Writing Tip 1: Stop while the going is good

Inspired by DiMoWriMo, this is my first blog post in a series about making academic writing a habit.

My best writing days are when I write for two or three hours and then stop to do other things like cook, apply for jobs, prepare classes, or spent time with my family. Today, I went to the gym.

My worst writing days are when I try to keep going and power through the next book task. For example, I wrote 1,200 words on January 15 and then I immediately began to start to reorganize the next chapter. The attempt ended badly. I got nowhere. Instead of making progress, I became overwhelmed and anxious for the rest of the day. Not one for understatement, I decided the whole book was a waste of time.

My memory of writing my dissertation is that feeling of anxiety: Of trying to plow through the book in twelve-hour binges. Whenever I got blocked, I would go somewhere else to squeeze in a few more hours. During DiMoWriMo, I wrote two chapters in a month, yet rarely spent more than three or four hours writing in a day. Some mornings, I worked for less than an hour.

Lesson 1: Stop while the going is good.

The advice is not my own, it comes from Ernest Hemingway's article “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter”—published in Esquire in October 1935 (via OpenCulture)—of advice for aspiring authors:

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”

“Always stop when you are going good and donʼt think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. Once you are into the novel it is as cowardly to worry about whether you can go on to the next day as to worry about having to go into inevitable action. You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry. You have to learn that to write a novel. The hard part about a novel is to finish it.”