In the groggy days after a baby arrives, sleep deprived new parents are likely to hear the phrase “sleep begets sleep,” meaning: the more a baby sleeps, the more likely it is to sleep. I was writing my dissertation when my sleep-addled brain contemplated this catch-22. How could I get the baby to sleep more if I couldn’t get the baby to sleep?
Since the baby seemingly never slept, I was never really able to test this axiom. But after years of working with writers, I can assert its corollary with a fair amount of evidence: writing begets writing. This may be a subsection of the “if you want something done ask a busy person” proposition. But I think the mechanism behind “writing begets writing” comes from more than the simple benefits of time constraints.
Clearly, the more we write, the easier writing becomes, but for a struggling writer the question is: how do we jumpstart a productive feedback loop?
Create a more pressing deadline. One of the endless challenges of writing a dissertation or finishing a book manuscript is that the brain does not perceive such distant goals as pressing until it is basically too late. Especially during the dissertation process, other projects and deadlines call more loudly and feel more urgent. Since graduate students are generally responsible for requesting dissertation meetings, such meetings often don’t feel like hard deadlines. They are easy to cancel, postpone, or never make in the first place.
If you find that your brain refuses to take seriously the deadlines intrinsic to your project, give it some “real” deadlines in order to leverage work on your project. Apply to give a conference paper about that chapter you have put off writing. The goal is not to produce a great conference paper, but to give your brain a reason to make progress on work it has been avoiding. If you’re feeling ambitious, submit a chapter to an anthology or special journal issue. Decide to publish your literature review as a stand-alone article.
Write Something Else. If you are stuck on a project, working on a different writing task can have unexpected up sides. Part of the benefit here comes from simply giving your brain a break from avoidance and guilt. But if you are engaged in writing anything, you are more likely to be able to return to your “real” project with new insight and energy. I hear this all the time from writers I work with.
Use Inertia. Writers at rest stay at rest; writers in motion stay in motion. The advice to write frequently is so common that it hardly bears repeating. But it is one of the most effective ways to make progress and to make writing less cognitively costly. If you have to decide to write each time, it takes enormous cognitive energy to decide when, where, and how long–and then actually make yourself do it. If writing is baked into your routine, you can expend virtually no energy on decision-making and will power.
For more great strategies on productive writing, jump into the Healthy Writing Habits for the Long Haul mini-course. Give us an hour and we will hand you a toolkit for project completion and save you hours of frustration.