A SHORT GUIDE TO WRITING MORE, AND WRITING BETTER, BY WRITING DAILY
On October 30, 2015 I asked by adviser Dr. Hasford (who happens to be a couple years younger than me) a simple question, “How did he have four papers under review, and I had none?” I felt like I was working hard. I was reading. I was collecting data. I had the prerequisite PhD stress. And yet, I had almost nothing tangible to show for all this supposed busyness.
He responded, in his usual way, with a biting, but insightful question, “When was the last time you wrote?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“When was the last time you wrote every day for a week straight?”
“Never,” I offered.
He then went on to tell me that when he was a doctoral student, that he had the opportunity to meet with some of the top producers our field at the Sheth colloquium (the yearly event for the nation’s top marketing doctoral students). He asked them how to be productive, and they all had a similar reply. Write more. Work on your research every day. This mirrored advice that Dr. Michelle Steward gave at a talk on the research process the summer before where she said that we (students and professors) should write everyday.
Dr. Hasford went on to say that one professor, who at the time was one of the top 10 published people ever, said that all he did was write half a page a day.
I thought to myself. I could write a half a page a day. In fact, I could write a whole page a day.
I set a goal for myself.
I would write, every dang day.
I have not missed a day since. And in that time I have gotten accepted to 3 (competitive) conferences, have 1 paper under review, and should have 2–3 more done before the end of the summer. On top of that I got the opportunity to leave my program at FIU and continue my PhD studies at Kellogg. I also won $2500 in scholarships. And all of this positivity I credit to the daily writing habit.
I even convinced my friend Aaron Barnes to join me on this challenge, and we are now both more than six months in. He too says it was one of the best decisions he’s made in his doctoral program.
If this anecdotal evidence is not enough to convince you to pick up the daily writing habit, here are 6 more reasons why you should write every day.
1. Because you will get better. While the jury is still out on whether the 10,000 hour rule is a real thing. And everyday practice won’t turn a horrible jump shooter into Steph Curry, writing is a skill that develops through quantity. The more you write, the better you get. Plain and simple.
2. Your ideas will be better. I find that I have hundred of ideas that come up during classes, or reading, or talking to professors, or going to conferences. Most of these ideas either rattle around, or disappear. I find that writing them down allows me to get them out of my head, and forces me to think more clearly.
3. It is easier to receive negative feedback. One of the hallmarks of academia is that the top and toughest journals have a review process that is double blind. This allows for some rather nasty reviews of your work. Many doctoral students cannot handle the negative feedback from these reviews, and then do not pursue their research. This is because they have too much of themselves invested into each rejection because they write so little. When you write in bulk, it allows for your work to be “the work” and not “your work”
4. You can make changes rapidly. I can now crank out 600 words of not-too-shabby writing in less than half an hour. This rapid churn allows me to process feedback faster. If I send a draft to a coauthor, and they hate it, I know that I can (and will) fix it tomorrow.
5. Writing becomes meditation. I am not a meditator. I cannot sit still long enough to get the benefits, but when I write for an hour or two a day, I find that those times I am the most clear an and lucid. When things are moving, it just feels effortless.
6. Content is king. The beauty of the daily writing plan is that you produce reams of content. In academia, ideas are awesome, but content is currency. I have found that writing opens doors to co-authors, conferences, scholarships, and admissions. If you want to work with one of your academic heroes, write more. Plus almost all things you enjoy are written. Television is written. Stand-up is written. Rap is written. Even Love and Hip Hop Atlanta is written.
Now, when I tell people (and I tell EVERYONE) about the power of daily writing I get back the same questions. In an effort to simplify the response (and to make it so I never have to answer these questions again and can spend more time writing), here are answers to the questions I get most often:
The Daily writing FAQ
Q: What do I write about?
A: When you start the daily writing challenge, the short answer is write about anything and everything. Write about what you learned during the day. Write about the thoughts you have on research or life. Write about writing. Write about your process.
Q: But if I write about anything and everything, how do I make progress?
A: As you build the habit of writing, it is important to shift your writing towards the few projects that will yield the most gains. Write up studies. Write conceptual backgrounds. Write conclusions. If you don’t know how to write these things, go to google scholar, look up journals you want to publish in, and copy and paste the articles that are the most similar to what you are studying. Then you will use these as a template. Academic writing is surprisingly formulaic. The journals, in their own way give you the formula.
Q: Can I write twice as much today so that I can skip tomorrow?
A: No. Build the habit of daily practice. No zero days.
Q: What if I don’t write on the weekends. And I just do it during the week?
A: Unless you have a religious doctrine to keep your Sabbath holy, then write every day. I would even argue, that on your Sabbath you should write about your faith. When you write enough, it becomes a habit, and not work. If you brush your teeth everyday (I hope), you should write every day.
Q: How do I start?
A: Write today. Write right now. And then write again tomorrow.
Q: How do you stay accountable?
A: This is a long answer, that explains my theory of human goal achievement. Humans are one of the few animals (maybe the only animal) that can set both self-rewards and self-punishments for goals. I have found that negative incentives are more powerful than positive incentives when trying to build a habit.
When I started the daily writing challenge, I enlisted my friend (and mastermind member) Aaron Thomas (who is, as of this writing 12 days in on his own writing streak) to hold me accountable. The rule was, I would pay him $1 for every day I wrote in my streak AFTER I broke the streak. This means, if I wrote 10 days straight, and broke, I would owe him $10. I did not want to give him a single dollar, so I kept writing. Now at day 200 plus, I clearly do not want to break the streak, because as a poor doctoral student I cannot afford it. This is the same deal I have with other people who are with me on the daily writing journey. While most people stop within the first 10 days, those that break through this barrier report huge gains in productivity, and quality.
Q: Can we talk on the phone for a few minutes about your daily writing?
A: No. I would rather write than talk to you about writing. Just start writing.
Q: What happens if I miss a day?
A: You broke your streak. Pay your money. Get over it, and start again.
Q: When do you write?
A: I try to do it in the morning, before my wife wakes up, before the dogs are walked, before the coffee is made. But those are the good days. Sometimes I write in the bathroom. Sometimes I write after a night out. Sometimes I write at lunch. During lunch. Through lunch. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and write. Sometimes I write on trains. Rarely on planes, because I’m too tall. Sometimes I write when I should be paying attention to something else. So, the answer is I write when I write.
Q: How long do you plan on keeping up this streak?
A: As long as I am healthy, and my brain and my fingers work, I will keep this streak alive.
Q: I need to be inspired to write. This seems mechanical. Won’t daily writing make me less creative?
A: Short answer. No. If you wait to write until you are inspired, you will write very little, and you will not improve much. Now, there are some people who are so talented at writing that they can pull this off. But, let’s be honest. That is not you. It is not me. So get back to writing. Also, here are some great writers who can answer that question even better than me:
“10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer
Write even more.
Write even more than that.
Write when you don’t want to.
Write when you do.
Write when you have something to say.
Write when you don’t.
Write every day.
- Brian Clark
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.
That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
- Octavia Butler (she wrote six perfect books)
“No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.”
- Erin Bow
15 word/10 second take-away: Start writing. Write more. Write daily. And writing will change your life for the better.