Taking leave to gather my thoughts

I took most of July as research leave to write a manuscript, thanks to the support of my team leader, colleagues, and Dean. Before I dive fully back into preparations for fall semester and a new research project, I want to take some time to reflect on the experience. Writing as a process for me is a great tool. Writing to produce something public and permanent is another matter. I tried a few different strategies to help me focus on the process, rather than the product, but lesson one was that I really just needed to lower my expectations. As I started writing, I consciously tried to scale back any goals I had by half…at least.

The second take-away is that I really can write a little every day and be effective. I’ve worked through Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, but had dropped the habit because I wasn’t producing anything of substance in 15 minutes a day. Yes, I do need large blocks of time intermittently throughout the process to plan, read, revise. Now, I have the data demonstrating to myself that I can write productively in smaller chunks of time. I feel like the month of writing every day toned up my writing “muscle” and laid the groundwork for a daily habit.

It also provided enough frequency to give me some insight into what works for me and what doesn’t. The first few days, as I brainstormed, annotated articles, and outlined the manuscript, I escaped from my office and my home to Fort Benjamin Harrison. There is a bench in the middle of a walnut grove that had just enough noise and traffic. The environment helped me overcome some of my resistance and discomfort with having only one thing on my task list. I couldn’t distract myself by being “productive” on other projects. Escaping to nature also helped me to slow down and focus deeply on one thing; this skill atrophied a bit when I was a research coordinator juggling too many projects and people. 

I also tried out a couple of tools to help with the process, one new and one old. At the beginning, I stepped away from the computer and wrote only using pencil and paper. It helped lower the resistance, perhaps because it felt more fluent and personal than typing.The new tool I tried out was Scrivener. I tend to use concept maps and other non-linear approaches to organize information, and Scrivener allows you to break down a document into chunks so you don’t get lost. I like the interface, although it took some time to learn. It can also be used to annotate your research, which I did not successfully work into my process. What proved to be challenging was going back and forth between my paper notebook and Scrivener. As I really began to connect the various sections of the manuscript, I ended up moving into Word. Scrivener doesn’t really do references, so it was inevitability. I may try Scrivener again, when I have a more complex document and a longer timeline. I’ll have to try to replicate some of the chunking practices in Word. Incorporating yet another tool into the workflow may just distract from the writing.

Going forward this fall, I have three small projects and a substantial one that will keep me writing frequently. Today, at least, is one link in the chain!

By Heather L. Coates

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