Hunkering Down to Boost Writing Productivity

I am not, nor do I ever anticipate being, one of those people who can or will write every day. As someone who reads (and occasionally writes) on faculty and early career development, and who follows many related listservs and groups, I realize this is regarded as heresy by some, and by their more forgiving acolytes, as an unfortunate and career-stifling dysfunction. Although I certainly appreciate others who’ve called out the performative misery of daily predawn writing and suggested more practical alternatives for daily writing, it just doesn’t work for me. The truth is, I write in large blocks—indeed, the largest uninterrupted blocks I can feasibly manage given the constraints of my energy (read: caffeination), attention span, and competing demands (advising, administration, parenthood, self-care, and so on). This is habitual. I wrote much of my dissertation during a two-week self-imposed sequestration in a dark cubicle in the back of windowless, musty office most other grad students avoided. This would set my habit for the next 15 years, though I can avail myself of much nicer spaces now. When the Minnesota weather allows, students and colleagues know they can often find me on our building’s rooftop deck, feet propped up, earbuds in, wifi off (i.e., no email), and very happily writing with only the occasional eagle overhead to distract me.

During the academic year, I write once, maybe twice, a week, though more so in the summer if I strategize appropriately. During some weeks-long stretches of the academic year, I might not write at all, but my research agenda is sustained through meetings with colleagues and students to move emergent or in progress projects forward. This is especially true at the end of the spring semester when advising and administrative duties are heaviest. Since assuming the role of program director, I’ve found concentrated group writing time, what we here have called writing hunkers, to be particularly helpful in shifting back into writing mode and making substantial progress on stalled writing projects. For the past few years, our program has offered at least one hunker per summer for students with faculty leads and participants.

What are writing hunkers? Simply, these are concentrated writing days dedicated to the process of preparing manuscripts. All students and faculty are invited, with advanced notice that the ideal hunker project is one for which data collection, analyses, and much of the background reading are done. Writers are encouraged to focus on a single project rather than toggling between multiple ones, and to focus on manuscripts rather than ancillary research products (e.g., presentations, materials, briefs). Generally, our hunkers are scheduled for four consecutive days of 6 to 7 hour blocks. This works well during the summer or other breaks, but regularly scheduled day-long or half-day hunkers throughout the semester or summer can also provide comparable opportunity and support. Sample schedules are provided here.

During our hunkers, writers are instructed to plan to be engaged for the full time each day. We try to prevent distractions and other things that might take time away from writing by provide refreshments (coffee, snacks, lunch), reference books, ear plugs, and posted lists of what to do if stumbling upon a writing block. Whenever possible, we arrange for space outside of the building in which our offices and lab space is housed to minimize the likelihood of interruptions. That is, students and faculty alike recognized that if we were easy to find (and basically stationary for the duration of the hunker), it would be all too easy for well-meaning colleagues and students to drop by to ask questions or pull us into friendly chats during breaks, and that this would ultimately undermine our goals for the hunker. We’ve also been fortunate to reserve spaces that allow for each writer to organize their personal worktop to their needs. Some people want to work facing the corner or wall with earplugs in, others facing out the window with music flowing through earbuds. Still others might want to work face to face, the typist across the table spurring dedication to task. Individual tables allow each writer to spread as much or as little paper and books as they like without being concerned about intruding on others’ space.

We generally follow the 4-day schedule here. On day one, we set group norms and individual goals, usually using the following form that will anchor each day’s work. Outside of the lunch discussions and afternoon consultation time, the expectation is that everyone will work quietly, avoid internet distractions, and only work on the specified goals. The presence of others creates accountability even though our interactions are limited. If nothing else, no one wants to be caught web surfing by a fellow writer. Each writer takes breaks as needed though, and some use task and time management tools (e.g., pomodoro technique and corresponding apps). At the end of the day we debrief, celebrating progress and troubleshooting challenges.

The lunch discussions provide much needed interaction and downtime. Discussion topics are tailored to the needs and preferences of each unique group. Past topics at our hunkers have included general writing strategies, journal selection, peer review process, responding to reviewer feedback, handling rejection, getting over writer’s block, tailoring writing for specific audiences, and effective data presentation. Sometimes we also avail ourselves of various university resources, such as writing consultants who can provide feedback on style and mechanics or lead seminars on dealing with writing blocks. Other great options are inviting speakers from the IRB office or subject librarians to help develop reference skills and research consumerism.

I love these writing hunkers and I am consistently pleased with the progress I make. Sure, most of us are wrung out by the end of the day since we’re largely unaccustomed to this intensity of work. Yet it’s also incredibly gratifying. Progress is reinforcing, as is the sense of being in a community of writers. I appreciate that the hunkers provide a space for students and faculty from throughout the program to discuss the writing process and its challenges, publication process, and developing productive writing habits. A common conversation is how to adapt the tools and approaches used in the hunker to our own continued writing practice, both for daily writers and others like me. The warmups and parking downhill exercises are especially valuable to writers of all types because they can be applied by both daily and intermittent writers to support quick transitions back into a writing project after time away. Though I am admittedly not a daily writer, I also appreciate the opportunity to talk openly with students about developing effective writing habits–whatever that means for them–with practice in application of strategies and tools during the hunker and beyond.

Do you have ideas to share or questions about how to use writing hunkers to boost your productivity? Comment below or join us for a live chat November 29, 2018 at 1 pm PST/ 3pm CST/ 4pm EST. Sign up here for the chat.

2 thoughts on “Hunkering Down to Boost Writing Productivity”

  1. Thanks for this post Amanda! My faculty are going to try a hunkering down day tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

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