Snack writing

I thought I would use the next twenty minutes of the day productively and perhaps attempt to produce a blog post on snack writing by snack writing it. I suppose it would make no sense for me to sit down for hours at an end thinking about what to write on snack writing whilst being hypocritical about the inception of the post. So I have decided to go full pelt and go with the flow.

I thought about writing on snack writing again after that rather productive #acwri Twitter conversation. There is plenty of advice out there about writing, and given what it was said on that Twitter conversation, there is no such a thing as bad advice – only advice that does not really work for you and attempts to be prescriptive, rather than helpful. Let me explain myself. The other day I went to a Time Management workshop, and a colleague of mine said he felt terrible with his schedule. He wakes up late and does some work, and then most of his productivity happens from 10pm until 3am. He thinks this is not “normal” and wants to change it, “so as to feel like a normal PhD”, but he does not know how. The issue I can see here is that there is not such a thing as “normal”. If working like that works for him (productively and all), then so be it, do it that way. There is no shame on that because I myself only get to work productively from 7 until 9 (with breakfast with my wife and walk to work included in that period). The rest of the day is a waste for productivity, so provided you know when you work best and then go ahead with it, no one can really judge you.

It’s the same about writing. I wish I had time to sit down on my chair and mull over slow cooked sentences for hours. But that has never been the case. Even when I was a full time student I worked semi-full time hours – there is just no way I could do any extended writing. Now, as a part time, snack writing is the only choice I have. I am not sad about this, I am very relieved – because it works, for me at least. I normally have about 45 minutes in the morning before breakfast. I can write fast, but I also use this time to think. Almost slowly. I make sure that I know exactly what I want to get done through the day.

Some days are excellent – yesterday, for example. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the night before, so I woke up and straight away I was plugged in. I typed 250 words in 45 minutes, which is not a lot, but it was sufficient for what I was doing – it was even connected with the previous content of the chapter, so there will be minimal editing to do there. I was pretty pleased with myself and I thought that another 250 words would make me happy – if I was properly plugged in later in the day. At 815 I leave the house and make it to my office space between 830-845 (depending on how late I left the house in the first place). Yesterday, I got to my office space at 835. I thought “awesome, I have 25 minutes!” (Which translates into “Yay! One full pomodoro!”). I opened my notebook and kept writing following the same bit I was writing about before breakfast. I pulled two pages, which felt really good. When I got to work, I typed everything up whilst sorting out my emails. Turns out I wrote 497 words (with a few editions) in that 25 minute bit! For a total of almost 750 words! At 930 yesterday, I could already bask on the glory of having over-achieved what I set myself to do. Boom.

This is not always like this, and on days like, for example, today, I have to remind myself that productivity in one snack bite does not necessarily mean productivity in all of them. Today I hand wrote a page – so that will be between 200 and 300 words. It’s not bad but of course I want more. However, this is true of every sort of writing – even if you are writing for 8 hours straight, some days you will be more or less productive, or it will be more or less difficult to get going. That is just the nature of writing. I don’t think it changes with snack writing or long-period-on-the-chair writing.

I have always had a distracted nature, even when I could afford 8 hours of continuous writing, so I think that embracing the concept of writing in short bursts was an easy step for me. I understand, however, that is not for everybody. As I said before, writing advice can only be useful if it’s advice and not prescription. I cannot focus for too long on the same task without looking for an interruption, but I am sure other people have stronger natures and can stay at it for longer – or maybe not.

I think snack writing is something that everyone should try every once in a while, because it definitely puts you in a limited pressure situation, and blocks out every other priority or distraction. At times we are thinking too much about other things associated to research (I need to write that paper, I need to read that article, how am I going to do that presentation?, I don’t know anything about X topic and I probably should), so a short burst of writing acts like that headpiece they put on horses so that they can only look ahead: it gives you tunnel vision for a short period of time, and then it’s only you, your laptop, your writing and your target. There is nothing else other than that. And once it’s over you can zoom out and understand where that piece of massive writing you just did fits within your main work. And then feel awesome, not because you have written a lot, but because you have written!

The recipe is to do this every day at least once for a long period of time – snack writing is not binge writing, so beware! Self-complacency is the worst that can happen after a really productive session of snack or freewriting… Shake it off, shake it off now! Remember that the word count resets every day and set yourself a target to aim at, even if you’re not going to use all the words at the end.

And to end this, some math:

How many words do you think you can write in 15 minutes? And in 30 minutes?

Can you write 50 words in 15 minutes? Surely you can write up to 300 in 15 minutes, but let’s keep it realistic. Let’s go for 50. If you write 50 words a day (excluding weekends), you’ll get 13,000 a year. Enough for a chapter? Or an article?

Writing 100 will get you 26,000. And 200 a day will smash your numbers to 52,000 a year. That is if you only fit one snack writing session a day. Imagine the word count if you had two or three…

I think I will go back to my previous statement of the only bad advice on writing is not writing at all. After that, try every and see how it works. And as part of the experiment, writing this post took two snacking bits, that amounted to about 40 minutes. Worth a try, huh?


I have been to a few rather useful workshops in the last couple of weeks about time management, organisational skills, and writing in general. Last night there was also a rather enlightening conversation on #acwri about the worst advice you can be given in regards to writing. So this morning I though it would be useful to reflect upon something I have been doing lately in regards to my academic writing that has helped me (so far, fingers crossed) in keeping “the ball rolling”.

A few weeks ago, I had a small writing crisis. In hindsight, it was probably a bit of a hissy fit for being unable to write when I had set time to do so. Monday evenings I have a “long” block of time (from about 5 until 8) to do research as my wife is on an evening course. In those three hours, I have time to think and write, as painfully slowly as I want to. However, on that particular occasion, I was really stuck. I wrote about 10 words in 3 hours. I kept staring at the screen as if my mind was going to write the words for me. I gave up and went home and cried inconsolably to my wife with this whole “Oh I am such a failure!” nonsensical reasoning.

Her help made me get a grip of myself and move on. It was great to feel so terrible then, because in the last few weeks my writing has improved and considerably sped up. And it’s because I have been using handwriting. The same way that some people are scared of staring at a blank Word doc, my problem was (or is) that I already have a certain amount of words written on the document. I needed to pick up a place to start writing, and forget about everything else. But I could not find that particular place to start whilst staring at the screen.

Instead, I decided to print off a few pages of my chapter, and read through it superficially. I soon found something I did not like and wanted to change. I switched off the computer, looked at the printed doc, opened my notebook and just started scribbling down some notes. Those notes turned into fully formed sentences. Then they were paragraphs. Without noticing, in about 10 minutes I had sort of handwritten about a notebook page worth of content.

I did this consistently for a few days (or snack writing bits, really, but that is a post for another time). I have very limited time as a Mongrel, so I would just open my notebook, see where I had left off, and continue writing. I didn’t need much time, or much inspiration: just jotted down whatever I felt I needed to say in the next little bit of my chapter. One of the down sides of this is that then you need to type up a lot. It incorporates an additional level of useless work you could have avoided by free writing directly on a document, and it really chomps away time. The good thing is that it allows for another layer of editing before the words hit the document. So I ensure that I have looked at those words at least twice before putting them on a page. They have gone through the quality control process. And to be honest, whenever I find it really hard to write, all I need to do is start typing a particular bit… all of a sudden ideas mushroom pretty quickly, and I can go back to productive writing (at times on a Word doc, other times on paper).

The other great thing I found out about handwriting is that it helps me think at my own pace. The idea you can read over and over again is that writing helps your thinking, and indeed it is your thinking, just put into paper. Writing channels out the ideas and helps you modify them accordingly. Now, I can type fairly fast. I suppose I could say I can think really fast as well, although that is not always the case. The point is that, sometimes, I need a half a second more to make sure I know what I want to say. Typing is not very forgiving in this sense – because you can tell exactly how slowly you are typing from your normal typing speed. I have figured out that, when generating ideas in academic writing, my brain works at the same speed as the hand writes. And that is fantastic because at times I struggle to see the end of the sentence. I can also see the full sentence as it is being written and I can tell if I am subordinating too much, or going a bit ‘Spanish’ about paragraphs. Things that, you could argue, you could also do in Word. I can still visualize paragraph structure a bit better when I can scribble over things I don’t like and things that are good. It has given me a new dimension to #acwri.

This new writing situation has caused havoc in my notepad, and I have gone from using about 50 pages in four or five months to 50 pages in about four weeks. The notepad has become so confusing I have now had to devise some colour coding (green for notes to self, blue for notes from a book or quotes, black for my chapter writing) in order to make sense out of it. But on the flip side, it has become a highly successful method, and I have now surpassed the 12,000 word mark (this morning) with around 4,000 of those words coming from thoughts originally jotted down on my notepad. As much as 4,000 words in 4 weeks does not seem like a great amount, it is better than the daunting feeling of not really knowing where I am going or worst still, not writing anything.

I suppose when I was reading about bad writing advice on #acwri, the worst advice I could think of, in the end, was not writing at all. There is no worse place to be than when the ball gets stuck. Handwriting allows me to keep it rolling and physically see my progress (which at times is complex when you are putting words onto a Word doc).

This is my new secret weapon, and I won’t hesitate to use it.


jjiijfeeling stuck and procrastinating about it.