Creating a Sustainable Writing Routine

Especially during the academic year, it can be incredibly difficult to set aside time for regular writing time, and while we might long for those open days spent reading and writing for hours on end, it may be more productive to set smaller goals to build incrementally toward large objectives. Below are some recommendations and productivity strategies which will help you establish a writing routine that will work for you.

Steps for Establishing a Writing Routine

We all know how easily an "open" day on your schedule can get booked up with other responsibilities so that writing time dwindles to almost no time at all. We thus recommend the following strategies for fitting writing sessions in to an already busy schedule:

  1. Evaluate your weekly routines and schedules and map out immovable blocks of time (like courses you teach, service meetings etc.). Create a weekly ideal schedule and take note of when occasional responsibilities tend to fall (e.g. monthly faculty meetings, etc.). 
  2. Reflect on when you are most energized to write and when you have the availability to write and reserve that time for your writing sessions. A writing session first thing in the morning ensures that you make writing a priority, but you might work better in the evening when your house is quiet or between other commitments in the afternoons. The main point is to keep it consistent as best as you can--scheduling your writning sessions for Tues/Thurs afternoons and Friday mornings is a routine, but trying to fit writing in during random blocks of time throughout the week makes those sessions more likely to be overrun by other responsibilities and is unlikely to become a habit or routine. 
  3. Choose smaller writing sessions over more days in the week rather than longer writing sessions once or twice a week. You might not think that much can be accomplished in 20-30 minutes, but if you're writing daily or near daily, you won't have to spend as much time catching up on where you left off or trying to "get into the mood" of writing. 
  4. Schedule writing time on your calendar by making an appointment with yourself and block off that time for writing. Say "no" when someone asks to schedule something at that time (whenever possible). Even tell others that is your writing time so that they know not to contact you at that time.
  5. Make it happen! Committing to a writing routine is like establishing any other good habit. If you want to make exercise a regular part of your routine you have to "show up" to the class you signed up for or take a walk at a predictable time each/most days of the week when you're most likely to be able to do it. Establishing a writing routine is no different; you have to commit. 

Establishing Specific, Realistic, and Achievable Goals

It is tempting to establish loose goals (or to not articulate goals at all) when it comes to writing, but "work on chapter revision" is not specific enough. We encourage you to establish specific and achievable goals: 

  • Break down large tasks (e.g. "complete chapter 3 of book project") into incremental parts. What sections or components need to be written? What do you already have the content for and what requires new reading/research/data? For example: "synthesize citations on [x topic] for first section of literature review" is a much more specific goal than "work on chapter 3." Over time, you'll learn how much time doing such tasks should take you so you can give yourself the appropriate number of writing sessions to complete a task or learn how to break tasks down even further so that you learn what is possible in the writing time that you have. 
  • Consider word count goals. Some people benefit greatly from a word count objective for each writing session; writing 500 words is about two double-spaced typed page. Note that this kind of objective will not work in the later stages of a draft when you must refine your language and focus on editing. For some, however, just getting out 500 words of any quality is enough to stay motivated and keep going.
  • Choose smaller time goals over more days than longer writing sessions over fewer days. This is a repeat topic from above, but it's important. You might not think that much can be accomplished in 20-30 minutes, but if you're writing daily or near daily, you won't have to spend as much time catching up on where you left off or trying to "get into the mood" of writing. 
  • Write down your writing objectives for the week and for each individual writing session. Keeping a log of your objectives and checking them off as you accomplish them is not only satisfying but is a good reminder that you are in fact making progress and so that you can track your accomplishments over time and in relation to other things going on.

Countering Common Writing Blocks and Challenges

  • Having difficulty getting started: the beginning of any project can feel overwhelming and the blank page/screen is no help. If you're having trouble getting started, consider lower-stakes writing just to get some words on the page. Consider freewriting, brainstorming, word webs, drawing, or other flexible writing strategies to get your mind moving and to remind yourself of why you are invested in this project in the first place. If it helps to have a prompt, consider the following questions to get (re)acquainted with your writing project: What is the purpose of this project? What will be its relevance to my scholar colleagues in my field and other related fields? What is the relationship of this project to other projects (other chapters, previous articles, other scholars' works, etc.) and how will this work build on/complicate/extend/pivot away from that worK?
  • Limiting Distractions: if you're tempted away from writing by other media, household chores, or you are trying to write in an environment that is distracting pare down your virtual and physical spaces. Turn on your phone's "do not disturb" option and download apps and web browser extensions to limit your ability to access media that distract you. Close your email client and any other windows and tabs that are not directly related to your writing. Tell anyone else who is around you or might call you that unless there is an emergy you are not to be disturbed. Close a door if you can. Clean off your desk so that your space feels clutter free (which helps most people feel that their mind is also less cluttered). If working at your desk reminds you of other pressing work tasks, take a laptop to the dining room table or use a notebook to write longhand.
  • Doing all the other research tasks except getting words on the page: especially when you are in the early stages of a writing project it can be easy to get lost in the resource search rabbit hole or to get lost in a dataset. It feels like you're not getting any writing done because you're not technically getting words on the page, even though such tasks are essential to the writing process. It might help to decide that this work doesn't "count" as writing. That is, you might find it helpful to limit your scheduled writing sessions to only "words on the page" tasks and to defer tasks like reading to another time in your week. Alternatively, you could convert your reading/analyzing/etc. tasks to writing tasks by writing notes, if not formal prose, that will be useful in the writing project (e.g. typing up a would-be literature review section for a set of sources related to one another, etc.).
  • Not having enough time. As emphasized above, the first solution is to choose shorter writing sessions and smaller writing tasks and goals. It might also be, however, that you need to give yourself some grace. Patterns of productivity will become evident over time as you track your progress. It will make sense, therefore, that during the midterm weeks of the regular semester you'll be unlikely to accomplish much in the way of writing. That doesn't mean you should give up your writing time, but you might adjust your goals to suit your energy level and make them even smaller (in task or time) or choose tasks that do not require too much thought (maybe work on formatting or proofreading your works cited, for example). Give yourself some grace as other responsibilities ebb and flow.

Would you like More Guided Support to Establish Your Writing Routine?

The Writing Institute offers targeted support for Faculty through the Faculty Writing Program and for graduate students (particularly in the dissertation writing stage) through Dissertation Camps and Writing Accountability Groups. You may also contact Moriah Kirdy, Associate Director of the Writing Institute (moriah.kirdy@pitt.edu) for an individual consultation to help you troubleshoot your personal challenges with your writing routine.