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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).

Article Writing Month: Initial Reflections

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

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!

Happy Holidays

by DR ROBERT T. FOLEY and DR HUW J. DAVIES

As our teaching terms comes to a close on 19 December, Defence-in-Depth will be taking a hiatus over the holidays. We will resume posting on 5 January when our new term starts.

We wanted to use this final post as an opportunity to look back on our first few months of publishing. Since beginning in early September, we have published 37 posts, which have fallen under 57 different subject tags, including ‘strategy,’ ‘diplomacy,’ ‘British defence policy,’ ‘ISIS,’ ‘First World War,’ and ‘Second World War.’ These topics reflect the range of topics currently being researched by the staff and postgraduate research students of the Defence Studies Department, 23 of whom have written for Defence-in-Depth this term.

We have been pleased that Defence-in-Depth has been reaching a relatively wide and certainly disparate readership. We have over 1,000 followers now and have had visits from 91 different countries. Posts that have garnered considerable attention on the day of their release include Dr Chris Tuck’s ‘Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis,’ Dr Ellen Hallam’s ‘NATO at Newport: Back to Basics,’ and Dr Huw J. Davies and Dr Robert T. Foley’s ‘The Operational Level of War and the Operational Art.’

We are looking forward to continuing to grow next year. In 2015, you can expect posts on the NATO, Russian-Georgian relations, a recent battlefield tour of Oman, a From the Archives post on digital First World War archives, and many others.

We would like to say thank you to our contributors, but also to our readers. We hope you have enjoyed and found useful the posts we have published this term. As ever, we are happy for feedback to improve the blog, so if you have any comments, please let us know. For those of you who have not yet subscribed via email or followed the blog, buttons for each can be found in the sidebar and at the bottom of the page. Research from the Defence Studies Department can also be followed via our Twitter account – @DefenceResearch and via our Facebook page.

We wish you all happy, healthy, and safe holidays.