This month at the Defence Studies Department we launched an exercise entitled ‘Article Writing Month.’ The exercise has a number of goals. First, and most obvious, each participant is aiming to produce a solid draft of a research article that is in a state it can be reviewed and commented upon by others. Second, it is an exercise in practicing time management. We chose February, in part, because it is a busy time for us as a department, with lots of teaching, marking, and meetings. Fitting writing into our schedules should teach us some important lessons about how to manage our time effectively. Third, we are using this as an opportunity to share writing techniques. We have all develop our own unique approaches to writing over the years, but have not necessarily reflected upon these approaches or compared them with how others work. With 18 individuals signed up for article writing month, we have the chance to see how others work and perhaps to borrow and adapt techniques for ourselves.
Personally, I have been pleased with the progress I have made through the first week. With a fairly busy schedule of teaching, marking, and meetings, I set myself limited goals for this week. I wanted to make sure I had identified and was aware of the relevant secondary literature into which my article will fit. I also wanted to think through and plan the structure of my article before I started writing. Finally, I wanted to think about my schedule and set myself some word targets. Only after I had done these tasks did I intend to start writing.
Having been thinking about the article topic for sometime, identifying and reading into the secondary literature went faster than I expected. There are still a few pieces of historiography I need to find, but these will not change how I see my work contributing to existing debates and understanding of the topic. The outlining went quickly too. Here, first outlined how I want my argument to develop in a notebook, but I soon moved this into my writing programme, Scrivener. Scrivener creates virtual ‘notecards’ for each section of text created. You can also write on these virtual notecards, which allows a quick view of what each section is intended to contain. They can be shuffled around however one likes. This is a great way of visualising the arguments and structure of my article. I am still using a notebook to add ideas as they occur to me and to take to the library, but ‘storyboarding’ in Scrivener has helped me a lot.
Another really useful tool in Scrivener is its ‘project targets.’ This lets you set over all word target, completion date, and days of the week for writing. I put in 10,000 words as a target, with 29 February as the completion date and it produced a daily word target of about 450. I found several things helpful with this. First, it put writing the article into perspective. Four-hundred-fifty words per day was a very realistic goal, and it promised, if I kept chipping away at writing, I would achieve my 10,000 words on time. Scrivener also tracks progress in a way I found very appealing. In addition to showing overall progress, it give progress for a particular ‘session’ against an automatically calculated daily target. As you write more, the progress bar for the session advances and turns from red, to amber, to green. Further, the more you write in a session over your daily count, the more your future word counts go down! While these are little things, they provide a feeling of accomplishment and motivation.
I can see how daily word counts could be a double-edged sword. There have been days this week when I haven’t been able to write, and seeing a red progress bar has been a bit off-putting. Similarly, it could easily develop an unhealthy obsession with meeting word targets every day, adding unnecessary pressure. I have tried to take a measured approach to this and recognise that I will not necessarily make my target, or even managed to write at all, each day. However, these down days can and will be offset by other days when I make more progress.
Indeed, if one of the goals of article writing month has been to manage time effectively, I don’t think I have achieved this yet. I may have written more than my initial target, but this probably came at the expense of other activities. My goal for next week is to balance writing and all my other responsibilities better. To this end, I am going to experiment with breaking down my work days into blocks of time that will be dedicated to specific activities. Things like teaching and meetings are easy, as these are already in my diary. Next week, though, I am going to schedule things like responding to emails, writing reports, etc., alongside dedicated writing time. During my dedicated writing time, my email will be switched off and I will not answer the phone or knocks on my door.
Next week, I have also booked space for those participating in article writing month to experiment with group writing. We will try some different writing techniques at these, which I will discuss in my next update. In the meantime, feel free to share any writing techniques or time management techniques you have found useful in your own work in the comments section below. You can also follow our progress during article writing month on our Twitter account (@DefenceResearch). Individuals are also tweeting their progress under the hashtag #ArtWriMo.
Time to run now. Instead of writing this, I could have added another 950 words or so to my article draft!