How I won NaNoWriMo 2019

NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner Badge
Things I did not know about myself before I started: apparently, I am motivated by badges.

A month ago, I embarked on a quest with hundreds of thousands (287,327 in 2018, for instance) of other writers around the world: to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Or, in my case, a memoir of sorts.

My original goals for NaNoWriMo were somewhat modest: to write, every day, on one of the stories in the list of stories I drafted at the end of October. A list that ended up growing and shifting over the course of the month, as I combined shorter vignettes into longer “stories” and added stories that came to mind as I wrote. I committed to minimal, if any, editing, so that I could just get the words out and onto the page, without judgment. I thought that 50,000 words would be nice, but not necessary.

And, to make the time for this endeavor, I decided that writing this draft would “count” as my scholarship for the month.

My NaNoWriMo word count, plotted as a line graph. Source: nanowrimo.org
That upward trend line is addicting to me, as it turns out. The top, darker line is my cumulative progress over the month, while the bottom line is the target line to get you to 50,000 words in 30 days.

For accountability, I committed to logging my progress daily on the NaNoWriMo site (which generates pretty graphs and infographics for you as you progress). I also figured, since I’ve found forums like those at NCFDD (Carleton is an institutional member) useful, that I’d use the various NaNoWriMo forums to both keep myself on track and to encourage others.

By the end of the month, I’d drafted 14 complete or mostly complete chapter/stories and wrote 52,158 words.

I’d “won” NaNoWriMo!

So, how did I do it?

A bar graph of my word count by day. Source: nanowrimo.org
My daily progress. You can see the pain points towards the end of the term, and my day off on Thanksgiving. And the spikes at the end when I became motivated to finish early — which I did, on November 29.

I found the stats and daily progress charts addicting. Seeing the upward trend of the cumulative graph, and the bars on the daily graph, provided much-needed motivation, much like Jerry Seinfeld’s chain. I’d calculated I needed just under 1700 words a day to stay on pace to hit 50,000, so I rounded that up to 1700 and tried to hit that. I ended up hovering around 1800 per day. This gradually built up a cushion of sorts, so that when the end of the term got messy and busy, as it always does, I could do a lighter writing day without falling behind the pace.

Posting my progress on Twitter and Instagram helped motivate me to keep writing, particularly when I hit the Week 2 Slump that veteran WriMos warn about, when you hate everything about your writing and question your sanity for embarking on such a foolish quest.

Having that story list was key when I did hit the inevitable slumps, as was my commitment to minimal editing. The story list also helped me find holes, or time periods with fewer stories than others, and privilege drafting one story over another on a day when I couldn’t decide where to start.

Surprisingly, I found the community aspect the least helpful, mainly because I didn’t really have time to engage as I would have liked. (See: end of Fall Term.) I didn’t utilize the buddy system, and I only spent a little bit of time on the local forums, and a bit more time than that following hashtags on Twitter and Instagram.

The thing that surprised me the most was just how fickle my memory is about certain details. I’ve carried many of these stories around in my head for years, with some pretty vivid details. But the supporting details, I found, were hardest to recall. Who was in that feminist junior faculty book group, and what year did we meet? Did I encounter Foot Fetish Man in just that one class before the hallway confrontation, or was there a longer history? I tried my best to not let these lapses in memory derail me, writing around them and keeping a list of details to research later.

The thing that helped me the most was my daily research habit. I’m already in the habit of working on my research for at least 30 minutes a day, so it was straightforward to swap in “writing a memoir” for “drafting a conference paper”, which is what I would have been doing last month. I ended up writing for about an hour a day most days, but honestly, I was working on research for about an hour a day most days throughout Fall Term, so again, the transition felt natural.

So, what’s next?

The draft is still not complete. I haven’t started a few key stories, and a few others are not quite finished. There are holes, particularly in my post-doc and post-tenure years. I could probably spend an entire NaNoWriMo just finishing the draft and get another 50,000 words, although I don’t know if I want to wait until next November to do so.

There are all those missing details I mentioned above, so I’d like to do some research — interviewing people, perhaps, or figuring out if I can dig up old and now defunct blogs from my past, or find old emails. (This is where my habit of getting rid of things on a regular basis proves detrimental!)

I’d also like to publish this, eventually, somehow. But the structure is still in flux. Should this be a proper memoir, meaning I’ll definitely have to fill in more of the time periods for consistency’s sake? Or would this work better as a series of connected essays around some central themes, like belonging and boundaries? And if I go the essay route, which seems better suited to the structure at this point, do I try to publish a few as standalone essays first? Questions, questions!

What’s definitely next: continuing to write on a more consistent basis. I really enjoyed the process of writing every day — the discipline, the creativity, the sense of purpose I felt. I’ve continued to blog for as long as I have because I enjoy telling stories. This project was storytelling on a larger scale. Ideally, I’d find time everyday to continue this project, maybe coming up with a monthly word target (10,000?) until I finish whatever I count as my “first draft”. Realistically, that’s not in the cards — December belongs to other projects, and Winter Term will be especially busy with other priorities. But I can certainly find some time each week, and that’s certainly better than nothing, particularly if it’s something that’s rejuvenating me.

So, NaNoWriMo is over, but for me, NaNo continues. I’m excited to see where this all ends up.

#AcWriMo 2017: Slaying my research demons

It’s November 1, which long time readers of this blog know means that it’s time once again for #AcWriMo! Academic Writing Month is the academic’s version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Academics commit to 30 days of research progress of all types — getting articles/book chapters/book proposals/dissertations completed and/or out for review, starting a new project, completing a literature review, writing simulation code, etc.

I’ve been a long term participant in AcWriMo (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Every year I think “maybe this is the year I skip it”, but every year I come back. There is something about the public accountability, the thrill of keeping research momentum going during a crazy busy time of the academic year, and the community that keeps me coming back. Even this year, when I have a daily writing practice that’s going rather well and projects that I’m making clear progress on.

This year, I’m using AcWriMo to not only make research progress, but also to confront some of my own research demons. You see, there’s this research project that I started on sabbatical — an interview project — that’s stalled. Yeah, part of it is because I’m busy, but a bigger part of it is because I have completely psyched myself out about it. I’m at the stage where I should be interviewing subjects that I’ve recruited, and I’ve stalled out on the recruiting stage. Because recruiting participants is Scary and it means I might have to Talk To People I Don’t Know or, worse, Ask People I Know And Like To Give Up Some Of Their Precious Free Time To Help Me. (And I hate asking people for help.)

But stalling out means that I probably missed out on an opportunity to submit this project to a Late Breaking Work track at CHI. And I am kicking myself because that would have been a primo opportunity to present this work, or at least get some early feedback.

So while I have some other projects I’m working on — a fellowship application due mid-month, a conference paper with a January deadline — I’m only going to specify one goal for this year’s AcWriMo. And that is to get back on track with this interview project. With one goal, I won’t be as tempted to work on my other projects as a means of avoidance, and prioritize them over the interview project. The interview project becomes the priority.

Here is what I plan to do this month:

  • Revamp the project timeline. Given I probably can’t make this late breaking work deadline, where is the next logical place to send this work? Preferably something with an early spring deadline. And then work backwards from there to figure out what to do each week.
  • Rethink my recruiting strategy. The way I’ve positioned this study is not working. I need to rethink how and where I’m recruiting subjects, and redo my “advertising campaign”.
  • Schedule and conduct some damn interviews already! I do have a few people who expressed interest in participating….er, months ago. I plan on following up and hopefully scheduling at least one interview by the end of the month.
  • Complete some of the writing on the eventual conference/workshop paper. There are sections I can draft — the intro, the methods, the lit review — that will save me lots of time later when deadlines loom.

As always, you can follow my progress (and others’ progress too) on Twitter, using #AcWriMo. And as always, I’ll have an update here at the end of the month on how I did.

Good luck to all of those participating! May the writing gods smile upon you.

#AcWriMo, Sabbatical Edition: The Final Reckoning

As I’ve done for the past few years, last month I participated in AcWriMo, the month-long academic writing extravaganza. I started the month with two goals:

  1. Complete an almost-submission-ready draft of a conference paper.
  2. Complete a rough draft of a new research study.

I chose this particular set of goals as a way to address some clogs in my research pipeline. Right now I have a lot of work in preliminary stages and/or various stages of write-up, but nothing out for review. I chose the first goal as a way to move something closer to the out-for-review stage of the pipeline, and the second goal as a way to move a project from the half-baked idea phase to the gee-I-could-start-collecting-data-soon stage.

So, how did I do?

I completely met my first goal. I have a complete draft of a conference paper ready to be tweaked for a particular conference. I did not start the month with a particular conference in mind. Instead, I decided to write a generic draft — more like a tech report — that I could then slightly tweak and reframe for particular venues. So all the source material is there, and all I need to do is edit it. And as luck would have it, a few days ago I found a conference with a mid-December deadline that’s a pretty good fit for it. I’ll need to cut 3 pages and I’ll need to reframe the intro to better fit the conference’s focus, but that should be pretty straightforward. So, bonus, this paper WILL be out for review soon!

I completely met my second goal. My literature search confirmed what I suspected — that this new study area is pretty underexplored. Reviewing the literature, and working through my stash of HCI books, gave me some good ideas for how I might explore this space, and I feel pretty excited about my study plan. Also, terrified, because the new study involves qualitative research methods that I’ve never, ever used before. (I am setting up a lot of meetings with my social scientist friends in the near future!)

I wanted to keep track of how I spent my writing time, so I logged my writing time, number of words, time spent coding, time spent on each project, etc. every day.

research time plot

Time spent over the month on the two projects. “Coding” was code development I did in conjunction with the conference paper.

As expected, I spent more time over the course of the month on the conference paper. This makes sense, because there was a lot more work to do on that particular project and it had a more defined finished product. I also find it interesting that the majority of the work on the new research study was done early in the month. I made a lot of progress early in the month, getting me almost all the way to my goal, which freed up my time to focus on the conference paper. (You can also clearly tell where the weekends are and where the long holiday weekend fell.)

number of words written

Number of words written over the month on the two projects.

It’s a bit demoralizing to see your word count go down over the course of the month, but this reflects the edits on the conference paper. There’s also a faster rate of word production (most of the time) for the new study, because most of that was “new” writing, so it was less edited and vetted. (It also includes the word count for notes I took while reading articles and books for the project.)

I’ve liked the experience of logging my output like this. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re actually making progress when you’re slogging away day after day, but charts like these drive home the point that daily effort does add up over time. I also experimented with journaling about my research every day, and I’ve found that useful as well. I plan on continuing both practices beyond AcWriMo.

As always, I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of AcWriMo, and I will miss that. One of the many things I’ve been thinking about while on sabbatical is how I can recreate some of that supportive community around research and writing at my institution. I hope to come up with some concrete ideas and try them out next year.

I’m so glad I decided to do AcWriMo again this year. I almost didn’t participate because it felt like “cheating” since I am on sabbatical and I’m supposed to be laser-focused on my research. Participating provided me with a chance to reflect on my research practices and experiment with ways of working, as well as set specific and scary goals and make myself publicly accountable. And these are lessons that I’ll take with me beyond AcWriMo and into the new year.

#AcWriMo: Sabbatical Edition

Longtime readers of this blog know that November brings that annual rite of productivity for academics: Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo for short. The premise of AcWriMo is simple: you set some ambitious research/writing goal(s) for the month and do your darndest to achieve those goals, with the support of a virtual writing community. I’ve participated in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, and have always found it to be a worthwhile experience.

I’m a little late to the party this year — I didn’t finalize my goals until today. And it feels a teeny bit like cheating, since the purpose of being on sabbatical is to have the space to work on your research, so I don’t “need” this challenge to jump-start my research or get back into good research habits, which is my usual motivation for participating. But I really love the community and support around AcWriMo, and I really love the challenge of setting and trying to meet ambitious goals, so that’s reason enough in my book to join in!

I’ve decided on two main goals for AcWriMo this year:

  1. Complete draft of conference paper. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about restructuring my research. In the process, I identified a line of research that I thought I could complete and submit as a conference paper by the end of this calendar year. I’ve made really good progress so far on this paper. I really really want to end the month with a completed draft that’s pretty close to submission-ready, because if memory serves there’s a submission deadline in early December for a conference that seems like a fairly good fit. To complete this goal, I’ll need to write, debug, and test some simulation code and run some experiments in addition to writing the paper. This is my main goal.
  2. Complete rough draft of new research study. The idea for this study also came out of my Summer of Reflection. I’ve been chipping away at it, but not making as much progress as I’d like. (So much to read! So little time!) With this project, I just need to buckle down, complete a preliminary lit review, and sketch out one or two possible study designs in some detail. The challenging part of this project (and probably what’s been holding me back) is that it’s way more of a “pure” HCI (human computer interaction) project than I’ve ever attempted, and is likely going to involve research methods that I’ve never used before. Exciting! and also terrifying.

As usual, I’ll be updating my progress here and on Twitter (@drcsiz) under the hashtag #AcWriMo. This year, there’s also a fancy schmancy tracking app that I’ll be using. And since I’m planning on writing anyway, I’ll also be participating in a  14 day writing challenge in the middle of the month. If all this doesn’t keep me accountable, nothing will!

Happy November writing, everyone!

#acwrimo progress report

It’s been just over a week since AcWriMo 2013, the month-long academic writing bonanza super party, started, so I figured it was a good time for a check-in on my progress this month.

In my last post, I outlined three goals for the month:

  1. Spend at least 30 minutes a day (6 days a week) on research or research writing.Since this is a bit longer than a pomodoro, I’m calling each 30 minutes I spend a “research sprint”.
  2. Finish all of the major experiments that I need for my grant resubmission. (And write up the results as I go along.)
  3. Draft an outline/plan for the rest of the grant narrative revisions. I have a tentative outline at this point, but I’d like to flesh it out more fully so that I can just start filling in the blanks in December.

Goal #1 means I should have 10 writing/working sessions under my belt right now, or 300 minutes if we’re counting that way. I’ve done 8 sessions for a total of 280 minutes (thanks to a couple of longer sessions on days I could squeeze that in). So I’m fairly close on that one. Which is great, because honestly, the biggest challenge this time around has been finding that 30 minutes of time to squeeze in some research. (More on that in a bit.)

Goal #2 has been going slowly. Very, very slowly. See, the experiments I need to do are the hard ones. I’m in the part of this project where I’ve grabbed all the low-hanging fruit and finished the initial proof-of-concept, which means I’m now trying to address some of those harder questions. As far as I can tell, I’m in fairly new territory in terms of what I’m trying to accomplish, and the path forward is rarely clear. I try things, they fail, I spin my wheels for a bit trying to figure out what to do next. I know that this is in fact productive, in the sense that I’m ruling out things that aren’t going to work, but with a grant submission deadline looming it’s hard not to panic. I know from experience that I just need to keep plugging away and that the “breakthrough” will occur, but it’s so easy to get demoralized when everything you do seems to fail or lead to a dead end.

Goal #3….well, let’s not even talk about that one, because I haven’t addressed it yet.

So I’m making progress, but it’s hard and it’s slow. This AcWriMo feels much, much harder than last year’s AcWriMo, and I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. A big part of it is the time crunch. With being chair and with my big external service responsibilities (which all seem to be coming to a head in the next 2 weeks, ugh!) and with the new course prep and not having a grader to help out in my classes, I’m completely swamped. 30 minutes of research is indeed a luxury these days, and some days I just can’t make it work without sacrificing (even more) sleep or eating or running (which is really the only thing keeping me sane these days). I also was reminded after re-reading my mid-term AcWriMo evaluation from last year that I was sick and injured, so I wasn’t running or doing much exercise at all….which, magically, freed up my early morning time for writing and research. With that in mind, the fact that I’ve been mostly successful at finding some time to work despite all the other demands on my time is something I should be very proud of.

The other reason this year feels harder than last year has to do with the nature of the work I need to do. Last year I had very concrete tasks to complete: Finish the narrative draft. Finish drafts of the supplementary documents for the grant. Write a conference talk. These are things I can easily check off. This year my main task, finishing my grant experiments, is less well-defined and more fluid, so it’s harder to quantify “progress”. I am not sure when I will be finished, because I’m not sure what I’ll find. So I don’t get the satisfaction of crossing something concrete off the list—rather, each finished experiment leads to 3-4 more things added to the list.

Despite all the challenges, I am finding once again that participating in this process is helpful and beneficial. I look forward to seeing what I can accomplish in the next week, and the remainder of the month.