The 2 Biggest Factors of my Most Successful Writing Semesters (drawn from 4 years of writing session data!)

Over the years, my schedule and responsibilities have led me to experiment with various writing schedules and productivity strategies. I’ve always wondered what variables really matter in publishing more academic writing. I dutifully tracked my writing–every session!–for four years. But I never returned to them to crunch the numbers until recently.

Until I crunched the numbers, I had no concrete proof of which variables led to my most successful writing semesters. What I learned in poring over my own writing data has now transformed how I structure my writing sessions.

Ready to discover the two key variables I now prioritize in my writing practice and the one shocking variable that had almost no effect at all? 

Let’s dive in.

The Second Most Important Factor: How Frequently Did I Submit Low-Stakes Writing for Review?

This point seems obvious in hindsight, but I did not initially crunch my writing data with this variable in mind. Yet the correlation is striking:

Submitting my earlier-stage writing projects to friendly readers led me to write more per term. Click To Tweet

Put simply, the more times I submitted a piece of writing in any stage (even one that was incomplete!), the more hours I worked per term, and the more articles I submitted to journals.

More recently, I have strayed away from this practice, seduced by a few common myths (“this writing is not polished enough for someone to read,” or “I don’t have enough time to submit this to a writing partner before it’s due to the journal”).

But, drastically reducing the number of times I have submitted writing projects in low-stakes settings has made writing academic articles feel more high-stakes.

Armed with this knowledge, I have now shifted how I structure my semesters, and have set non-negotiable deadlines with writing partners.

Why Submitting Earlier-Stage Writing Regularly Works for Me

  • It helps me maintain control of my prose. As a generative writer, I can easily produce lots of text. But I often struggle to maintain structural and argumentative control of my projects in early stages. Without built-in moments to share my writing with others, my projects tend to balloon out of control. I might have lots of words, but only a small fraction (sometimes as low as 15%!) actually serve my core argument. Submitting my writing regularly forces me to make tough choices about what actually matters and saves me time in the long run.
  • It gives me built-in distance from my writing. The longer I have been immersed I am in a project, the more I lose the ability to see it with my readers’ eyes–I’m simply too close to it. Submitting my writing to others (and getting their take) helps me reconnect with the reader’s perspective.
  • Talking about my projects reignites my passion and enthusiasm for them. Especially when I get “too close” to a project, I tend to get frustrated with the writing process and lose the forest for the trees. Usually, talking through a project with colleagues reconnects me with the higher-order questions and significance of my essay which, in turn, gives me renewed enthusiasm for it.
  • It gives me a fresh perspective. Sometimes, I am able to identify things that are “not working” in my prose, but I’m not able to “fix” them. Other people can help me think more creatively about how to develop and communicate my ideas.

THE Most Important Factor: How Many Days Did I Write?

Many scholarly productivity experts agree that publishing academic books and journal articles is a question of putting in the time. Wendy Belcher, for instance, shows you how to turn 60 hours (one hour per day, each week day for twelve weeks) into a published article.

If publishing scholarly articles and books is a question of hours, it seems like it shouldn’t matter whether we get those hours all at once or spread out evenly over many days, right?

Robert Boice and Joli Jensen come to different conclusions: they exhort junior scholars to write every day.

What did my own data reveal?

When I returned to the data, I expected to find that in my most productive semesters, I had been writing for many more hours per day, on average, than in my least productive semesters. So, what I found shocked me.

In crunching 4 years of writing data, what was the single factor that predicted how many hours I wrote in a term? How many days I wrote. Click To Tweet

The higher the total number of days I wrote per semester, the higher the total numbers of hours I wrote.

In fact, contrary to what I remembered, the terms in which I wrote the most hours overall were actually the ones with the shortest sessions (see below).

Why I Think Writing Every Day is Key for Me:

  • Writing every day in shorter chunks makes me feel like writing is lower stakes. Doing so also reminds me that I can make progress–however small–in shorter periods of time. Over time, 20 minutes adds up!
  • It allows me to stay in touch with my project and reduces reinitiation overhead.
  • Writing every day allows me to keep my goals small and concrete. I don’t sit down to “write my article.” Rather, I sit down to “revise the topic sentences for section 2.”
  • It allows the writing project to develop over a much longer period of time. I find that even when I’m not directly working on a project, my brain continues to think about it in the background. So, working on a project in more, shorter writing sessions over a longer period of weeks and months allows me more time and space to fully develop my ideas. As an impatient writer (one of the four types Boice outlines in Professors as Writers [ebook]), spreading my project out is important yet difficult for me.

Armed with this knowledge, I now prioritize writing every day over any other metric.

The Factor that Had Almost No Effect: Minutes per Writing Session

As I hinted at above, I would have expected hours per session to matter a lot. This graph, though, tells a different story:

For me, this is actually liberating. I do not need to find long, uninterrupted chunks of time to accumulate a significant number of hours on my projects. The small chunks of time, when repeated over several days, really do add up.

(Bonus Factor) Tracking My Writing Allows me to Draw these Conclusions

This is implicit in everything above, but is worth pointing out, nevertheless.

As I mentioned above, my memory of these years has faded over time. In the early years, I never set target writing session durations, nor did I set daily writing time minimums. I just worked and tracked what I did.

If you had asked me now to reconstruct how I was working then, I would have sworn that it had unfolded differently. I would have told you I was writing for longer, uninterrupted sessions. I would have told you that I was writing 3-4 hours per day.

But that’s not in any way accurate.

Tracking my writing sessions, then, has allowed me to discover what works for me.

You know what else?

I’ve been able to see, objectively, how other personal and professional “life” events (buying a house) have impacted my scholarly productivity.

Finally?

Tracking my sessions and analyzing the data has allowed me to set more realistic standards. I now strive to write every day (max. 2 hours) instead of feeling like I have to write all the time.

And you know what?

This has led to a profound shift in my levels of anxiety about my current and future writing projects. I know how much is “enough” for me.

And now I have a set of principles that I can build in to my own writing routines. If I am struggling, I can ask myself:

  • Am I writing every day in shorter sessions?
  • Have I submitted my writing recently?

If the answer is “no,” I know where to start to get myself back on track.

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One Reply to “The 2 Biggest Factors of my Most Successful Writing Semesters (drawn from 4 years of writing session data!)”

  1. Thanks for doing the diligent work of tracking your time and crunching this data, Katelyn. I must admit that you’re finding about writing everyday being the crucial point rings true to my own experience, although my head tells me that the most important thing is long uninterrupted chunks of time. Over the last two years that I have been working on my thesis, I have also traveled constantly (like 10+ trips per year, more than half international) and “reinitiation overhead” from loosing touch with my project is the hardest part for me.

    My one qualm: Why are you tracking hours written per term as your metric? Wouldn’t published/finished pages, or total number of articles, or pages submitted be a better metric?

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