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Rhythms of Writing: juggling inspiration and discipline
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A lot of writing advice tends to shift between write-when-inspired and write every day. In this blog post, Aya Nassar suggests that maybe we do not really need to choose...

It has been a while since my last two blog posts ‘Becoming kind to your writing’ and ‘Becoming kind to other’s writing’. In these I tried to convey how approaching writing with a changed attitude helped me think of it as something other than fearful, judgemental and scary. To continue this series of blogs, I want to focus on changing writing rhythms, and how I experimented with them. Do these mindful insights help when we are juggling deadlines and when reflexive time seems like a luxury?

‘Being kind to your writing’ emerged after a wonderful workshop I attended with Elina Penttinen. The aim of the workshop, however, was not simply to give tricks and tools to write ‘better’, but also to invite us to think about our practice in being in academia. One of the workshop’s invitations was to think about our ‘being’ in the present moment doing research. This includes paying attention to our thoughts, emotions, things we want to say, but also, how we write every day: on a laptop? On a desktop? On paper? Early in the morning? Late at night? Hunched? Relaxed?

One of the workshop’s insights was to remind us that writing does not just happen, it happens in the ‘here and now’, and this ‘here and now’ is, of course, different for everyone. I interpret it in short, that writing has its different rhythms. There is plenty of advice out there with people advocating a ‘write-every-day’ routine, and others advocating ‘write-when-you-are-inspired’. I think what lies underneath these different approaches is whether we assume we can afford to always have a flow and engaged creative inspiration, or whether writing is our job or a practice and we simply should do it.

To say the truth, in my third year of the PhD I tried to embrace a slow and joyful rhythm of writing. I had one chapter to write with no deadly deadlines in sight, and I usually approached it after a long walk, with music tracks to accompany that flow I wanted to achieve. I think that in this time I produced the piece of writing that I really love, not because it is great, but because thinking of it does not fill me with dreadful memories of panic or boredom. However, you and I know that this tranquil stretch is often a luxury.

Inevitably, the fourth year of the PhD kicked in, and with it the reality of needing to write a lot, with a different rhythm, demands and, of course, anxieties. I wanted to approach this more challenging rhythm without letting go of the creative practice I had just experimented with in my third year. I think now I know that I don’t have to.

If I understand Penttinen correctly, bringing mindfulness to academic writing does not necessarily mean that we need to write only ‘when we feel like it’, but rather accept the present in which we write. We do indeed face challenging situations in our research, in PhD writing there are blocks, deadlines, overlapping projects, and your inner critic. The key is not to will all these challenges away or act as if they do not exist, but rather accept them as what they are, and find a way to write with them. This advice helps me to not choose one way over the other. I think we do not have to commit to one advice that asks us to wait until the setting is ideal for writing, or another that invites us to be disciplinary writing machines, but rather work with different rhythms according to different demands.

To balance the demands of needing to write productively and in a short time, but also slowly with emotional investment I alternate between ‘writing together’ and ‘writing alone’. I will deal with each in upcoming blog posts, but my key message today, is that we really don’t need to feel compelled to choose one advice of writing over the other.

Do you write only when you feel like you are inspired to do so? Or do you discipline your writing? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research looks into cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar

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