On Small Writing

April 29, 2016

A few years back, Meredith Johnson and I started an academic girl gang [AGG]. Our motto was Aut Vince Aut Mori: To do or die. The premise was that we would write 15 minutes a day–she reported that she had gotten tenure on 15 minutes of writing a day, and I could too. Since then, I’ve been more or less successful writing nearly everyday. Thanks, Mer. #mentoringmatters


The Academic Girl Gang Logo.

Since then, I’ve been teaching a lot of grad classes, wherein–as per usual–we give the advice that we should write every day and write in small increments, but we don’t give strategies. Sarah Tracy’s amazing book Qualitative Research Methods [highly recommend, y’all], tells students

  • Not to buy into writer’s block;
  • To write in shorter increments;
  • To not reward windfall or binge writing with days off;
  • To write nearly every day;
  • To set goals.

But even as many of us give and take this advice, we often fail to operationalize it. That is, most of the talk we do about writing is about “articles,” or “proposals” or “papers,” big genres that don’t actually help students [or one another, for that matter] see how we write in short bursts, for 15+ minutes everyday. What can you do in that short period of time? How can you wrangle your writing? How can you discipline yourself to write?

So, let’s be clear: I hate the 15 minute writing segment. I love the 2 hour frenzy; hate the 15-30 minutes. In order to keep myself going, I’ve had to make a list of the kinds of writing and work I count as writing. I have given myself particular “Small Writing Activities” that I can use to fill my slots when I’m underwhelmed, underprepared, unmotivated, and distracted. [Frankly, this is about 50% of the time]. So here’s my list:

  • Read an article and write a summary of what I’ve written or a critical response;
  • Choose a quote that seems particularly important: contextualize the quote;
  • Come back to a quote that’s been contexualized and respond to it critically or in terms of the article I’m writing: why does it belong in the paper? Where does it fit in the argument?
  • Revise or rework just a single paragraph
  • Edit 3-4 pages
  • Draw a picture of a concept
  • Write about a picture of a concept
  • Write researcher’s notes and memos [should we talk about this? This is a field work thing.]
  • Read several abstracts from a current issue of a journal and summarize the trends that seem to be discussed or the disparities among the topics
  • Re-read conclusions from earlier articles, proposals that haven’t been accepted, or articles that still need a home and begin redrafting or drafting a new

Most of these activities, of course, take more than one 15 minute segment. But not always. Sometimes they’re just one-off activities that keep me writing, thinking, and habitually committed to my research. If you’re not sure about what these look like, let me know. I’m happy to share samples or talk them out. But these small writing activities can be helpful prompts for keeping your writing practice going, even in the face of…life.