AcWriMo – is it working?

This year, for the first time, I’m taking part in Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo (alongside National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Yep, slightly deranged, but anyway…). The idea, much like the now well-established NaNoWriMo, is to write 50,000 words in a month. I’m now just over the halfway stage and almost on target, so I thought I’d reflect on the pros and cons.

It’s certainly got me writing. I’ve included anything related to my academic pursuits, so my total of 30,974 words is made up of around 9,000 words of notes on my sociology text book (I’m doing an undergrad Open University course alongside my PhD) plus a start on the next sociology assignment, 9,000 words of writing up research (the Wordle illustrating this post is from the draft write-up of a study I ran earlier this year), 3,000 words of notes on the exercise intervention literature and 10,000 words of admin, in which I’m including anything else. My strategy, as I’ve progressed, has been to include all my writing that relates to my PhD, teaching and the OU. The main reason for being so generous to myself is that 50,000 quality words takes a heck of a lot more time and effort to produce than 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel, where you can put any old wibble. For a novel, wibble works. It gets the story moving and the result is something dynamic that you can then flesh out, chop, change and rewrite. It suits me as a creative process.

For academic writing in my discipline (psychology), this approach can be effective in some circumstances. Writing the methods section of a paper is straightforward but dull, and the AcWriMo pixie sitting on my shoulder chivvies me into  getting it done. Discussion sections have a more coherent flow if I write them relatively quickly. I know what I want to say, I refer back to the introductory section with the lit review that I’ve already written, and it all falls into place quite easily.

However, a large part of academic writing is slower and more meticulous. There’s no point doing a slapdash wordchurn on the results section, as I’m just going to have to go back and start from scratch. And here is the big disadvantage I’ve found with AcWriMo: while the word target is an effective driver for some tasks, for others it’s counterproductive. What the results section needs, with its ANCOVAs, bivariate correlations and hierarchical linear regressions, is slow, careful teasing out of the statistics, giving them meaning and presenting them in a clear way. The introduction and literature review need meticulous referencing and succinct discussion of existing research. For these sections, and especially so the results, what the paper or thesis chapter needs is quality time: minutes clocked up without being distracted by the ping of my email, the biscuit jar or a visit to Twitter.

Additionally, the need to clock up words means that tasks which don’t generate words – analysing data, for example – tend to be pushed down the to-do list. I may have been prolific over the last couple of weeks, but have I been prolific in the right areas? Not entirely, I have to admit, although at least my students have benefited from plenty of feedback on their essays.

Next year, I’m going to take part in AcWriMo again, but I’m going to set myself a different task: 100 hour-long blocks of concentrated study in November 2013. That means undistracted focus on the task, no social media to hand and no coffee-breaks at the half hour point. It’s basically applying the pomodoro principle (which favours 25 minute stints: I find these a little bit short, but an hour works well for me). If some of those blocks result in 500 new words (which, pro-rata, fits the standard AcWriMo model), then that’s not a problem, but it means those less wordy tasks will get their share of my attention too.

Are you taking part in AcWriMo? What’s your strategy? And will you be doing the same thing next year?


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