Two months late and a chapter short: What I learned from AcWriMo

looking out the window instead of writing...

As is evident by the date stamps on my last few blog posts, I fell off the Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) train about half-way through. My aim was to finish 2 draft chapters during November (plus blog once a week); I just finished a rough draft of the first chapter last week, and I only blogged twice in November.

My first instinct was to say I failed AcWriMo, but I’m resisting saying that. I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m failing: I’m not writing enough; I’m not progressing fast enough; I’m not reading enough; I don’t understand enough and am simply not clever enough; I don’t seem to ever achieve as much as everyone else; I still haven’t published anything; and I still haven’t finished my data collection. Does this sound familiar?

But in writing about failure on a blog which I’m hoping in the long-term will help gain visibility for my research, I feel like I need to put a positive spin on it – about how it’s something we all experience as PhD students but which we work through and find our ways of overcoming (preferably with some snappy bullet points at the end). That seems to be the standard for research blogs when we talk about process: a blog post which deals with the difficulties of academic writing and researching should simultaneously present some solutions.

But that doesn’t feel very honest to me, right now. So in the spirit of honesty, I’ve put together my own list of what I really learnt from AcWriMo.

Arbitrary deadlines don’t work for me
If I know it’s not a real deadline, I know it – it doesn’t matter how I dress it up. I know the regret of missing enough real deadlines to not be fooled by ones I’ve just set myself.

I’m not very good at planning ahead
I like to make plans, but I’m not always very good at sticking to them. It all depends very much on how things pan out on the day/week. And things always take longer than I think. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever manage to hold myself to a plan or that I’m totally flaky, but I work better planning week by week, rather than a month or more ahead.

Things always come up
While planning the writing I was going to do in November, I forgot to take into account all the things that were inevitably going to come up at shorter notice and divert my attention.

I’m better at working on several smaller things than just one big thing
I get bored (and therefore distracted) working on just one thing (i.e. a chapter) for more than a couple of days at a time. The only time I can really make myself do this is when an actual real deadline is looming.

My productivity fluctuates in direct correlation with my mental wellbeing
…and sometimes there’s very little I can do about that. Ok, I knew this one already. But a related point I did learn: when I’m feeling crappy, reading about other people’s productivity on Twitter doesn’t help.

I’m a more confident writer these days
Yes, I am ending on a positive note! While I didn’t get anywhere near my goals for the month, I have still been writing quite a lot lately. And one thing which I’m definitely noticing is that words come more easily than they used to. I find it easier writing first drafts without getting too anxious about whether what I’m writing is any good or not. And once that draft is down, it doesn’t seem so daunting to go back and start editing. I still angst and procrastinate, for sure, but less so than I used to. I think that’s called practice. And progress.

So that’s my list. I want to send my thanks to the folks at PhD2Published who initiated AcWriMo – I know a lot of people found it useful. I probably won’t be participating this year if it runs again – although I do need to write quite a few chapters this year, so I’m not ruling it out entirely. Maybe if the deadline seems more real it would work better. The potential imminent bancruptcy of my university certainly makes finishing my PhD seem a lot more urgent. But that‘s another post entirely…

AcWriMo so far

I’m a day late with this blog post according to my goal of blogging once a week during November. But at least I’m here now!

So with a second week of Acwrimo having passed, I thought I’d reflect on how it’s gone so far in terms of my goals, as well as on my thoughts about the process.

Firstly, I pretty much know already that I’m not going to finish the drafts of both chapters I’d aimed for. But that doesn’t mean that I think I’ve ‘failed’ already – as I saw someone post on Twitter (I can’t find it now so I’m paraphrasing): it’s not always about achieving goals, but about having some to work towards.

The first week I found having specific goals effective and motivating and I got a lot of writing done. Like many others I’ve been using the pomodoro technique – with the Pomodairo application – which (after some initial qualms about it) I’m finding really useful for focusing repeatedly for short spurts of time without it ever seeming too onerous.

Last week, however, things got more difficult with the chapter I’m working on. It’s not so much a case of getting words out – thankfully (touch wood!) nowadays this isn’t so much of a problem for me, as I’ve got into a pretty solid habit of writing often. But I’m at a stage where I don’t want to be spending too much time just getting words out if they’re not the right ones (or at least approximately the right ones!). And as I was wrestling with a new section of analysis, I realised that I needed to go back to spend some more time with the primary sources that I’m analysing – I just wasn’t at all sure what it was I wanted to say.

So that’s what I’ve ended up doing, which has slowed my progress down to a point where I think a more realistic goal for this month is to finish a draft of this one chapter only.

Something else I’ve been thinking about is whether initiatives like acwrimo are helpful or not for developing sustainable working practices – in particular ones which are able to take work/life balance and mental wellbeing into account. This is important to me: working out ways of being productive, engaged and motivated at the same time as paying attention to what my mind and body needs in terms of downtime and play (something which I’ve not always been very good at).

Also, I liked the point this blog post made – with things like acwrimo, it’s mostly the people who are sticking with it and who are gaining something positive out of it who will be posting their progress and joining in the conversation. How do we create spaces to talk about the times when we can’t work and meet goals and feel crap about it?

Overall, I am finding the process useful – and I really appreciate the PhD2Published crew for initiating it. I think it’s pretty awesome the way it creates a community – however fleeting – and I am enjoying dipping into the Twitter feed. I think having the deadline – even if it is arbitrary – has definitely made me focus in on the work I need to do in a way that I often struggle to do without a deadline. So I’m glad I’m participating, even if I won’t reach my official goals. At least they’re giving me something to aim towards.

My AcWriMo goals

A couple of days ago, the PhD2Published website announced that in November, they will be running their own spin off version of NaNoWriMo, called AcWriMo – in other words Academic Writing Month.

This comes at a good time for me: By the end of next week I will be starting a new job which will be fewer hours than my current one, which means I’ll have more time to write. So I’ve decided to join in the fun!

AcWriMo encourages you to set ambitious goals for the writing you want to get done in November, state them somewhere publicly (to help hold yourself accountable) and then share your progress with the AcWriMo community (for example via Twitter using the #AcWriMo hashtag).

I currently have two chapters of analysis of popular feminism which need some serious work (it started out as one chapter which turned into a bit of a two-headed monster). Both are about half done, so my goal for November will be to complete both chapters.

In addition, and as I’ve been neglecting the blog lately, I want to hold myself to writing a post on here at least once a week throughout the month. This could either be related to my writing progress, or on another topic.

I’m excited (and also nervous) about the changes ahead for me – both in starting a new job as well as having more study-time. I’m hoping that committing to AcWriMo will help me establish a new and productive working pattern and help motivate me to make the best use of the additional precious time I’ll have to research and write each week!