Blog Post

I Did AcWriMo 2013 and Survived to Tell the Tale

A few years ago, Charlotte Frost of PhD2Published launched AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), a November academic writing drive based on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). (It started as Academic Book Writing Month but has since broadened its focus.) The idea is to set yourself ridiculously lofty writing goals (so far not so different from the rest of the academic writing year), declare those goals publicly, write like the wind for a month, and then announce your success publicly and bask in your sense of accomplishment.

I will admit to trying NaNoWriMo one year as an undergrad and going down in flames. AcWriMo was a qualified success, however, and I know that success was at least partially because it was work I would have been doing anyway. It was also certainly because I broadcast my goals and my progress on Twitter (for the approval of strangers) and Facebook (for the approval of my friends and family). As much as it distracts, social media also motivates; what the Internet taketh away, the Internet also giveth back.

I also use the Pomodoro Technique when I write, so I set two goals for myself: one was to spend 60 pomodoros (about 30 hours) writing my dissertation during November—no other writing and no reading would count toward the total. At the end of the month I had reached 58, which I’m calling close enough. My other goal was to complete a full draft of my current chapter, and on that front I was a miserable failure. I’m writing this blog post now because it is only this week that I finally completed that chapter draft and am basking in that aforementioned sense of accomplishment.

But back to the AcWriMo experience. Some thoughts and takeaways:

  • What I said above: social media is a very helpful motivator, and can provide accountability, cheerleading, and the fear of public shaming. For this reason alone I will probably keep doing AcWriMo in the future, and maybe even be braver about announcing my writing goals and progress at other times throughout the year. I lurk in a few writing groups on Facebook--maybe it's time to stop lurking.
  • It is really hard to estimate a writing goal that’s challenging but reachable. Sixty pomodoros ended up being just right for me in a month with other writing obligations and piles of grading (and an extended bout of bronchitis), but I also wonder if I would have pushed myself harder and written more if I had set an even bigger goal. After AcWriMo was over, I declared December my own personal AcWriMo Part 2 (The Re-Draftening), and crushed my goal of another 60 pomodoros of dissertation writing, coming in at a total of 67. Of course that was in the month that the fall semester ended, but it was also the month of final grading and holiday travel. It’s enough to make me wonder if 60 pomodoros on my dissertation should be my goal every month until the damn thing is done. (Forty-five and counting for January!)
  • And the biggest conundrum, for which I still have no solution: time vs. pages. Even as I was setting my 60 pomodoros goal I had no idea if that was an appropriate amount of time for completing the remaining work in my chapter. (Turns out: not even close. The work I thought might take 30 hours ended up taking 86, or 172 pomodoros.) I was loathe to set a goal in pages, however, because I wanted to honor the work I do on days when I labor over getting one paragraph exactly the way I want it, or conduct a thorough literature review that only appears in one footnote. It also occurs to me that either approach, goals set in pages or in time, has the potential to lead to slacking off: who cares if I produce many usable pages as long as I spend the right number of hours writing something related to my project—or alternately, who cares if these pages are any good as long as I fill up the right number of them. Maybe the real problem is that I always try to game the system, even when it’s a system I set up myself.

So, my fellow HASTACers: did anyone else complete AcWriMo this year? Does anyone else use the Pomodoro Technique? What's your take on the time vs. pages dilemma?

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3 comments

I enjoyed reading about your experience!  Sounds like you did a great job!  I also "won" AcriWriMo. Like you, it didn't radically change the type of work I did or way in which I worked, but I did find it somewhat helpful and missed it when it was done. 

Here are my thoughts about the experience, in no particular order:

1) Time vs. Pages: I always go for time over pages, mostly because I think pages doesn't work well for this sort of task, since as you point out, so much of the project doesn't directly funnel into the page count. BUT the problem is that it's easy to waste time.  So, I try to deliberately give myself not quite enough time to do something. 

In other words, I wonder if, in giving yourself 60 pomodoros, you actually ended up doing more work than you would have accomplished if you had set out a more realistic goal of getting it done in 172 pomodoros? 

Or maybe I'm the only one who needs to set some devious brain trickery to get anything done?

2) Pomodoros: Personally, I like them for grading but I prefer something a little looser for dissertation work. The basic idea seems sound, though--work for awhile, and then take a break already! A real break!

3) The "crazy sprint" mentality that works for NaNoWriMo doesn't work for AcriWriMo. I've won NaNoWriMo (pre-grad school!) but the thing is, after you're done you take a month off and relax because probably no one is clamoring for your novel, whereas you probably don't want to take a month off of your dissertation to relax after AcriWriMo.  So it's better to set a smaller goal that won't burn you out, or even something sustainable. 

What do you think? Has anyone had success with a true "sprint"?

4) Grad students deserve to feel a sense of accomplishment sometimes. AcriWriMo does give that hard-won sense that you're actually doing something all day.

5) Social media is good, but personal groups are better. Social media is great--but I'm not sure it can compete with accountability from people you actually know.  Some of the grad students in my department have a weekly email chain, and it's seriously one of the most valuable things for everything from writing accountability, to general support, to finding a dentist. I found that this group was solid enough that I didn't really want to get into the social media.

But maybe there's something to be said for a greater level of anonymity too?

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Hooray for "winning" AcWriMo! Congratulations!

I think you're TOTALLY right about the sprint mentality not being suited to academia, in that we don't get to rest afterwards. In some ways I feel like we're expected to sprint all the time anyway--maybe my 60 pomodoros a month should be both a goal and a limit, to try to reset my work patterns into something more like a marathon.

Personal groups are great, but I actually find that I'm more likely to make excuses and tap dance around the amount of work I got done (or didn't get done) with people I know. My friends are nice, understanding, supportive people. Strangers on the internet can be ruthless. I think I need both.

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This is AWESOME! There is so much great detail and personal reflection here. 

One thing that sticks out to me is buried in parenthesis -- "(Turns out: not even close. The work I thought might take 30 hours ended up taking 86, or 172 pomodoros.)"

The question of time vs. pages is a really good one, and one that often prevents folks from getting started in the first place, i.e. the question of "How do I know how long it takes me to write a page?" And the answer, usually, is you don't! Or at least, not until you start actually tracking the work. So you weren't wrong, per se, just learning the information based on your current work habits, not some aspirational pie-in-the-sky-speed-demon-writer-robot fantasy that we all have.

Congrats a million to both of you for doing this, and for tracking and sharing the results. It's so helpful to see the process for other folks as it makes it seem far less automatic and far more human. 

Congrats at winning! 

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