Lessons of Article Writing Month

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

On Monday this past week, the Defence Studies Department’s Article Writing Month challenge came to a close. All told, 18 academics from the Defence Studies Department each undertook to write an article during a busy teaching month. Each participant signed up to a Google spreadsheet that each other participant can see. At the end of each week, we recorded our progress (or lack thereof!) for all to see.

Our goals for this exercise were manifold. First and most obvious, we each wanted to complete a substantial piece of research for future publication. We also wanted to share and learn different writing techniques. Finally, we wanted to demonstrate to ourselves that we could complete major pieces of research alongside busy teaching schedules; in other words, that we could manage our time effectively and even efficiently.

In terms of our first goal, the success has been considerable. A number of us have completed drafts. One of us has already had this peer-reviewed and provisionally accepted by a major international journal. Others have or will soon present the results of their completed drafts at international conferences. Some of us (myself included) have almost finished drafts. A few others have had to stop working on their drafts completely for the time being. Regardless of the stage completion, we all are much closer to having drafts of papers ready for peer review and submission to journals. All told, the 15 participants who are left have written nearly 120,000 words over the course of February.

These accomplishments should not be underrated. Throughout article writing month, but particularly in the final two weeks of February, all participants were heavily committed to teaching. Indeed, in those two weeks, one participant completed 33 1/2 contact hours. Others were not far off this number. That 15 participants could write between them almost 120,000 words on top of heavy teaching commitments is a testament to their hard work.

The exercise offers, for me at least, some valuable lessons about writing. Of course, these are not by any means new, but the exercise highlighted them starkly.

1) Looking at the ‘lessons’ of this exercise, the importance of time management shines out like a beacon. The only way any of us could accomplish our writing goals was to balance these with our teaching and other commitments. In my view, this needs to be addressed at two levels, the macro and the micro. At the beginning of the month, I sat down with my calendar and looked at what was already scheduled in each week. Between teaching and administrative commitments, I knew that some weeks were going to be busier than others. Therefore, I knew from the start that I would need to concentrate on getting as many words down as I could in the ‘quieter’ weeks. This time analysis provided a ‘macro’-view of how I would manage my time.

What I continually found more challenging was the ‘micro’ level of managing time within weeks. I must admit I had some mixed success with this. Some weeks, I exceeded by word target on the article, but in doing so, I did not always balance writing with my other tasks as effectively as I might have. One of the reasons for this is that I did not always have a clear view of other activities I needed to perform. Teaching and meetings were easy; these were fixed points in my schedule, and I could and did plan the time required for these tasks. It is the other things — emails, catching up on paperwork, etc — that I were sometimes neglected. Other weeks, I underestimated the time required for teaching preparation and for meetings, and consequently, my writing suffered.

2) Following from this, the exercise reinforced the importance of planning and setting realistic writing targets. I don’t think any participant started article writing month cold; we each had done considerable research and considerable thinking about our topics before putting pen to paper. This preparation was crucial to hit the ground running. Storyboarding also really helped quite a few of us to set out clear writing agendas. Although I modified this outline as a went (two sections needed to be split into four sections), it served as a useful means of organising my writing schedule. Again as I previously discussed, the word target and session word count in Scrivener was a useful means of measuring my progress, and I know others found this helpful as well. Seeing my progress against a daily word target also provided motivation. Finally in this regard, recording weekly progress on a log that was open to all other participants, as well as seeing the progress of others, was very motivating for most of us.

3) The exercise also demonstrated once again the importance of writing daily. Most of us do not find writing easy. However, the more we do it, the easier it seems. The month forced me to get back into the habit of daily writing, and this has been really valuable. The exercise also confirmed what I already knew — my most productive writing time, at the moment, is in the morning. By lunchtime, I had largely run out of steam, though I tended to ‘revive’ by about 15:00. I tried to build this into my time management, so that I set aside mornings and sometimes late afternoons for intensive writing and reserved other periods for other activities. These other activities were sometimes article related — proofreading, completing citations, finding sources, etc — but were not writing.

4) Another ‘lesson,’ somewhat surprisingly, was the usefulness of group writing sessions. These sessions provided a change of pace for our participants. Usually for academic writers, writing is a solo activity. Coming together to write created a refreshing dynamic and showed that writing does not have to be a solitary activity. Writing as a group allowed participants to chat about progress, obstacles, writing techniques, etc., which most seemed to find helpful. (Copious caffeine and sugar helped fuel these sessions as well!)

We tried different approaches in the two sessions. The first was a ’shut-the-f**k-up-and-write’ session, where we got together and just wrote. This was a pretty straightforward session in which we concentrated on writing, with very little interaction with each other (what little discussion that did occur, generally did around the donut table!). In the second session, we used a modified ‘pomodoro technique.’ Using the pomodoro technique, one writes for 25 minutes, then takes a 5 minute break. After four cycles comes a longer, 15-20 minute break. The theory behind this is that after 25 minutes concentration lags and productivity declines. The 5-minute and longer breaks allows one to refocus, but also provide ‘rewards’ for concentrating. For a variety of reasons, we did not conform exactly to this model, but nonetheless we all got some good writing done.

5) Building on from this, I think that most of us found it very rewarding to discuss writing and time management techniques with each other. We all have our own unique approaches to both, but hearing what someone else is doing helped us reflect on our own techniques. This may have reinforced our own original approaches or it may have modified them, but the act of sharing ideas and reflecting on our approaches has strengthened us each as writers.

Stand by for more to come out of the Defence Studies Department’s article writing month, not least the articles themselves. You can continue to follow our progress of turning these drafts into publications via our Twitter account (@DefenceResearch).

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