Field of Science

Writing (in) blocks

I'm writing this summer on a wide range of projects, which means writing for a substantial period every day. That said, I recently took a bit more than a full week away from the keyboard, doing no writing at all (not even email) except for few (handwritten) sentences each day. In their delightful piece in Nature on turbocharging your writing (free), Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns point out that "binge writing" — writing on the rare occasions when you have huge blocks of time — is generally not as effective as "snack writing" writing often (nearly every day) for shorter periods. (In my life it can be a challenge in some weeks to find an uninterupted 45 minutes or hour each day.)

Gardiner and Kearns note the barrier to writing again when it's been a long time since you last sat down to write can be huge. I won't argue with that. As I sat down this weekend to work on a 500-600 word column due this morning (at the latest!) after my week off, I could feel the creaks and groans. Really, 500 publishable words? How about I warm up with a blog post or write a couple of emails? Fortunately, deadlines are great motivators, especially those that are hard and fast as this one is (the paper goes to bed on Tuesdays, with or without my column). The piece went off this morning, and I'm ready to really dig into a couple of project tomorrow morning.

I would add to Gardiner and Kearns good advice that interruptions — those that knock at your door and your own desktop temptations — are a real hazard. Silence the phone, close the email browser, barricade the door (necessary in my house, the cat opens it otherwise), tell students/colleagues/kids that you cannot be disturbed for anything short of (fill in your favorite catastrophe here). Some research suggests that each interruption costs 5 to 10 minutes of time to refocus on the task at hand (plus whatever time it took to deal with the situation that led to the interruption). If you only have 45 minutes to write, and are interrupted twice, you may have lost nearly half your writing time.

If you want more advice about writing for the professional science journal, join me on Thursday, July 14 for a one hour conversation I'm moderating for the American Chemical Soceity with Dr. Cynthia Burrows (senior editor at Journal of Organic Chemistry) and Dr. George Schatz (editor in chief of Journal of Physical Chemistry.) More details are here. They are taking questions live, so sign up (it's free, but you need to register) and ask away.

is by Brandi Korte. Used under Creative Commons license.

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