Schuman: Start with Free-writing

Clients seek out a writing coach because something is not working for them. It is no surprise, then, that one of the initial complaints I often hear from new clients is “I’m stuck. I can’t find a productive and regular writing practice that works for me.” We generally have a conversation about what the client is doing now, what works and what doesn’t, and some ideas for trying something new. The goal is to build a personal writing practice that is both habitual and productive. There are many different strategies for this in the literature – almost as many as there are productive writers. Writers need to explore different strategies and find the ones that suit their personalities and schedules.

Rebecca Schuman (2018), in “Don’t spend your holiday break writing!”, offers an intriguing roadmap to a productive academic writing practice. Some of her advice might seem unconventional and even counterintuitive. However, if what you are currently doing to organize your writing life is not working, it is worth a try. Shake things up! For example, Step 1 in her plan is “write first.” That’s right – begin with writing rather than researching. As Schuman says, many scholars get caught in the trap of trying to “read everything” before they write. She recommends a different approach:

Instead, at the beginning of a project — even if you have only the vaguest idea what it should be about — I suggest you set aside a week and free-write. On each workday of that week, spend 25 minutes twice a day (two “pomodoros” a day) and write down all the things that you know, want to know, are interested in, are confused, or are excited about in your new venture. Don’t try for paragraphs or even full sentences. Revel in the mess. At the end of that week, you may have 1,000 to 4,000 words of semi-gibberish — but it holds the key to your future brilliance.

From that humble beginning, you then move into developing a targeted annotated bibliography and a skeleton outline, reading key sources closely, and writing a “workable draft.” Then it is time to revise, revise, revise. What I like about Schuman’s approach is that it gets words on a page quickly – a sure antidote to writer’s block. It is easier to revise those words, no matter how unsatisfactory you may find them, than it is to face a blank page.

I encourage you to read Schuman’s article. You will find detailed steps and a reasonable timeline to help you progress from free-writing to a completed article by following a structured writing practice.

Schuman, R. (2018, December 12). Don’t spend your holiday break writing! The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from