Friday, July 11, 2008


Are You Setting Yourself Up To Procrastinate?

Although written to help those with academic writing goals, such as dissertations, theses, and publishing, the ideas in this article apply to the rest of us too. Read on to find out an easy and painless way to increase your writing output. I related to many of the excuses, but I'll try it if you will!


"How can I stop procrastinating?"

This is by far the most frequent question that I get from graduate students and professors. As a dissertation and tenure coach, I’ve come to realize that everyone in academia, whether writing a dissertation, completing an article, or doing research, struggles with procrastination. Why is this so prevalent in such a well-educated, intelligent population?

You've Got the Wrong Attitude

Your belief system is what may be standing in the way. Most academics cling to the belief that they must set aside large chunks of time, do a lot of preparation, and be in the proper frame of mind to be able to write.

What this means is that when you finally sit down to write, it's going to be an unpleasant marathon. You have placed such importance on this writing session that you feel anxiety about it living up to your expectations. And you know it's going to be difficult. After all, there are thorny issues you haven't addressed, articles you haven't read or reread, and a lack of coherence to your thinking. You need to solve those problems. And if you don't do it now you'll be quite disappointed in yourself.

How unpleasant! And how counterproductive!

What Should You Believe Instead? Or "Oh, The Irony!"

Research by Robert Boyce actually shows that first and second-year professors who participated in a study on writing productivity were able to turn out more publishable pages in a year by

• Writing 30 minutes a day
• Only writing on workdays
• Shoehorning that writing into small gaps in their busy schedules

The difficult part, it turns out, was convincing these professors to try this low-key method in the first place. Ironically, they all insisted that the only way to get real work done was to do it in the marathon way that I described above.

The second irony was that when Boyce actually measured the amount that they were writing per week (before the intervention,) it was less than 30 minutes per week! This was much less than their retrospective reports of how much time they had been spending writing.

The third irony was that those who most adhered to the idea that you must write in large doses were the least productive.

The fourth irony was that although these professors considered writing a private activity, they did best when they were accountable to someone for maintaining their 30-minute writing habit.

Do It Already!

So what's stopping you from learning from these professors and writing a small amount each day?

Here are typical excuses:

• It's just not rewarding writing in small amounts. I feel like I've gotten nothing accomplished.
• I have a big issue to work out. It will take more time than 30 minutes.
• I feel guilty if I don't work more each time.
• I'll never complete my dissertation/paper/research project at that pace.
• I've waited until it's too late and I can't afford the luxury of that small amount of time per day.
• It just doesn't feel right.
• I've got more time than that, I should be putting all my time to good use.
• It's so overwhelming that I don't know where to start, and by the time I figure it out my 30 minutes will be up.

My answer to those responses? Bull! Except for the emergency deadline, there is no reason not to try this technique. Give it time to see if it works for you. If you're like every other academic I've worked with, you will resist the idea. I suggest that the more resistant you are, the more problem you've probably had with procrastination in the past.

An Action Plan

Try it for a week. Select a time each day, preferably not the evening unless you're a night owl, and write for 30 minutes, without email, reading or other distractions. Don't listen to the voices in your head saying you "should be getting more done," or "you should be writing more than this." I'll bet at the end of the week you'll be pleasantly surprised at your output, and pleased with the increasing ease with which you can sit down to write. You’ll start to see progress on your dissertation or article and maybe come to believe that you will finish one day.

Furthermore, don't forget about being accountable to someone. Let someone else know that you're going to be doing daily writing. Perhaps you can find a writing buddy, or someone in your dissertation group. Or join one of my coaching groups – our listservs allow for lots of accountability during the week! My membership site, (stay tuned,) will have a place for finding writing buddies.

Don't forget, if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Start setting yourself up for success starting right now!

© Gina Hiatt, PhD. Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully. Get Gina's free assessments & ezine at


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Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Improving a Story

By Sharon Mortz

I never finish a story. I may metaphorically type “The End” and even submit it to contests and magazines but it’s never really finished. I am always looking for ways to improve whatever I write. Every story is candidate for review and rewrite. I let the words simmer and go back to them days or weeks later. Time doesn’t usually improve my writing but a fresh look often reveals ways to improve a story. I can beef up the language/dialogue, add analogies (I love rich writing though all my teachers say tone down the vocabulary – that’s another blog) or cut some of the mindless drivel. Or I can change the entire course of the story.

I recently entered a story in a contest and opted for the critique they offered. The judges specified ten areas that they reviewed in judging the entries. Now I use these ten points as guideline for each story as I look to improve. The ten points are From Seven Hills Writing Contest.

1. Mechanics: Do word count and format conform to contest rules? A story can be automatically disqualified if the rules are not followed.

2. Hook: Is the reader drawn into the story from the beginning?

3. Narrator: Does the narrator (first person) come across as interesting and complex?

4. Other people/animals: Are they revealed in significant detail?

5. Technique: Is there a balance between showing and telling?

6. Language Use: Is the writing fresh and free of clichés? Does the choice of words keep the reader embedded in the story? Does the writer rely on adjectives and adverbs instead of strong nouns and verbs?

7. Dialogue and Narrative: Does the dialogue sound natural to the people and situation. (I’ve found this a challenge in play writing. I have a tendency to make everyone sound the same. Someone from the ghetto speaks differently that a Harvard graduate.) Is there a proper balance between dialogue and narrative?

8. Settling: Does the reader know where and when the story takes place? Can you see, fell, hear and smell the setting. (I have at times ignored setting.)

9. Mood/atmosphere: Does the writing capture the memory in enough detail to evoke a specific emotion in the reader?

10. Outcome: Is the significance of the memory in enough detail to evoke a specific emotion in readers?

One of my favorite outcomes is a surprise ending. I sometimes plan the surprise but an even better strategy for me is to add a surprise after the story is complete. Then it’s a surprise to me too. I brainstorm for days to come up with the most unlikely but believable surprise.

Another of my favorite ways to improve a story is to add suspense. Some suggestions: 1) Describe the character making the character’s happy go lucky and then introduce his/her worst fears. One has to be subtle about introducing their worst fears or the reader will figure out what’s coming. 2) Use the setting to incite terror. Add a cold stone staircase or cobwebs. 3) If things are going well, throw in a dead body or frightening impediment to their goal.

Now for my surprise ending. My blog appears on January 9 – my birthday.

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Monday, August 27, 2007


Self-Sabotage Countdown

I consider myself fortunate. Writer’s block hasn’t hit me over the head yet. But I’m guilty of inflicting something equally as harmful to my writing. On weekends, when I have free time to write, I can find many reasons to avoid it, especially during the summer months. Even without summer as an excuse, avoidance comes with the territory of being too busy. But isn’t everyone busy these days? Is this a legitimate reason or is it a form of sabotage?

Between work and family, I can always find a reason to keep moving my stories and manuscripts to the bottom of my latest projects pile. It’s easy; I just lift them up and place them beneath everything else. Out of sight and forgotten, until I work my way through everything and get caught up.

But that’s not all. When I’m feeling particularly tired, distracted, or frustrated, I add other “projects” to the stack--the kind that can’t fit into an inbox or file folder or to-do lists.

This is where my self-sabotage begins, and it’s what every writer should not do.

The countdown:

#10: I need more coffee, and I need to have it with a friend or two.
What could be better than sharing coffee (or any beverage) with a friend? It’s purely delightful, sipping and speaking, speaking and sipping. I catch up with my friends’ lives, their kids, and all their stories. Pretty soon two hours goes by and, it’s always fun, but in the end I realize I’ve neither written a single word or thought. I’ve enjoyment talking so much that I’ve avoided thinking about any of my writing projects.

#9: My furniture, floors, mirrors, and toilets need me.
I’ll just clean everything really quickly, especially since it’s been months since the last time. Cleaning my house will clear my mind, and it will enable me to start fresh. Without the burden of dirt around me, I’ll be able to create a manuscript that will put even a famous author like J.K. Rowling to shame.

#8: My Netflix queue is empty; I need to fix that.
The weekend is approaching at warp speed. I’ll just sit down at the computer, log into my account, and peruse the 568 recommended movies on my list. There has to be one, two, or even three that I can add quickly. That way I’ll be able to write for the next three weeks straight, because I won’t need to add to the queue for that long. That’ll be the best possible mind-stimulating manuscript preparation yet.

#7: I need to trim my cuticles and my fingernails, right now.
Since I need to tackle good grooming issues, so should my kids. I’ll tell them they need to take care of this right away. When they’re done, we’ll have to play a game together, something that uses the fingers; we must show off our gorgeous grooming skills.

#6: Scented candles would help me write and think in a more relaxed state.
How many do I have? What scents are they? Vanilla and mulberry--not enough. I need more than that to finish an entire story for Highlights magazine. Hmmm. But a long, hot bath would complete the desired Zen atmosphere. Maybe I should take a notepad and pen with me, close the door, and focus. No, no, actually, I’ll just close my eyes, rest my mind, and write later, when I’m clean, relaxed, fresh.

#5: I need to check my email; its constant dinging sound is annoying.
No wonder it’s been dinging, I have 200 emails. But if I start now, I can knock these off in an hour. That’s not very long. I’ll just sift through to the important ones, and I’ll leave some for later on.

#4: The Saturday mail is here--I’ll go check for good news regarding my last query.
Oh, my gosh. Would you look at that? Talk about timing! The Oriental Trading Company’s latest catalog is here, and my kids need crafts. An hour is all it will take for me to find some new things to do. My kids will love these crafts, and so will I. As soon as the box of new crafts arrives, I’ll write for hours while my kids create something especially artsy-fartsy.

#3: I need to exercise; I’m a walking knot.
The coffee wired me up; the house cleaning tired me out; the Netflix queue took up time; grooming with my kids and playing a game made me hungry…I just need to do something for me. My heart doesn’t feel right. It needs to pump harder.

#2: I haven’t eaten in hours--I need a meal, and I need it now.
Maybe I should ask my friend to go out to lunch with me? I don’t really want to dine alone. Plus, I might find new ideas for my latest story’s dialogue while I’m listening to the din of casual conversation in the restaurant.

#1: But the most important item I have to accomplish--I must write or read a blog.
Yes, yes. I must do this. Blogging is good for the writer’s soul. (?!) Somehow, some day and some way, my blogs will work their way into my story. It doesn’t matter that they are totally unrelated to what I write.

Huh? What am I doing? Now, I need to go squeeze in time to write. The weekend is nearly over. I could have drafted out ten stories in the time that I spent doing all these other things.

Sigh. I’m guilty of writer’s self-sabotage.
I should go into the kitchen and find my hidden stash of emergency chocolate.
I need to feel better.

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