Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo): It’s a great idea, but…

November is academic writing month. If you’re into twitter, you may have noticed the #AcWriMo hashtag flying around, but if not, here’s the deal.

  1. During November, set yourself some crazy writing goals.
  2. Tell everyone
  3. Take action
  4. Declare your results

Because there will be thousands of students doing this at the same time, you’ll be able to share your experience, get advice, and join in the feeling of shared effort so you don’t have to feel isolated while you do it.

You can check out the complete (but simple) rules of academic writing month over on the PhD2Published blog.

Academic Writing Month: It’s a great idea, but…

I think academic writing month is a great idea, especially because of the community aspect. Also because the timing in November means you can have a concentrated burst of productivity before December and the associated shenanegans of Christmas and the new year.

I am certain that there will be plenty of success stories, but there are some potential problems you should be aware of.

1. Announcing goals doesn’t always work…

It’s widely believed that announcing your goals makes you more likely to follow through with them, because there is an element of accountability.

The problem, though, is that making the announcement gives you a slight psychological reward as if you have already achieved the goal (just like making detailed plans can make you feel good too, without having actually done the work).

This flies in the face of the standard advice, but sometimes it’s better to delay gratification, keep your goals to yourself and focus on what needs to be done, as explained by Derek Sivers in this video.

I also included this video in the blog post “Are some targets bad for your productivity?”

2. Focusing on high word-count is dangerous

Academic writing is about more than just word count. It’s about effective communication of difficult ideas.

When you start writing something new, there will be plenty of things which flow easily because you know them well, and you will be able to write fast. But inevitably, you will reach a point where you have to explain something that requires more thought and effort, and you will slow down.

This is a natural and unavoidable part of the writing process, and you just need to slow down and give some thought to what you want to say and how to say it. It may be that you need to think about how to link one idea to the next, or you need to check a reference, or take some time to find the right wording.

Many people mistake this natural slowdown for writer’s block, and received wisdom states that you should just get words down on the page and figure out the details later. But these details matter, and it’s best to engage with them now rather than save all the difficult bits for later (see the worst thesis writing advice ever, and what to do instead).

3. There will be bias in the AcWriMo results…

Part of the AcWriMo process is reporting your results. This is good, but it’s likely that the only people reporting results will be those who have achieved their goals.

For some people, it might not work, and it may be demoralising to see everyone else announcing how successful they have been. If you take part and you don’t meet your goals, I strongly advise you to announce this too, then readjust your goals to make them achievable the next day.

What I would suggest is setting an easy goal the first day (say 500 words), then if you smash it and do 800, set the target for 1000 the next day. To push yourself, go slightly beyond what you find comfortable, but do not work yourself to exhaustion because you have to last the whole month.Then if you can’t sustain 1000 per day, drop back down to 500 again because you know it is achievable.

4. Work on one thing, finish it

If you have a daily word count target, make it part of another target, such as “finish chapter 3″.

It’s common to get stuck just before the end of a chapter because you come to a point where it’s all about the small details rather than producing large volumes of new text. The temptation is to leave it for later and work on something else to maintain the rate of word production, but it’s much better to focus instead on finishing.

That way, you can move on to the next thing with a sense of satisfaction that you’ve completed something, rather than having that nagging sense that you’ll have to come back to it later.

So maybe set your crazy academic writing month goal as finishing a big piece of writing, and make your word count targets a subordinate part of that to help you on the way.

5. Work on something you can finish

In order to finish a piece of writing, other things need to be finished first.

For example, if you are writing a data chapter, you can’t finish the writing unless you have collected all the data. If you start writing before that, then you’ll hit an inevitable block (unless you are capable of time travel).

If something needs to be finished before you can finish the writing, do that first!

Good luck!

AsĀ  I said, I think it’s a great idea, so best of luck if you’re taking part.

I’d like to know if you face any problems, so leave your comments below!

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  1. says

    James – this is good advice, especially the bit about keeping goals to oneself. I need to do that one more. So the puzzle I’m struggling with now: what is the difference between an announced goal and a deadline imposed by an advisor or editor? They seem to produce the same kind of pressure and the same disappointment!

  2. Katherine says

    My writing goal this month is to my identify the themes from my data and complete half the findings chapter (as a minimum).

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