Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Working & Writing to Schedule

Previously I summed up (from other summaries, mind you!) one of the latest in a long line of “productivity tips from writers/thinkers/doers” books, and left it hanging with the advice to “stick to a schedule”.

Paul Silvia wrote a nice, short book a few years back about this very thing, called How to Write a Lot. So far as I can tell, it has become somewhat of a cult classic, and for good reason. The book begins with an assault on various forms of what is essentially “excuse making” about not writing, or what Silvia calls “specious barriers to writing a lot”. Silvia isn’t particularly normative here though, and he does an admirable job of stripping so much of the moralizing and tsk-tsk’ing from the “why don’t you write?” question. It also helps that Silvia himself at least claims to not particularly enjoy writing. Intrinsically satisfying or not, Silvia tells us, writing is just part of the job; so get down to work, then get on with your life.

Silvia frames this mainly around the fundamental divide between “binge” writing and writing to schedule. The latter is good, the former to be avoided. So, “binge” writers tend to hold off writing until they can “find the time” to do it, or until they “get inspired” or “feel like it”. Nonsense to both, sez Silvia: “Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write. Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it. It’s that simple.”(Kindle Locations 126-127). I could go on here, and Silvia has certainly got some other good nuggets here, but you should just buy the (cheap) book. [That’s not an affiliate link, by the way!]

From my vantage as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, the real problem with binge writing – putting aside the broader question of whether it is ever an effective long-run strategy – is that it simply isn’t feasible. Binges require time, and that time is increasingly allotted to me in what feel like zero-sum chunks: my binge time comes at the “expense” of someone else covering for me. However, as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, I do have some time during the working day to get scholarly work and writing done in smaller chunks….but that doesn’t seem to be happening unless I get it planned for and scheduled.

How do you shift from binge to scheduled writing? The mechanics are pretty easy, actually:

  • Set Goals and Prioritize Them
  • Make a Schedule
  • Track Your Progress [update: and report it!]
  • Reward Yourself (Treat Yo Self?)

Goals for me are fairly easy, in that I’ve got a backlog of material I constantly feel guilty about not having written or finished, but Silvia is keen on actionable and concrete goals (as are most people who talk about goals). Rather than “finally finish that dreaded dissertation-summary general-interest article that has been the monkey on your back for years”, why not: “complete the two paragraphs in the lit review that will bring your theoretical argument up-to-date with a couple of major articles in your area”? You make a list, rank it and then get down to knocking things off.

That’s the easy part. What about a schedule? How do you stay flexible week-to-week with shifting meetings and other obligations? And what do you work on once you’ve got that schedule? Good questions, I say, and precisely the ones I will turn to next! For now, though, I’m a bit over 500 words, and my goal (aha!) today was to get that done and hit publish.

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Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Getting Meta About Writing

I’ve tried to avoid the “reading about working as substitute for actually working” trap, so I chose *not* to purchase and read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals book this past fall. Currey did a sort of meta analysis of advice and recorded practices from writers and other “creatives” (oy), trying to identify shared habit and patterns amongst them. Or, maybe he was aiming for more of a compendium, without the summarizing. Regardless, from what I surmised from the various reviews of, and reactions to, the book that I did read, Oliver Burkeman’s six point summary of the book does pretty well. He concludes:

1. Be a morning person

2. Don’t give up the day job

3. Take lots of walks

4. Stick to a schedule

5. Practise strategic substance abuse

6. Learn to work anywhere

“Giving up the day job” isn’t really an option for me, if for no other reason than the “day job” is actually supposed to be providing me time, motivation and support to work and write! So, that’s not the problem. Walking (#3). Ok, I completely agree, and already do a fair amount of that. Walk downtown to work in a coffee shop (aka the “anywhere” of #6)….don’t mind if I do! This probably ticks off the #5 box as well (if not, dedicated mypressi action at home should do the trick).

Being a morning person does seem to be common enough to be close to universal…though there are always the exceptional cases, people who write for hours, late, each night. But with kids and a “day job”, going later doesn’t seem to be sustainable in the long run. I work in the evening already and find that this is an OK time to hammer away at focused administrativ-type tasks or email. It’s not a time for exploratory work or challenging writing. Going to bed at midnight and getting up at 7 is already on the limit. However, shifting bedtime back in order to feel OK getting up earlier (say 5:45am) might be a way to get that precious hour of directed work in, before the busy-ness of the day kicks in.

I often think of getting up early and writing/working in the morning as akin to the “pay yourself first” mantra from the personal financial management literature. Do your work first, even if it’s a small amount of it, and you will feel better during the day when you do the work for others.

This leaves, #4, perhaps the most important of the conclusions: stick to a schedule.

For that, I will need another post, in which I can talk about Paul Silvia’s book, “How to Write A Lot”.

See you then!

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The Cure for Writer’s Block Is Writing

Writing is, and should be, a major part of what I do as an academic. But much/most of what I write is not “consumed” nor seen by a general audience, this being comments, class blog posts and emails to students or colleagues. There is also a lot of reading that goes into the job as well, but that’s a discussion for another time (and also discussed a couple of years ago). Also lots of “thinking”…but you only really get “credit” for thinking when it results in something tangible, which usually means written.

So, my basic problem is that I haven’t been doing a sufficient amount of visible-to-the-world writing to feel good about myself as an academic/scholar/writer for the past few years. This “problem” can be dealt with in a number of different ways – for instance, by changing one’s expectations for what a “reasonable” level of output might be through a realistic assessment of one’s priorities and the external demands on one’s time – but it seems obvious that one way out of the situation is to, you know, just write more!

The cure for writer’s block, in other words, is writing.

The core problem with not writing is that, for me, it begets more not writing. I guess this is what gets called writer’s block. Or, more precisely, perhaps this is how writer’s block manifests itself as an actual mechanism for me. It is a self-reinforcing cycle whereby not “publishing” in a public place (or, a place that could be publicly accessed, even if most of the public doesn’t see or care to see) creates more internal resistance to/fear of working toward that goal. Even on this blog I run into it: I don’t post for a long time and this, in my mind, raises the “stakes” for the next post (e.g. “he doesn’t touch BB for a year and he comes back with this shit?”). Sitting for too long on my dissertation research, to take another example, without publishing directly from it only raises – in my own mind – the stakes for how “good” it must be when I, in theory, finally do publish from that research (e.g. “this crappy article is what he waited eight years to publish?!”).

From the perspective of just getting stuff written and out there, regardless of quality, this is obviously a dead end.

There is a nearly infinite amount of talk out there about writing, and I will no doubt write a bit about that here on BB (meta!). For now I’d like to bring up the classic notion of the “three drafts”, the first of which is most germane. The first draft – or, the “shitty” first draft as I have often heard it – is crucial if, for no other reason, one can’t take the other steps without it! This is, essentially, what I will try to use Bliggity Blog for in the coming year: a publicly visible, shitty first draft on many of the things occupying my mind during the day. Hopefully it won’t be too shitty (so maybe it’s like the 1.5 draft, given how much real-time editing goes on when I’m typing things up) and hopefully it will cover some issues of interest to my various constituencies.

But, behind that manifest, obvious function is a more powerful latent one as well: forcing me to just get words out there.

If writer’s block is cured by writing, I will proceed as if all writing is writing. Blogging “counts” just as much as writing emails to friends, which counts just as much as drafting an academic article, grant proposal or scholarly correspondence. My hunch(hope?) is that the not writing begets more not writing cycle can be run in reverse: writing begets writing. Putting more words down, wherever they may be put, makes it easier to put even more down, so that, up to a point, writing frequently may merely make it easier to write more! That’s the hope at least.

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How I Read

About two years ago, I came across this passage on Merlin Mann’s blog (this entry being an ode to Instapaper creator Marco Arment):

Are you getting this? I hit one button, and magical and interesting things just…happen.

Things I want to read magically appear on the Instapaper web site.

They also magically appear on my Instapaper iPhone app.

And, because my bookmarked Instapaper items are also available as an RSS feed, they magically appear in Google Reader…

Which now also magically syncs with NetNewsWire on my desktop and…

My preferred iPhone reader, Byline.

And — this one’s the killer — because I’m one of those nerds who bought (and adores) the Kindle, once a week, Instapaper dutifully, magically, shuttles a single file with all of the week’s bookmarked stories directly to my reader.

Boom.

All of this happens with zero intervention from me. Which means substantial, challenging prose that used to get skipped in the rush of the day now becomes available anyplace it suits me. In the line at the ATM. On a plane. Wherever.

And, that all happened because I clicked one button. If that’s not blowing your mind right now, go read all that again. Because that shit is sick.

via kung fu grippe • Three things about Marco Arment.

This was pretty compelling, and definitely pushed me over the edge with respect to the “can I justify getting an iPhone?” debate. And, almost to the detail, this is still the exact same “workflow” for reading I follow every single day (at least every single day in which I’ve got internet connectivity). I have found myself describing parts of this workflow to a few different people over the past few weeks. So, might was well write it down in one place and tell future people who are subjected to my opinions/advice to come right here and have a look.

It doesn’t take too long to explain “how I read” because, for all intents and purposes, it’s the same flow outlined by Mann. Although I never actually “see” Google, the whole thing centers on Google Reader. Reader is, of course, an RSS syncing and management system. You find internet sources with “content” you like, you subscribe to their RSS syndication feed. This drops the content into your feed reader, notifying you when something new has been published, and (usually) delivering the content directly to your reader.

The key with Google Reader is that it also syncs these feeds from multiple devices. In simple terms, this means you can check your aggregated content from anywhere on the web (a browser, a feed-reading program on your computer, your iPhone, your iPad, whatever) and things that you mark as starred, as read, as unread will show up as such on other devices. While plenty of people just use Google Reader directly through a browser, I use one of the many options for feed reading on both my Macs and my iPhone: an app called Reeder. Reeder grabs your content being synced by Google Reader and displays it for you in a nice, simple and clean interface on both the Mac and the iPhone (or iPad). Reeder isn’t actually doing the syncing of the feeds, for you – it’s just the way that you interface with the Google “guts”/engine underneath. The nice thing with Reeder (like many other apps, I should add) is that it interfaces with the next step in the reading process: Instapaper.

What is Instapaper? You should check out the site. Instapaper is a service that “harvests” (my way of understanding it) content for later reading, keeping it synced and organized. One way of using Instapaper is to use an RSS reader (like Reeder) that integrates with your Instapaper account; if you find entries from your RSS feeds that you think you’ll read later you just hit the Instapaper button and the full text is sent to Instapaper. Additionally, you can install a little “bookmarklet” for Instapaper in any browser so that, once you navigate to some content you want to harvest (e.g. an NY Times article, as is most often the case for me) you can grab it simply by clicking the bookmarklet.

Once your content is in Instapaper, it can be read any number of ways: on the iPhone/iPad through the Instapaper app, through the Instapaper website on any browser, or, more recently, through a Mac app that downloads the Instapaper files so you’ve got them even without internet access. This last option became much more appealing with the recent (massive) revision to the excellent Read Now application.

So, this gets you to Mann’s basic point from above: you now have easily harvested, completely synced, ad-free and stripped down reading material that you can access just about anywhere, any time. You can fairly easily manage the flow of massive amounts of information from many, many sources (via RSS), shunt it into Instapaper, read it, discard it or save it. This is the core of my reading workflow.

Two final points:

1. What about managing items that I’ve read in Instapaper, but want to save for later reference? I’ve got a shit ton of these; after all, most of what I’m reading connects to various lines of scholarly research/writing/thinking or to issues raised by my teaching. Bookmarking and tagging are imperative – the only way to get back to these needles in an ever-growing haystack. For bookmarking, I use the absolutely excellent service, Pinboard. Like Delicious  (and Diigo, which I used before and which has some compelling features) and any number of other services that have come and, too often, gone over the years, Pinboard is a bookmarking service. However, the model is totally transparent and minimal – you own your data, you pay (minimally) for the service and your information/attention is not sold back to you. Another great plus for Pinboard is that these other apps/services all tie in directly, in the background via password. So, read in Reeder, Instapaper or Read Now, like an article and want to save it….now you just hit the Pinboard button, enter your keyword tags and the link is saved. Or, you can pay Pinboard an additional $20 or less each year and they save the full text of each article! Your own personal archive, in case the link breaks, the website dies, whatever.

2. The most exciting thing about How I Read currently is the possible integration of an e-reader – in my case, the cheapest (and, non-“touch”) Kindle. All this reading and access is great…except for doing all this reading on a little 4″ (or whatever it is) screen on my iPhone. It’s killing my shoulders, neck and elbows. Really, it is. The laptop is a bit better, but still far from ideal for reading. I actually own a Nook Touch and really like the e-ink display. But, what I realize these days is that most of what I read is content that first appeared on the web in some fashion and has now ended up in my Instapaper “files”. Instapaper has some options here: with a single click, you can tell Instapaper to take your most recent 10 (maybe it’s 20, I can’t remember off the top of my head) articles, format and download them as an e-pub file (essentially a little book/magazine file, as far as your reader is concerned). You can then manually transfer this to any e-reader. But that right there is the problem: you must manually transfer the file. Yes, that means, plugging it in to your machine, moving the new e-pub over (and possibly deleting an older one, to keep things clean), ejecting the e-reader and then reading it on the e-reader. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s not the sort of thing I find myself wanting to do any more often than once a day. In truth, I barely do it at all.

This is where the Kindle advantage comes in: any Kindle you register gets its own dedicated email address. If you have a non-3G Kindle, this email will be delivered, free of charge, when the Kindle is on wi-fi (like, at home). So, you can set Instapaper up to send this e-pub file to your Kindle’s email address. And then you can read your Instapaper content on a proper e-ink screen, from a super simple, super cheap device. The non-touch Kindle, with ads, is now only $79. As a dedicated reading device this seems like a crazy deal. Of course, I don’t own one yet, but I’m really looking forward to getting one and giving it a try.

A last random bit here: you might be wondering why I’m not interested in the Kindle Touch. What I’ve realized with the Nook Touch is that I really dig having an e-reader that I can treat like a book. I want to be able to wrap my hands around the thing, move around with it, etc. without worrying about whether I touch the screen or not. The “advantages” of the touch screen are pretty much moot for me – I don’t mind using small side buttons to advance pages, and the menu system on these readers is simple enough that using a little directional arrow/tiny joystick/whatever input device to control the thing is perfectly fine by me. Plus, the cheaper the better, as far as I am concerned. I want, in essence, a “dumb screen” for reading – I want to dump content onto a small, cheap device with a good screen. If it breaks I will be sad, but I won’t be bankrupt – which is the problem with using an iPad primarily as a reading device (e.g. it starts at $500…which is a lot of money for something my kids might pick up, or I might leave on the couch).

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PS – If you want a great review of various e-ink readers, from this particular reading perspective, check out Marco Arment’s detailed comparison. You could even click through on his links, if you choose to buy one, so Instapaper gets a little bit of affiliate credit.