling myself I need to write, others telling me I need to write).
  2. This knowledge (though seemingly dreary) helped me to stop wasting time on strategies that work for most people (asking people to hold me accountable, setting deadlines, scheduling writing periods in my google calendar). I finally understood why I was running into such hurdles anytime I tried these strategies. MORE accountability = LESS follow-through with rebels.
  3. Instead, I focused on my values daily, worked in flexibility whenever I could (in the morning, creating my schedule for the day so it felt like I was “choosing” what to do instead of planning ahead of time), and reminded myself that I was NOT the kind of graduate student that has to delay a year because I was behind on writing.
  4. I informed my advisor of my tendency (he’s also a rebel, which makes for some interesting productivity patterns), which helped us to brainstorm together ways to increase my writing.

There is SO MUCH out there about these tendencies, so I encourage you to explore more. As you become more familiar with them, you may even recognize the tendencies of your mentor and professors, which can be SO helpful in understanding what they expect from you.

So – what are you waiting for? Go take the quiz here!

And be on the lookout for my post on the Four Tendencies book, where I’ll share more about how this framework can help you in your own Grad School Grind!

Hang in there, friends!

-J