Word cluster

A blog about getting into a writing habit

My name is Francisca Concha-Ramírez and I am a PhD at Leiden Observatory. I do computational astrophysics and I also write a lot, but I want to write better.
This is my personal blog to document my writing up and downs. For my work/CV website, click here.

To learn why I started this blog, and see my writing plan and rules, check out this post.



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27 June 2018

Getting my writing habit back

[ habits  writing  writing-plan  ]

by Francisca Concha-Ramírez

I write a lot. As a 2nd year PhD student, I am dealing with writing my first papers and conference presentations (yes, I count them as writing). I also have a science blog for the general public: I write blog posts, social media posts, and podcast outlines. As part of Astronomy on Tap Leiden I write newsletters, event descriptions, and more social media posts. On top of it, I also keep a personal journal and write occasional letters to friends.

Earlier this year I finished writing the first draft of my first ever scientific paper. The process of writing a paper was a frenzy: I felt like I had so many ideas in my head that I could not put into words. I had the vision of all the processes that had been executed for the substance of my paper, but I had a hard time describing them. The fact that I have to write in English (my mother tongue is Spanish) did not help. Around that time, and thanks to a lovely friend who is doing a PhD in Literature, I came across the world of writing books. Turns out that having a difficult time trying to write is obviously a very common problem and there are many sources of help for struggling writers like myself.

The first book I read regarding writing was “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” by Paul Silvia. I absolutely loved the book and it brought me into a mindset of being more conscious about my writing and writing habits. I even started an agraphia group with some PhD colleagues (basically a group to talk about writing and get together to write), which is currently in involuntary hiatus since, well, we kind of forgot about it. But the 6 or 8 weeks in which we were active were extremely useful and I am looking forward to bring it back to life after the summer.

The reason why I have decided to start a writing blog is because, despite the list of writing tasks mentioned at the start of this post, I believe I am not writing enough. Let me explain myself.

According to “How to write a lot…”, the first step to become a prolific writer is to set a tight writing schedule. This is a time block during the day in which you are not to be disturbed, not to plan meetings, not to answer the phone. Just pure writing. The book also presents guidelines on how to prioritize what to write (I expect to comment the book more in depth here soon), but getting into a writing habit was something that I felt I needed to do. With the agraphia group we set a writing block every Thursday at 9am, which I believe I only attended twice, for two main reasons:

  1. I am not a morning person no matter how hard I try. Even if I wake up early, my brain is not fully functional until around midday. When I “work” in the mornings, I do less demanding stuff such as answering emails, browsing astro-ph, or anything that does not demand full concentration. For this reason, a 9am writing block is simply not the best fit for me.
  2. I constantly found myself with nothing to write. Even when I had to update my paper, many times this depended on my supervisor’s comments, which depended on our meeting schedule, which usually were on Thursday afternoons (after our scheduled writing block). Sometimes I had had a writing spree a couple of days before, because of a deadline, and would find myself wanting to do anything but writing. And other times I felt bad spending 2 hours of my day writing, for example, for my outreach blog, when I actually had a lot of other work to do that was more important in the moment. Now I have submitted my paper, but I have fallen behind with my blog updates and even my personal journal. My writing habits, which seemed to be going so well when we started the agraphia group, have gone back to almost nonexistent. But I still feel I have so many things I have to write, and so many others that I want to write.

So I decided to start this blog as motivation. I pretend to share my advances and struggles. It is intended mostly to be a timeline of my habits for myself, but I decided to make it open so anybody can benefit from whatever it is that comes out.

I have given myself a set of rules to start up my writing habits again:

  1. I will have a writing block every day of the working week, but contrary to the suggestion on “How to write a lot”, their timing will be flexible. But I have to complete one writing block per day, Monday to Friday.
  2. Each Sunday I will review my writing goals for the week and plan my weekly writing blocks accordingly. I already review my to-do’s for the coming week every Sunday, so this will not disrupt my routine.
  3. I will allow 2-hour writing blocks for academic stuff, and 1-hour writing blocks for non-academic stuff. There must be at least 2 academic blocks each week.
  4. If by the end of an academic writing block I feel like I want to keep on writing, I can do it. If by the end of a non-academic writing block I want to keep on writing, I have to first check my to-do list for the day and see if time allows it. I will only extend non-academic writing blocks for 1 more hour.
  5. I will do my best to keep my writing blocks at the same time every day, but will allow myself to be flexible and not stress too much when it can’t happen.
  6. I will also not stress too much if for whatever reason I miss one day, but I will try to not miss more than one writing block each week.

Now, to deal with the “I have nothing to write issue”, I will also list what counts as writing, for me personally:

  1. Academic papers and drafts
  2. Academic presentations and posters
  3. Reading papers that are related to whatever it is I am writing, like things to be referenced in my paper
  4. Reading my student’s drafts and writing comments for them
  5. Blog posts for my outreach site, includes making infographics
  6. Podcast outlines for my outreach site
  7. Social media posts for my outreach site
  8. Code outlines — yes, I will count code outlining, not coding, as writing. The act of taking a piece of paper and thinking/designing whatever algorithm or function I want to implement is something I have been doing for a few years, and the mental work it requires for me is akin to writing.
  9. Blog posts for this site

My personal journal and letters I consider part of my leisure time so I will not intend to force that writing. I will force myself to write on this website, though, to give me more writing tasks and to keep this idea alive.

(As you might have already noticed) I am a highly organized person and pretend to keep track of all my writing projects and schedule on my work planner. I will probably add an entry on my organization system after running it for a few weeks.

Let’s see how it works out!

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