Some say we need to do something everyday for more than 21 consecutive days for it to become a habit. Some say it’s 66 days and others 90. I rather suspect it depends what the something in question is. I mean, if you eat beans on toast every day for three weeks, quite apart from the gastrointestinal consequences, are you really going to keep on doing it? And no matter how long I practice my triple Salchow, I doubt it will ever become second nature.
We talk about habits as automatic actions — the habit of brushing our teeth every morning, or looking both ways before we cross a road, or switching off the news as soon as Trump’s face appears — although the last example might be more of a reflex than a habit. Some habits are good for us — others not so. But we often identify things we want to do, and that we know we should do regularly but which always seem to fall off the bottom of our daily to-do lists. For many people, writing is one of those.
In academia, the importance of being able to write well and effectively cannot be overstated. Quite simply, we and our work are judged by our writing. Qualifications depend on writing essays, dissertations and theses and promotion is contingent on being able to produce the published goods. But all that necessity doesn’t make it any easier, especially for those who despair about their writing abilities. “I don’t know how to start,” they tell me. “I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to make it better. I just don’t know how to write at all.” Writing for them has acquired some mystical quality. It has become a skill that they feel others have somehow managed to learn but which has eluded them.
Well, here are two simple truths about academic writing. First, everyone finds it hard and second, anyone can learn how to do it. No one is born with the ability to write good academic English, and everyone who does has had to learn it the same way we learn everything else — through work and practice. Everyone in academia knows how to work, but for some reason the importance of practice, when it comes to developing our writing skills, seems to have escaped them. And that’s where the habit comes in.
When we are faced with a task that we perceive to be difficult, awkward, or challenging many of us simply put it off. As we procrastinate, however, that task starts to swell in our imaginations. Its perceived difficulty doubles as does the effort we think we will need to take it on. With every day that we postpone the inevitable, the magnitude of the task grows. Finally, of course, we have to face it or miss the deadline. At that point, we are left with no choice but to start, but the effort involved and the anxiety that it provokes can be deeply unpleasant. How much easier might it have been if we had only done a little every day, instead of frantically cramming it all into the last possible hours before the deadline? Of course, that would require a habit — the habit of writing something everyday. If you don’t like writing, or you don’t enjoy it, why would you choose to do it every day? Simply because it will make your life easier, your job more fulfilling and your day altogether sweeter.
So, how do you develop the writing habit? Not too surprisingly, all that is required is for you to start. But you should start slowly and easily — no need to fall at the first hurdle. Decide that you are going to write something short every day. This can be a single sentence to begin with. Choose when you are going to do this — first thing in the morning or maybe last thing before you go home. Choose what you are going to write about — usually your own work or some aspect of your professional life. But just start with a sentence. Some like to write about what they plan to do that day, or perhaps reflect on what they have done. It might be a thought about a conversation had, or a paper read or a lecture attended. Whatever it is, confine yourself to one sentence. Very quickly, you will find that you want to write a second or even a third sentence but don’t, not yet.
Start to realise just how easy it is to write that one sentence every day. Of course, at this stage you are asking what the point of this is — after all, a sentence a day is hardly going to get the thesis written or the report finished. But we’re not trying to do that yet; we’re trying to develop a habit.
After a week, treat yourself to two sentences a day and again keep doing this until it’s effortless. The quality of these sentences is unimportant at this stage because all that can come later. Remember, all we’re trying to do is become a habitual daily writer.
Before the second week is up, you will be finding it so easy to write two sentences a day that it will seem trivial. But it’s far from that — it’s the beginning of a habit. Try three sentences or four, or perhaps you will aim for a paragraph a day. Needless to say, if you take it gently and train yourself, it won’t be long before the thought of writing a page of 500 words a day will no longer seem daunting. On the contrary, it will just be something you do.
Once you can generate text on a daily basis, you can stop worrying about finding time to write and concentrate your efforts on improving and refining the quality of what you get down on paper. No one gets it right first time and all academic writers should live by the age-old adage of writers everywhere: there is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.
Editing, redrafting and working to improve your writing style are all important skills that we need to acquire, but somewhat irrelevant if we have nothing to work on in the first place. It all begins with getting words on paper and doing that on a daily basis. And for that we need a habit.
“When do you write?” they will ask. And you will be able to say, quite truthfully, “Everyday.”
© Allan Gaw 2021
If you want to read more about getting started with your writing and how you might make it effective, try my books, “WriteEasy”, “WordEasy” and “Abstract Expressions”. All are available on kindle, and if you’re on Kindle Unlimited, they’re free to download.
And check out my other writing related blogs on the Business of Discovery:
Who’s afraid of the big blank page?
This is a golden opportunity to make a start with that writing project, but how do you get started?
Tell me a story
…but what’s the story you have to tell?
Last words of a fool
…and make sure you do your work justice by getting the grammar and punctuation right.
And if you are struggling with English grammar and punctuation, take a look at my YouTube channel — Writing Space: