Keeping the writing momentum in short nuggets of time.
September 17, 2009 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Simple enough: I have a lot of writing to do (finishing my master's thesis - research is done, just have to finish the writing) and we have an 8 month old baby. In the pre-baby past, I used to spend a long time working my way up to getting a big chunk of work done, but now I need to be able to jump in quickly and get writing in the few hours I have each day between her bedtime and mine. What are your best tips for picking up the threads each day to get the writing done?

Also, every so often, I try to get some extended time in when my mom visits and babysits, so there's that. And I also recommend finishing one's thesis prior to babies arriving, for any grad students that might be reading, FYI.
posted by stefnet to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
When you stop writing, stop in a place where you know exactly what you're going to write next. You can take this to the extreme and stop mid-sentence, or you can stop part way through a paragraph.

Starting off with an easy win, like finishing a sentence/paragraph that you've already got figured out, will get the ball rolling quickly.
posted by burntflowers at 5:38 PM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

See if you can swap babysitting time with other parents in the same situation?
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:48 PM on September 17, 2009

Two things basically worked for me when I was finishing my PhD thesis.
1. I only wrote for 2-3 hours/day, did nothing except write and pee during that time. More than this and I found I was repetitive and frustrated with the task at hand. Hopefully you can have your minimal time work best for you this way.

2. I only ever stopped in the middle of an idea, not in-between ideas. This is the only way the writing flowed for me from day to day. Good luck!
posted by meerkatty at 5:52 PM on September 17, 2009

I try to keep a list of things I want to write about (kind of an outline of ideas, but flexible). That way when I sit down to write, I don't have to think about what to write next, I can just pick something and go. Perhaps take a few minutes at the end of each writing block to make sure you have plenty of new topics for next time.

re: meerkatty--Stopping in the middle of an idea means I lose the idea by the next writing block (or at least it never seems to inspire me), so YMMV.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:02 PM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Sidhedevil, normally, I would say that's a good idea, but as I also work 30 hours a week, I like to spend as much time with my daughter as possible when she's awake. It's different when it's my mom here babysitting (that's "grandma time", not "random babysitter person" time). If I was still amongst other grad students more often, I would definitely consider it though.

Thanks so far everyone! Please keep it coming!
posted by stefnet at 6:22 PM on September 17, 2009

When I need to stop, or know I'm going to have to stop soon, I'll put my next several thoughts in brackets real quick

[like this, demonstrate point here]

[mention of something that calls to mind, work that in somehow]

[tie this into the other thing from before]

etc. When I come back, I just deal with the brackets one at a time. Sometimes I'll build up several days worth of brackets real quick, and they last me a while.
posted by Nattie at 6:57 PM on September 17, 2009

I'm in much the same boat. (PhD and toddler, but essentially the same situation).

I use which has a really great marginal notes feature. While I'm writing the text of the work I make as many marginal notes as I need. I'll even note smallish things like reminders to get the page number for a quote or I'll paste deleted text into a note so that I track changes if I'm still a bit unsure of the point in question. I basically use the notes for a lot of meta-commentary.

At the end of the session, if I have any doubt that I'll be able to get back on track I write a note with my remaining thoughts. The next time I get to write, all I need to do is read my last note and I'm pretty much up to speed again.
posted by oddman at 8:05 PM on September 17, 2009

You need to have notes: next three sentences, next three paragraphs, next three pages, next three concepts/chapters. ALWAYS have these planned out before you stop writing for the day. It'll make your paper better in general to have as much of an outline as possible.

Have a set routine that you do each time you stop writing: walk out of the room, turn the lights off, put your mug in the sink. Then when you come back, do the opposite.

Don't give yourself time to think before you start writing, e.g. sitting at the computer waiting for it to load. The instant you sit, you should be off and writing. Have your husband prep the computer for you.
posted by wayofthedodo at 8:21 PM on September 17, 2009

I'm a PhD student and mommy to a 10 month old.

My only solution for you? Weekends. For my qualifying exams, I left the house early and worked until bedtime on the weekends while Daddy did baby duty.

If you want to finish your thesis you're going to need to give up on some of the time that you're spending with the baby.

I say this because I couldn't find a solution to working shortly, other than using that time to keep up on email.

I just don't think that working + grad school + spending time with baby is possible (I've been trying to do it for 10 months and this summer decided that I'd work + baby, and starting next week when the new term begins, grad school + working - baby is going to daycare full time.)
posted by k8t at 8:50 PM on September 17, 2009

I had a writing gig with a couple of toddlers tugging at my ankles.

One thing that helped me was building a little corner of writing zen. Ideally that would be a whole room, but in our tiny house, it was a corner of the dining room. Still, I had it all arranged so that when I sat there, there was nothing to distract me: I had scratch paper, I had lip balm, I had a glass of water or a cup of tea, and when I parked my ass in that chair, it was Work Mode. No writing in bed, no laptopping on the couch, no trying to get another few hundred words in at the kitchen table while the kids ate PBJs for lunch. The good work happened in my wee little special Work Space.

So along with all the above suggestions and any that follow, I recommend carving yourself a little corner of Work Space.
posted by padraigin at 10:49 PM on September 17, 2009

I came in here excited to share my brilliant trick for getting started quickly, but it seems to be everybody else's trick too: when you leave off one work session, write yourself a quick sketch of where to start the next work session.

Another trick that often works for me: I figure out what's a strong but realistic working pace, and then set interval goals. Typically I'll expect myself to write 150 words per half hour. I start timing at the top or bottom of the hour. If I meet the 150 word mark before the clock hits :00 or :30, then I get the rest of that time to goof off (go for a walk, check email, etc.). When the next half-hour chunk starts, it's back to work. This really motivates me to get words down on the page quickly; it's different from saying "I'm going to write 150 words and then take a five-minute break." The faster I work, the more goof-off time I get; better working efficiency = bigger reward. It's a good motivator to dive right into the writing at the start of each interval, and after some practice it promotes fluency of thought.

Also: fight perfectionism. Classic mantras for grad students are "the perfect is the enemy of the good" and "there are only two kinds of theses: finished and unfinished." Your objective, in each session, is not to produce a perfectly polished and stunningly brilliant piece of scholarship. Your objective is to get words on the page. WORDS ON THE PAGE. You can change them later if you need to. If you don't know how to start a section of writing, don't stare at the wall for three hours "working up to" it. Open up your word processor and type, "I don't know how to start this section, but I know that I need to talk about X. X is the theory that Y influences Z . . .." Or drop the academic mode altogether and pretend that you're writing an email to a friend, explaining what you're working on. You can fix the phrasing later. Just get words on the page.
posted by Orinda at 11:21 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

My best writing tip is to write, not matter how awful it feels or sounds. Bad writing that exists is easier to deal with than no writing at all.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:33 AM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Everything was helpful, so I feel like I can't pick a "best" answer, although, Orinda's third paragraph kind of hits the nail on the head. In a short space of time, you want to get it DONE RIGHT, but I need to worry more about getting SOMETHING DONE, ANYTHING.
posted by stefnet at 4:51 AM on September 18, 2009

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