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125-250 words, 15 minutes: Setting small writing goals to build an academic writing practice

I have been travelling non-stop since January 2018 even though I had promised myself I would not do this ever again. But my scholarly research takes me to a number of places, including San Francisco last week for the 2018 meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) and this week to the 2018 meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

Reading and AcWri and highlighting related content

As I have indicated before, I use conferences to force me to write full papers that I then submit to journals, or book chapters for books in which I have committed to participate. The past week and this week I have also been incredibly ill, with a cold and flu that I got during Holy Week (Easter Weekend) and then happened to get worse during my stay in San Francisco. This week, I am in New Orleans and luckily, heavily medicated and healthy again (or at least on the tail end of this awful illness). But I had not written, consistently. And even in previous weeks, my written output had been pretty minimal.

The truth is that when I am not healthy, I don’t push myself at all. If I need to take time off from waking up at 4:00am and writing for two hours, I do it. I simply sleep in, and next day or the day after, I start again. But what I’ve found this year is that I have been able to write consistently and produce more than 34,000 new words (yes, that’s thirty four thousand words) by the end of March simply by setting small writing goals.

The truth is, I’ve managed to write that many words by writing in memorandums, and setting very small goals. 125 words, 250 words. 15 minutes of continuous writing. Anything that will make my work move forward, I’ll take it. That’s also why I champion a new metric of success: instead of fixating on words written, or hours spent we could focus on sentences and paragraphs crafted.

One of the reasons why I am a big fan of small goals for everything (reading, 1 article per day, do an AIC Content Extraction and then write a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) row entry, what I call the AIC-CSED reading combo, writing for 15-30 minutes, drafting 125 new words) is because it sustains what Joli Jensen calls “frequent, low-stakes contact with a writing project” (read my notes on Jensen’s Write No Matter What here).

Setting small writing goals (125 words, 15 minutes of writing) or reading (1 article per day, 1 AIC-CSED per day) allows us to stop berating ourselves for “not being productive enough”. That’s one reason why I love Tseen Kho’s article “Your Word Count Means Nothing to Me”. It’s important to remember that each person is different and that we all have different writing, reading, and researching practices. Hopefully this strategy will be helpful to others who, like me, experience fear when trying to tackle a daunting large research project.

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Posted in academia, productivity, research, writing.

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6 Responses

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  1. Tracy says

    Great ideas. I keep looking for large blocks of time to write and its not working. when I do sit down to write I get distracted.
    I am trying to write journal articles from my dissertation. Do you have any suggestions?

  2. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    I do actually! I have a blog post on how to write journal articles out of a dissertation. Hopefully it will be helpful to you!

  3. Susi says

    Good article, but for me it is the orange juice in the first picture that shows your bravery.

  4. Raul Pacheco-Vega says

    It’s actually papaya smoothie!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A synthetic memorandum on advice on academic research and writing – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on July 29, 2019

    […] MAKING TIME. The authors I mentioned, plus Bolker and Boyle Single, all suggest that you should designate (or carve) *SOME* time to sustain a writing practice. Most people say 15 minutes is not even enough to launch the laptop. Probably, BUT I have found that if I am able to devote at least 15-30 mins to writing, I feel like it helps ME move my work forward. […]

  2. The “Accomplish Two Things Before Anything Else” approach: Dealing with academic life under pressure – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on August 28, 2019

    […] house nor do I open my email before I get *some* writing done and *some* reading done. That’s why I champion smaller goals. During crunch time, I can’t stay sitting at my computer until I crank 1,500 words. So, I set […]

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