Becoming the Habitual Writer

Dillon Wackerman, Head Editor, INALJ France

Becoming the Habitual Writer

dillon_w_fpFor most professional fields writing is important as an activity in several respects, with somewhat clear distinctions being present: at-work administrative (policies, reports, guidelines, agendas), at-work professional (presentations, tutorials, workshops, colloquiums) and away-from-work professional, which can be connected with the others in several respects (articles, books and book chapters, reviews and so on). Potentially ambiguous, yes, but it can be assumed that during an average work week quite a lot of writing in various formats and with varying purposes will be required. This, of course, applies as well to most professional contexts within information science, and for the graduate student, job-seeker or new professional, as these are all activities which should be expected at some point in a career, developing sound writing habits now can only be beneficial.


Any person would accept that graduate students and professionals (at any stage) possess writing habits, yet the proximity of these to “soundness” as described here may differ. Following, a sound writing habit is one that maintains and follows a schedule – day and time, namely – and a set of production goals. Much, you could say, is lacking here: what of quality, scope or style? Important, yes, in certain respects, but try to push these concepts out of mind initially. These are ultimately derivative of maintaining a schedule and minding production goals. To improve the quality of writing, to develop a style and to properly understand the scope, or what one could adequately approach as a writer, it is necessary to have something from which to build, to review, to edit, to present, to submit and to rework.


Before continuing on with an explanation of writing schedules and production goals, it is necessary to briefly discuss an issue that does confront the new professional and will confront the graduate student: the balance between administrative and professional development writing. Really, the line on which these two areas of writing could balance is vague, as one could and easily does merge into the other, and this is perhaps what can produce issues. It may be best, then, to make a personal distinction in respect to the intended purpose of what is being written, with one possibly being that of to-be-published versus not-to-be-published. This, of course, can also be vague, as the set of guidelines you wrote that were only intended for internal department use could eventually lead to or influence a publication.

What is key here is that some sort of distinction is made, one that as stated must be personal. The factors going into this decision are many and may be dictated by context. Does your interest in professional development coincide with publishing? If so, is there an area in which you may excel or even to which your administrative work may be leveraged? Are you currently on a promotion or tenure track, or do you intend or desire to be on such? Generally, promotion and tenure would dictate some form of publishing, but the respective form may not necessarily be traditional (a best practices statement, or even a vision statement, could qualify at some universities towards these goals). For an early professional, publishing for professional development apart from the administrative may possess more of an appeal: advancement is more self-directed, the audience is much larger and of course there is the gained attention. Ultimately, though, a certain amount of contingency is present as each is as important as the other and in most cases one may positively influence the other.


Considering writing in either an administrative or a professional development sense, the graduate student or early professional should then anticipate quite a large workload. To properly confront this some type of plan must be in place, and what is more, this plan must have some built-in consistency. One side of the plan as mentioned should be to follow a writing schedule. For this, we could come up with a fairly simple course, such as always writing on a certain day, and let us say every Tuesday and Thursday. Following this schedule will certainly produce results, but production is not only not being maximized, but any positive carry over – from one writing session to the next – can significantly be diminished by the gap in time.


Ideally, I would say, writing should be scheduled for at least five days a week. The exact days on which to write are not essentially important, although I am sure that every person has a certain day of the week on which writing, or just work in general, would not be desired. For me, the initial writing schedule I came up with was Monday through Friday, with Saturday being a wild card. Sunday was at first off-limits. This schedule eventually morphed into Monday through Friday, with Saturday and Sunday being wild cards. Often, I write nothing on the wild card days, but I sometimes do find myself thinking over a topic or mapping it out on a white-board (a necessary purchase for the home, by the way). But, the possibility of not having to write on weekends is at times appreciated, and the break, whether or not a topic is at the most conceptualized in some manner during that time, often seems necessary: creating a distance from a topic, no matter how artificial it may be, can greatly benefit subsequent writing efforts.


So, your schedule is in place but you are still lacking a production goal. While I may write Monday through Friday, how much am I writing on each day? Perhaps a paragraph one day, one page the next day, two sentences the day after and a sentence after that. As we are now writing almost every day, the inconsistency in how much is written may not seem terribly significant: carry over from one day to the next is apparent and more is ultimately being written. Yet, with no set production goals in place, it is possible to have weeks pass by with only a few sentences being produced, or, even worse, only the editing or shifting around of previously written material. Let us then combine our Monday through Friday writing schedule with a production goal of one page a day. This amount, one page a day, may seem high, and initially it may be difficult to write that much in certain instances, but this will give way after a week or two of maintaining the schedule.


There are several obvious benefits to following such a writing schedule with the accompanying production goals, the main being that you will become a prolific writer, at least in respect to words and pages produced: five pages a week, twenty pages a month, 240 pages a year. These numbers of course represent unedited material, which will need to be refined, but having such an amount to edit and rework is definitely a good thing. What can also happen is that, over time, most will find themselves exceeding the daily production goals several times during the week. It is not uncommon to hear of prolific writers producing 15 to 20 pages a day.

There are other considerations for the habitual writer, such as the minimization of distractions and the creation of a writing environment. Social media and visual media seem to be some of the more frequent distractions. Yet, the solution here is simple: turn them off, or, perhaps better, move the devices into another room (that last sentence should seem humorous, but it isn’t, it’s more like practical advice now!). Another distraction could be home life, and for this there are a couple options. The best would be the ability to schedule writing time at work – very much possible if in an academic library or similar setting, and if you are on tenure or promotion track such a tactic may in fact be encouraged. And always make sure that your calendar clearly reads “WRITING TIME” or even “WRITING TIME – LEAVE ME ALONE!”.

For environment, my preference is actually to change it up as much as possible, while maintaining the schedule and production goals that I have set for myself. During the work week, I like to schedule writing time early in the work day just after morning meetings. This seems to be a good time in which I will be left alone long enough to fill at least half the schedule. If not at work, then during the week I prefer to write at home, where it is written in large letters on a white-board “WRITE NOW”. For whatever reason, if writing on the weekend I like to divide the time up between two cafes, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The exact method or pattern here is not important except for this: you need to develop a routine based around the schedule that allows the production goals to be met easily. In the end, when following such a routine you might actually begin to like to write!

Recommended Reading

For the most part, I have reiterated as arrived at through experience what will be found in these books – at least concerning a writing schedule and production goals. Nevertheless, I would recommend first taking up Silvia (2007), as his approach is practically oriented and suitable for a graduate student or new professional. After Silvia, definitely take a shot at Furman and Kinn (2012).

Behrens, L., Rosen, L.J. (2007) A sequence for academic writing. Pearson Longman, New York, NY.

Furman, R., Kinn, J.T. (2012). Practical tips for publishing scholarly articles. Lyceum Books, Chicago, IL.

Gordon, R.S. (2004). The librarian’s guide to writing for publication. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD.

Johnson, W.B., Mullen, C.A. (2007). Write to the top! How to become a prolific academic. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.

Silvia, P.J. (2007) How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.