Writing Over Break: Getting Started

Whether you’re working on job documents, class papers, theses/dissertations, or other materials, writing over break can be hard. Below are some strategies to help you get started. Pick the ones that work for you, disregard those that don’t, and if you’re unsure, feel free to try some out on a limited-trial basis.

Writing Over Break: Getting Started

1. Block Off Time

Treat your vacation time as you would your semester time

During your semester, you likely block off regular times on your calendar for work—whether “work” means teaching, fellowship work, jobs, or writing. Do the same thing with your vacation time. This may sound obvious, but having so much “open” time available over the summer sometimes leads us to assume writing will simply happen somewhere in that ether of free time (assuming you have that ether of free time). Life, however, has a way of filling up our schedules faster than we anticipate. So treat your writing like a job: schedule it in regular blocks, and keep to that schedule.

Choose your minimum writing hours per week to reach your goal(s)

Think about your long-term goal for the summer: are you trying to get a thesis draft done? One chapter draft? One article? Etc. It helps to write your goal(s) down, both to formalize it for yourself and as a visual reminder.

Once you’ve decided on your goal(s), think about how much time you need to spend, per week, to accomplish this goal. If you’re drawing a blank, try asking peers how many hours per week they schedule. I scheduled 12 hours per week over my summers; some people may want to schedule more, while others may schedule far fewer hours per week, depending on other responsibilities (jobs, family, etc.).

You are not limited to your scheduled amount: if the writing’s flowing, and you have the time, feel free to keep going! Rather, the hours you schedule are the minimum number of hours you’re committing to writing per week. I found it better to schedule fewer hours* and actually meet that commitment, rather than schedule more and keep falling short. (*When I say “fewer hours,” this is simply compared to what I had available; for others, that number will be 5 or 8 or 20.)

Break down your hours into a weekly schedule

Once you know how many hours per week you need in order to accomplish your writing goals, break it down into hours per day—and put it on your calendar. Again, this is my personal preference, but I found that having a consistent routine week to week helped move my writing forward. There are different approaches here:

  • Some people like writing daily (e.g., the “write X min/hour per day” approach—whether that’s 15 min, 1 hour, 3 hours, etc.). This post discusses the values of short daily writing commitments (and online writing groups, which I mention below in #3).
  • Some like carving bigger blocks of time on fewer days—this is the approach I took because it worked best for my schedule. This still means you have set writing times, but you might clock in, say, 7 hours every Mon and Wed rather than 2 hours every day. Divide your writing blocks as works for you—but I do recommend keeping your schedule consistent week to week, as much as you can.
Make your writing time sacred

This means no phone calls, errands, laundry-folding, etc. If something comes up (say, your friend’s visiting from out of town), feel free to reschedule your writing time—but the point is to make sure you move it to another time on your calendar, and then keep that writing time sacred as well. You can still take breaks—if you like the Pomodoro method, for example, that has built in breaks; some people give themselves 5-10 minute internet-browsing or email breaks. The key is to keep these breaks brief (even setting alarms) so that they help your writing move forward, rather than distracting you.

Remember to also schedule downtime, social time, etc!

Identifying which times you’re free to relax or take care of other responsibilities can help you keep your writing time sacred. I found it easier to ignore phone calls, emails, and dirty dishes during my writing time when I could tell myself, “The time for that is [fill in whenever you’ve blocked free time]; now is writing time.” It gave me permission to prioritize my writing. Scheduling breaks really helps too—knowing that you have a break coming up, whether it’s a 5 minute stretch break or a full evening, can help keep you going when the writing’s tough.

2. Find a Space

Do you work best at home? In the library? At a cafe? At the home of a fellow student? Find the spaces that work best for you, and make them routine. This may mean you rotate between spaces on different days of the week, but try for at least weekly regularity—this will help solidify the place as a space where writing happens, making it easier for you to get in the zone.

3. Writing Groups / Buddies

Form a writing group

Writing groups meet periodically (usually weekly, bimonthly, or monthly), share writing (either before or during the meeting), and give each other feedback. Benefits include:

  • Accountability. Having to send writing to the other members of your group by a set date can act as an external deadline (something most of us appreciate), and force you to get a draft going earlier than you might otherwise, if you’re writing solo.
  • Feedback. Getting feedback from people you trust helps enormously in the revision process; hearing what other people take away from your writing helps you better understand what you’re communicating effectively and what you’re not. Often, we’re so immersed in our topic that we may not have the proper head-space—or distance—to see whether outside readers can clearly, fully, and easily understand our main points. Feedback can help you submit your strongest possible writing.
  • Confidence boost. Editing or simply responding to other people’s writing subtly helps us strengthen those skills with regard to our own writing—even if just in giving us confidence that we know how to do this.
Find a writing buddy

Unlike writing groups, writing buddies do not (necessarily) share writing and give feedback. Rather, writing buddies meet —in person or remotely (e.g., via Skype)—to do their writing together, at the same time. This can mean silently typing alongside each other the whole time, or taking periodic talking breaks, or having a general “no interruptions unless they’re writing-related” rule so that talking happens organically but is limited to trouble-shooting writing issues. (And, of course, you can use your writing buddies for feedback too, if you wish, but the primary goal is to work alongside one another.) Benefits include:

  • Accountability. Rather than the accountability of having a specific draft done by a specific time, as with writing groups, this gives you accountability to hold to your writing schedule. For many of us, another warm body (even over Skype) is incentive—and reminder—enough to get us away from dish-washing/YouTube-watching and sitting down to write. Seeing someone else clicking away at the keyboard helps us get in writing mode too.
  • Peer power. If you do decide to allow occasional talking (scheduled or no), this can be a huge help for your writing process. Often when we’re feeling stuck, talking through our thoughts, questions, or obstacles can help us move past that quagmire. Writing buddies provide a safe, informal venue for such talking—be it talking out your main point, frustrations, insecurities, or other issues.
  • Isolation-combating. Writing can be an isolating experience; for many of us (read: me) that can trigger subtle feelings of depression and/or anxiety that hinder productivity. Writing buddies have the weird effect of making you feel social even if you’re literally not saying a word to each other for four hours. For those like me, such social-butterfly associations (however blatantly false) make me feel more calm, happy, and energized—translating to higher writing productivity.

FYI, writing groups or buddies do not need to be fellow grad students. Anyone whose feedback you value, or whose computer-based work schedule matches yours, is a candidate. I’d recommend choosing people whose work habits and schedule mesh with your own—i.e. choose people to whom you’ll feel accountable and with whom you’ll get work done (rather than prioritizing, say, someone who’s in your field).

Tune in for the next post in this series, Writing Over Break: Accountability and Time Management!