Writing for fellowships hard. Writing is hard.
But is there anything more delightful than hearing someone talk about the research or work they do that they really love?
After talking with several students about their work and hearing the obvious pleasure that they take in it, I wondered if, while it is true writing is difficult, it also might be true that there are some instances in which writing is actually fun.
So I asked a number of students whom I consider good writers when and how writing is fun for them. This was a very small survey, eleven responses to be precise.
Despite the tiny sample size, there was a helpful conclusion to draw from the responses. Reading through the students' reflections, it became clear that writing is fun when two things happen:
- The writer is in a state of “flow” or deep, uninterrupted focus
- The writing results in new ideas or connections
So if you want to have fun writing, the goal is to figure out how to make these two things happen.
The other interesting result of the survey was the extent that the answers varied. Clearly, what helps one person achieve the two elements necessary for writing fun does not necessarily work for another person. However, the differences in the responses did help point to several questions one can answer to create a situtation in which those two elements become likely to happen.
If you want make writing more fun, here are some questions to consider.
- How can I use time to get into a state of flow?
- Write for long stretches of time
Some people apparently think it is fun to work for extended stretches of time. I remember when a professor of mine described the holidays as a “goldmine” because he could write uninterruped for eight hours a day. Philosophy student Bjorn Sether Wastvedt explains that, “long periods of time allow me to hold a great number of ideas in my head at once. So when I have a long period of time (a free day, for example) to write, then I find it more enjoyable because I can experience some of the "flow" that makes the activity fun.” This makes tons of sense. And my hat off to those of you who have the same experience.
- Write for short periods of time
Others, due to either one’s personality or to external circumstances (e.g. children), have more success getting into a state of focus if they commit to shorter periods of time. A psychology student told me that she likes to “set timers when writing, even if just for 15 or 30 minutes. That way, I can tell myself to focus just on writing for that small amount of time.” Health Promotion Sciences student Abby Lohr has a brilliant suggestion to help people who have smaller stretches of time get more quickly back into a state of focus. “I do my best to ‘park on the downhill’ or make it easy for myself to pick up where I left off. Sometimes I'll leave myself a note about what I was thinking when I stopped or make sure to start with an easy task the next day (e.g. making a table).”
- Create and use deadlines
Deadlines can be helpful to create focus. Megan Mills-Novoa, from Geography and Development, creates mini-goals for herself so that she can get a sense of her progress, “I enjoy writing when I have the sense that I am advancing and create mini-goals so I feel that I am being successful.” Deadlines can create pressure but, when managed artfully, they can also help create a feeling of success that contributes to your ability to get into a state of flow.
- At what point in the writing process does working with other people help me either focus or make new connections?
The survey responses make it clear that people like to include others in their writing at different points in the process. Here are some examples.
- Discussing your ideas before you write: Doctoral candidate in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, Jenna Altherr Flores says, “writing is fun when you talk with people about your work because they help you get to that ah-ha moment faster. It is also just a nice break from staring at your computer screen (alone) all the time.”
- Getting feedback on writing: Several students mentioned the role of feedback in helping to make new connections with writing. Abby Lohr says that “I find writing fun when I receive feedback that improves my writing or helps me think about the topic in a new way.” And Catalina Rodriguez from History finds reading sections of her writing aloud to her writing group makes the writing process enjoyable.
- Collaborating on a project: Alison Harrington from Ecology and Evolutionary Biology says, “I have had good experiences on small projects with few coauthors when we write and collaborate in real time using google docs.”
- Writing in the same room: A psychology student says that, “I love writing in the same space as others. In the summer, graduate students in my program created a ‘research accountability group’ where we would get together for an hour or two in the afternoon twice a week to write or work on research.”
- Does noise or quiet help you focs and create new connections?
Respondents had strong and varied opinions on this topic. Some people find high-energy pop music makes writing more fun and others find absolute quiet to be best.
- Can you play games to make writing fun for you?
None of the eleven people mentioned any writing games they use to make their writing practice more fun. This is disappointing to me because I like playing games. I will tell you some of the best ones.
- The Random Word Game: For this game, you need a writing buddy. You don’t even need to be on the same continent as your friend, you just need to be writing at the same time. Pick a word, say, “malfeasance” or “tomato” and then the winner is either the person who uses it appropriately first or uses it in the most interesting way. Why is this fun? Maybe it helps create new, hopefully interesting, connections.
- I Can Beat Me Game: Another great game, which you should exclusively play against your past or future self, helps get into that state of hyper concentration. Just see how many words you can write in a certain amount of time. This is especially helpful when you have mapped out what you want to write but you feel your energy or concentration lagging.
- What topic do I care about the most?
Keri Miller, from Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies, explains, "For me whether or not writing is fun has everything to do with the topic I am working on writing and nothing to do with any kind of external or environmental situation." Inevitably, there are times when students have to write about topics they don’t feel are particularly meaningful. But most students can choose most of the time to either focus on topics that are important to them or to connect their writing to topics of interest. Often, I think, this takes some courage on the part of the student; the connection to concerns of their discipline is not always clear at the outset and so there will inevitably be a need to legitimize their interests. Also, writing about the topic that most interests a person is not always the best choice in terms of getting funding and moving toward ones professional goals. So sometimes you may want to focus on your second or third area of interest.
How does all this connect to writing for fellowships?
Unlike roller skating, grant writing is not necessarily always associated with fun. And I do realize I am playing a little fast and loose with my terms here; writing for fellowships is probably never fun in the same way that roller skating is fun. But writing for fellowships does provide a fresh structure (including, for example, a new audience, deadlines, a different purpose, etc.) that can help you get into a state of flow and make new connections in your writing. Even if you just write for one or two fellowships each academic year, and even if you find parts of the application difficult, you just might find that, in its own way, it is also fun.
Thank you to the following students who took the time to respond to my survey. Even if I did not quote you, I did use your ideas and I appreciate your contributions!
- Bjorn Sether Wastvedt - Philosophy
- Alison Harrington – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
- Melissa Clutter - Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences
- Keri Miller - Anthropology/Middle Eastern Studies
- Meg Mills-Novoa – School of Geography and Development
- Andrew Kunihiro - Nutritional Sciences
- Alex Karaman - Gender and Women’s Studies
- Catalina Rodriguez - History
- Jenna Altherr Flores - Second Language Acquisition and Teaching
- Abby Lohr - Health Promotion Sciences
- Anonymous – Psychology
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