Apologies, readers. We have been terrible about keeping this blog up to date lately. Our excuse is one many writers know well: we just have not had the time! But, here’s the thing. That’s not completely true. We have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish at least three blogposts. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.
When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.
Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many students may also struggle, especially as undergraduates, because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to a piece of writing to be published or submitted somewhere for evaluation. They may find physical time, but may then discover that it’s not enough, and that they are too rushed. But if they have a deadline they will hand something in, even if it is not the something we would like to read and assess; even if it is rough, or does not fully address the questions asked and so on. So students also need to work out the difference between physical time and writing time.
You see, I know now, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done. I would maybe be able to read a couple of short articles and make some notes on them. But when I was an undergraduate, an hour seemed like enough time to get a draft of my essay scribbled out – it was only 1200 words after all and I’d been listening in class. I didn’t know then about all the reading required, and the thinking and the referencing and the editing and proofing that need to be factored in as well. So, of course, I would leave the essay until a couple of days or less before the due date, read the course readings cursorily and then write out my essay in a hurry. Too late I would realise that I had not given myself enough time to do the task justice, but it took me a long time to learn what went into all that writing and therefore how much physical time I needed to make for my writing. It took me a long time to make my writing important.
This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.
A final point for lecturers and tutors: when you set tasks, make time in class or tutorials not only to explain the task and your expectations to students, but also to workshop with them if possible, or at least to show them, the things that go into writing an assignment like the one you have set them. What will they need to make time for? Reading? Fieldwork? Drafting and revisions? Proofreading? Getting advice from a writing tutor? Doing an experiment and collating results? Be careful of assuming that students, even postgraduate students, know how to spend their writing time or know what has to go into it. Teach them how to make time for writing when you teach them how to write in your discipline – this practical lesson is a valuable one.