Planning and structure

How do I make time to write?

“At the beginning I really had trouble figuring out a routine for myself. You have all this flexibility. You can go in at ten o’clock if you want to and leave at seven. Or you can go in at seven and leave at three. You have got this flexibility and it’s very difficult to know what’s right. I tried to find out my natural routine and I went through some very erratic working routines. First of all, I would be up at six, go in at seven and leave at three, and then I would completely reverse that. It took me about three years to figure out my best routine.”

“My working life tends to involve lots of parallel tasks, all sorts of things happening simultaneously – teaching, administration, research, field work, committees and writing, and usually several writing projects at once. It’s extremely rare that I’m ever writing one thing at a time. So when I’m writing a book or a chapter or editing a volume or something, I never say that I’m going to work on this every day but I do have a deadline for when I’m going to finish the thing, and at least in my mind I have a timetable for when the bits of it need to be done by.”

“That’s one brilliant thing about doing the PhD – you learn so much about yourself. And you realise that you’re not consistently a particular kind of person – you’re not consistently an early person or consistently a late person; you just need to be able to adapt and become sensitive to the best way that you work. In the final year, when things got very difficult, I was in the office for twelve hours a day, five days a week. I’m a runner and I would take out two hours around two or three o’clock in the afternoon. I would have an early lunch – I wouldn’t go anywhere, just take fifteen minutes for a sandwich about 12.30 – and then about two or three o’clock I would go for an hour’s run. Then I would go home, have a shower, maybe eat, then go back to work, and it would feel like a brand new day. I’d work through to about nine or ten o’clock at night. That was very effective for dealing with the long hours that are inevitable towards the end of it.”

“I think the most important thing is using what time you have. Donald Murray talks about two types of writing time – fragmentary time and insulated time. He thinks fragmentary time is the most common. That’s when you get ten minutes here and ten minutes there. He says that in a minute or two, you can brainstorm a few things, write a opening paragraph, sketch a definition, outline an article or jot down a few notes about something that has to go in your thesis. Insulated time is when you have a larger batch of uninterrupted time – two or three hours. Then you can put the answerphone on, lock the door, and concentrate solely on writing.”

“Let me tell you about my friend Chris. When he started working from home, he found that his children wouldn’t let him get on with work. They thought he was home to play with them. So each morning he put on his business suit, went out of the house, round the block, back to the house, in the back door, up the stairs on tiptoe and into his study, shutting the door quietly behind him.”

“I think that you can get to a point where you just can’t see the wood for the trees when you’re writing a big piece of work. Throughout my experience I’ve learned how to structure my time, so that I can take a good amount of time out away from the work in order to come back and see the picture more clearly, especially on a big piece of work. You have so many things to hold in your head at once that you sort of become obsessed with holding all those things in your head, and actually you just need to forget it for a couple of days. That’s one technique I used. Once I’ve got something down on paper.”

“I know two writers who swapped houses with each other during the day. That way they didn’t feel responsible for the cleaning that needed doing.”