Tag Archives: Routine

Shooters and Cobblers

I’m thinking about different writing experiences at the moment, and I think they can be often be broken down into either ‘shooters’ or ‘cobblers’. I’m drawing my metaphors here from the several years I spent working behind bars before I went back to school. One job that sticks in my mind was working in a vodka bar, which had a basement bar and an upstairs lounge. The two bars seemed to mostly divide these two types of drinkers – shooters looking to get a quick fix in the basement bar, and cobblers taking their time in the lounge.

Incidentally, in drawing this analogy between drinking and academic writing I’m not suggesting you mix the two, the results generally end up on the cutting room floor. However, one of the things that prompted me into thinking about it was a colleague telling me recently that they found critical reading really difficult without wine – apparently after a couple of glasses they could find the fault in the tightest argument…I can’t vouch for this advice, and there’s a part of me which doesn’t much like the idea of peer review being fuelled by grape and grain, but anyway, I digress.

In the past few months I’ve been required to be both a shooter and a cobbler at different times and for different writing tasks, and it has got me thinking about the many different forms of task that can come under the description of ‘academic writing’ and therefore the many different practices, strategies and skills which we might bring to them.

The shooter, as you will probably know, is a cocktail usually made from 2 or 3 shots of spirits in a small glass, generally disposed of in a single blow. In contrast the cobbler is a long drink served over lots of crushed ice and fresh fruit. It’s a sipper.

I think my default or preferred writing state is cobbling. I think back to my PhD and the way I approached the writing of it, I would have a daily target and the whole day to achieve it, and I would try and stick to particular routines of time and place in achieving it. The relative novelty that writing still represented to me, along with the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to write before I started, meant that I required such an approach. I needed to sit for long periods of time and really think – agonise even – over what I was writing, and allow it to slowly emerge via many tensions and iterations. It turned out to be an immensely satisfying experience.

However, when writing becomes just one of the things that you have to accomplish in a working day, then cobbling can become a bit of a luxury.

So, shooting, the skill I have had to acquire in the last few months, as I was attempting to publish my thesis as a book. This was an activity which was separate to my day job, and therefore one that had to be fitted in here and there, wherever possible. No longer was it possible for me to sit and hunt the words, I had to learn to sit down knowing that I only had a fixed time to accomplish a particular number of words. Again, I tried to build some routine into this: I would come into the office in the morning and for the first hour would simply open my laptop and start writing. I wouldn’t do any of those other ‘normal’ come into the office activities – wouldn’t turn on my desktop and email, wouldn’t check my messages, wouldn’t even make myself breakfast or coffee (those that know me might understand the kind of stern self regulation this represented). I became pretty adept at it, and in fact, once I had acquired the knack of this kind of ‘plug and play’ approach, I was able to break various bonds of routine times and places and write pretty much anywhere – I started mapping out my day according to where I would be and where best I could find half an hour to get some writing done. This meant that even though I was at that time still quite heavily involved in fieldwork for my day job – unpredictable, demanding, transient, and travel oriented experience that fieldwork generally is – I was still usually able to hit my daily targets. The train became a fantastic ally – as did cafes at train stations – Pret a Manger at Manchester Piccadilly became a second office.

I got so into this rhythm that I was not only able to get the book in on time, but I also managed to submit two papers that had been sitting around waiting for me to submit, or re-submit, for months, but I had just never found the time/place – now these times/places existed everywhere and I just had to be ready to take advantage of them.

Now, I’m back in the offce. I’m writing the research report. It’s odd, but cobbling now seems oddly static. I still find a bit of the shooter in me, that just wants to get as much down as quickly as possible. Then I find I have the rest of the day to try and fill. The challenge is now spreading this energy back out over the day, and breaking it up with other activities, which are productive but which give the writing mind a bit of time to recover and ‘unthink’ – the importance of this is really nicely discussed by Pat Thomson in her blog this week.

I’m not quite there yet at themoment and it’s really frustrating. I’m writing about 1000 words a day, which firstly is not enough for my deadline, and secondly is about what I was writing in an hour or so of shooting before.

Perhaps I should stop writing this blog and get back to the…bar?




#AcWriMo Reflections

This comes a little late, as #AcWriMo properly finished almost three weeks ago now. However I have been lacking the necessary reflective space via the exclusion of all else in favour of submitting my first book. This was of course the thing that loomed large and unassailable up until the beginning of November, when with the help of a virtual community of scholars and a seriously useful piece of external discipline via the Accountability Document (yet one more reason making it impossible for me to boycott Google, but hey ho) I took the proverbial bull by the horns and, well, tamed it.


Today I am a yes person.

I submitted my book on Thursday night.

I received an email back from the publishers straight away: an out-of-office autoreply. My publishing assistant is away until the 2nd January. That’s two days after the book was due. I am free of all concern and looking forward to Christmas sans sword of Damocles. I have #AcWriMo to thank in large part for this achievement, and I’m going to try and collect some thoughts together on precisely how this occurred and what it might mean in terms of a longer term trajectory.

As I think can probably be read in the tone of my first post about #AcWriMo when I was formulating my strategy, I was a bit cynical about the attempt. I mistrust the ‘group’ thing – facebook groups: disaster, music groups: too many egos, book groups: hot air, group therapy: somebody shoot me. I am also very bad at strategising, I’m more of a nose follower than rational planner. I am also deeply suspicious of routines, and their everyday oppressions.

And so here was this thing bringing all these other things together.

However, I was nothing short of desperate.

Through a combination of circumstances some more within my control than others, I had found myself at the beginning of the academic year 2012 with three months in which to turn my first draft into a final draft. With my thesis, that was a process that had taken the best part of six months alongside the demands of a full time job. And at this point in time I was still planning to conduct new research which would need to be completed, analysed and written into a new concluding chapter.

The rest of the book could not really continue without this process coming first. It wasn’t like the thesis, which is rather like a large and unruly jigsaw puzzle for which you’ve mislaid the completed picture: you mess around with lots of pieces for a long time until they start to take some kind of sensible form, then you work at that form until the picture emerges. I found the book more like painting a picture: you need to have a decent idea of where it is ending up before you first put brush to canvas.

In retrospect I do not think I would have completed this extra research work in time, so it was perhaps fortunate that I was let down by the person who I was working with to access participants for it. At the time however, this threw me into some disarray. Re-thinking things at the 11th hour: not good.

So, I reached November and I was still only on Draft 2. Draft One had been about cutting. Draft Two was now about making sense of what I had left. I had something that looked like a Storify account: bits and pieces cut and pasted together. It needed a narrative. It needed me to start at Page One and progress: I am born. I grow up.

At this point I had about 50,000 usable words. So I figured I needed about another 20,000. My #AcWriMo strategy therefore was 15,000 for November, leaving me a little in reserve for Draft Three and beyond. I set myself a target of 2 hours per day, and 300 words per hour.

Then I discovered the Accountability document: A sublime piece of panoptic self-surveillance, of which Bentham himself would be rightfully proud. It watched over me, disciplined me; I aspired to please it. Although I only found 1 hour a day with any regularity I had found an energy which I had eluded me since handing in my thesis. I was writing words that I was happy with for the first time in 3 years, and I was producing them at a rate that far surpassed the 1000 words that was my daily PhD milestone.

Still, I felt like I was not doing enough. And I was not sure how long I could meet the demands of the routine I had set myself.

One day I was travelling in to work on the train. We were held up just outside Manchester, and as I looked at the grey November morning outside, the frustration rose up inside me like fire: how dare this train sit so close yet so far from where I need to be, getting on with things. That magic first hour of the day that I had reserved for writing was ebbing from me minute-by-minute. I tweeted something to this effect. A moment later a fellow #AcWri-ter tweeted back, asking whether I could get anything done on the train. For some considerable time I had used this 45 minute train journey to read things that were not work related: it was my space, my time. However this was to change, and this single comment prompted in me the means with which I could shake the oppressive bonds of my routine, and find a new way to ‘be’ that made something both productive and personally satisfying out of my daily occupation.

In retrospect – in the four weeks or so since I was tweeped into action, in which time I completed drafts three, four and five of my book, before spellchecking, typesetting, and submitting (oh, and submitted two papers to journals) – I have come to see my former insistence of ‘my space, my time’ as a form of escapism. It was keeping me sane in a world which was threatening to drive me in. By the very desperation through which I was prompted into action, I have shaken the bonds of my writing routines, and find I am now able to write almost anytime, anyplace, anywhere (present example: I am writing this from my sister’s house, where my wife is currently carrying my very excited 4-year-old niece around upside down).

This in turn has not only allowed me to achieve the immediate task in hand, but has also unravelled the fundamental sense of alienation from my labours that was everyday deepening my sense of doctoral nostalgia. I find that I am now suddenly very satisfied with where I am and with my future prospects. I am hopeful and ambitious again.

However, I am also physically exhausted. I have been working for 12-15 hours a day every day almost without fail for about 6 weeks; mostly this included weekends as well.

I am absolutely not going to do that in the long run.

So, first new year resolution will be a new strategy – how to chanel this spirit into a productive, satisfying, and sustainable design for the future.

Watch this space.

And, thank you to #AcWri and #AcWriMo for restoring my faith in the group thing, to @mystudiouslife for the Accountability Doc, and to @ccandhealth for the tweet that shook my writing foundations and helped me build something more solid.

Merry Christmas all, from my distractors.


#AcWriMo Update

So, it turns out routines can be fun!

Having said that, I actually strayed from my original plan on the about the first day and have not actually been able to enact it in its purest form once. But that’s not important right? The important thing is that I have kept to ‘a’ routine, a very productive one. I will probably not make my original targets, but this is partly because my plans have changed a bit as to how I’m going to organise my time between now and the end of December; book hand in day. I have also managed to get more writing done this month than I have in the 3 previous combined. And for the most part I’ve been pretty happy with what I’ve written. Not all of it for sure. There is one section which I am particularly nervous about and might take out altogether, but I was deliberately trying not to be too precious with what I wrote down, just getting it down was the priority.

So my actual working routine has looked more like this:

7am Wake up (6am was just not going to work)

7.30am Leave house

9am Arrive at work. Start writing.

10am Stop writing. Start day job.

6pm Leave work.

7.30pm Arrive home. Live.

11-12pm Go to sleep

I couldn’t get up at 6am mostly because I was finding I wasn’t able to get to sleep till about midnight most nights. This is partly because I go swimming most evenings, and this leaves me pretty far from sleep – though a really hot bath seems to help. But I think it was also a general level of stimulation that really just needed me to be able to loaf around a bit in the evening and do nothing in order to let my brain rest a bit after my day.

Unfortunately this extra hour in bed meant an hour less of writing per day, so I generally only managed 1 hour. I think on my worst day this yielded about 300 words, and on my best just over 1000. In the longer term if I can keep this kind of routine going then I think about 500 words per day would be a realistic target. I have done my best to make up the rest on quieter days in the office and on weekends, and in this I have been moderately successful. I was also pleased to find that there was more that I wanted to keep in the book drawn from what I had originally written for my PhD, sometimes re-written, sometimes just a highlight attached to a chunk of text and a little ‘to do’ note beside it.

Now that I have my introduction, theory and method chapter written I am kind of between a first and second draft. The first half is all second draft the second half is all first draft.

This  is why my plans have changed a bit, and even though I know it is the chapter that needs the most work, rather than write my conclusion now, I want to go through the remaining chapters first and see what else is going to need updating, before I get to the conclusion. Though this potentially leaves me with more writing to do torwards the death, I think it is important to be attacking this thing from start to finish, after all, it does help if the conclusion flows logically from the preceding chapters right?

So, sticking with my same routine, I am now looking not so much for ‘words written’ but ‘pages edited’. I have no idea how many pages per hour I will be able to get through, I guess that depends on how much work they need. But I would really like to be ready to re-draft the conclusion by the end of the month. This then leaves me about two weeks to write the conclusion and have a complete run through, then another two weeks to do the real i dotting t crossing work to prepare for submission. Minus about 3 days for christmas.

I know this is still a shit load to try and get done in the time. But I have a new found stream of confidence running through my sea of neurosis, thanks mostly to the #AcWriMo initiative, and particularly the online accountability spreadsheet on which you fill in your daily tally. The Foucauldian in me revels in this kind of self imposed discipline; with such constraints comes incalculable freedoms.

Oh and I managed the day job as well.