Good writing requires about 5% intelligence. The other 95% is attitude, habits, and scheduling. Tracy began writing a guide of good writing practices for students at CSI with learning disabilities, then realized most other students aren’t aware of these practices either (!), so we’re making it available to everyone.
The following excerpts are taken from “From Procrastination to Productivity: Writing Strategies for Students with (and without) Learning Disabilities and ADHD” written by Tracy E. Robey with the CUNY-College of Staten Island Office of Disability Services and Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines Program. Click here to download the entire PDF for free.
Habits For Productive Writing
Researchers tell us that the following habits can help us self-program our brains for getting the most out of our writing time. The purpose of these habits is to establish some writing momentum. Just like runways for jets need to be clear to allow them to take off, getting your writing runway clear can help you have really productive work sessions that you can feel good about. When you feel like you’re on a roll with writing, it gets easier and easier to make the time for doing it and getting started.
- Get Regular Sleep, Try to Relax, and Get Some Exercise
- Find Your Place To Write
- Don’t Worry Too Much About Prepping Your Workspace
- Find the Right Noise (or Silence)
- Try to Write Consistently
- Use Rituals to Help You Start Work
Tips for Managing and Scheduling Your Time
The Writing Process
- Reflect on Past Experience When Writing Essays
- How to Think About Your Audience
- Do One Writing Task at a Time
- Start with a Quick Thesis to Get Things Rolling (Your Intro Can Come Later)
- Organizing the Body of Your Paper
Getting regular, quality sleep is a great way to make writing easier. Sleep is natural, free, and it feels awesome—if it were expensive or illegal, I suspect that we would cherish it a lot more. Research has shown over and over that being sleep-deprived robs us of creative ideas and makes us more likely to make silly mistakes. I have to remind myself of this when I’m faced with the choice of watching “just one more episode” or “playing just one more Xbox game sequence” when I should be going to bed. Going without sleep for a long time can have the same effect on your brain as being drunk! No wonder all-nighters result in some pretty iffy papers.
In addition to helping you avoid weird typos and half-supported arguments, sleep is a great way to work out writing problems. Research confirms that people who think (but don’t obsess) about a problem they can’t immediately solve before going to sleep often wake up with the answer. That’s because your brain wants answers, so it can naturally work on the problem even when you’re not consciously thinking about it. Sleep is also necessary for storing permanent memories of the things you’ve learned and encountered throughout the day.
Sleep is effective for learning and writing because it can lower stress and thereby make it easier for you to locate all of the good ideas you already have. There are plenty of other ways to lower stress, too. When I was teaching regularly, I’d always tell my students—not in a creepy way, I hope—to take a shower if they had a writing problem they couldn’t work out. They would always giggle when I first told them because it sounded so weird, but then they would often report back that something about it helped them sort out huge problems that had otherwise been making them miserable. Yelling while watching sports, particularly outdoors where you can just go wild, does something pretty similar. Moderate exercise produces the same relaxed-yet-alert feeling that has a magical way of focusing your brain.
If you need more reasons to love sleep, consider that scientists have shown that people who get more sleep are rated as more beautiful. With the help of sleep, you can look awesome while writing awesome papers—what’s not to love?!?!
Write in the place that works for you, but don’t be afraid to try something new. People often get really attached to the places where they write, and the places are as different as the people who write there. When I was in college, I used to drag my computer to a Starbucks 30 minutes from my house so that I could write without friends and the internet distracting me (this was before wi-fi was everywhere).
Sometimes it is nice to have a few different places to work. Right now I type at a desk, but I read and edit my papers in a comfortable chair that is away from computers and my phone so that I can focus and not think all the time about what’s going on with my fantasy football team. You can walk, wiggle, and stand—don’t feel like you must stay perfectly still at a desk in order to get writing done.
Going to your writing place can help make getting work done so much easier. I have this really cool office in my house with all sorts of books in it and a super computer with a giant monitor, but I never really use that room for writing. I realized that I needed to pack up my stuff and “go to the office” outside my house each morning in order to get work done. I set a basic schedule for myself and I tell myself that I’m heading “to work,” as if I’m paid for sitting at my desk and writing. I’m so used to “going to work” that I schedule appointments at other times and don’t take calls when I’m at my desk. Trust me, it has taken a long time to get to that point! But it really works!
The other trick that you can use to keep yourself focused on writing is to write in places where other people are being really productive. It isn’t all that inspiring to write next to a bunch of people who are just hanging out. In fact, you might find yourself yelling at them. But if you find a place where people are really focused and busting through work, it can be helpful for keeping you on track. I write in a public computer lounge, so when I see people who are doing serious writing all day walk past to get their coffee at three in the afternoon, I feel pretty embarrassed if I’m just scrolling through Facebook status updates. This is an example of using good peer pressure to help stay on track with writing.
There’s no single right way to get your desk ready for work. It doesn’t really matter if you like your workspace piled with notes and research, or if you prefer a clear desk. What’s key is spending a few moments getting your workspace prepared for how you like to write.
Teachers always used to tell me in school that I should write on a clean desk. The clean desk made me feel kind of crazy and imprisoned, but the ritual of getting my workspace ready for writing was useful. Taking five minutes or so to do something that you associate with writing is a physical signal to your brain that work is about to start. That can make transitioning into writing—an important skill for productivity—so much easier.
The problem with the clean desk obsession is that a lot of people get so hung up on the clean desk that they never quite make it to the writing stage! If that’s the case for you, just push your mess off to one side or put it on the floor. In general, getting ready to write seems to inspire lots of people to clean and organize things. Resist the