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…