Writing Techniques for the Socially Distanced Grad

By Iris Blake |

With conditions changing by the day due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Spring Break this year feels substantially different. Amidst the switch to online instruction, travel restrictions, school and business closures, and social distancing during a time of uncertainty, this crisis has magnified the precarity and isolation that already characterized many of our positions as graduate students. While you may have anticipated getting a large chunk of writing done over Spring Break, you may be reassessing your writing goals to focus on what is feasible – or maybe realizing that writing is just not going to happen this week. While acknowledging the difficulties of working within these conditions, our blog post this week provides some tips to help you continue to make progress on your writing if that does feel feasible!


[Image Description: Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade) from The IT Crowd sits at his desk, typing on his computer while an uncontrolled fire blazes in the foreground. Moss glances up at the fire then goes back to typing.]

Pictured: You, still writing, while the last of the toilet paper burns around you.


However, in all seriousness, if you are unable to focus on writing at this time, be gentle with yourself and know that you are not alone. For many of us, this is unprecedented, and stress and anxiety levels are high – we are not writing machines, and this can also be a time to slow down and check in with yourself and your loved ones.

Personally, I’ve been finding writing to be a sometimes-welcome distraction from the constant news cycle and information overload. If this sounds like something you’d like to try, read on for information on writing techniques you can experiment with from a social distance.


Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a method designed to break larger writing tasks into multiple shorter, more focused writing sessions interspersed with designated breaks. Traditionally, this method has involved setting a timer for 25 minutes, writing for the duration of that 25 minutes, and then taking a 5-minute timed break before re-starting the timer for another 25-minute writing block. Every four sessions, you can take a longer break of 15-30 minutes before diving back into the writing.


[Image Description: A small black and grey striped kitten looks at a person resting with their head and arms on the desk. The kitten approaches them, cuddles into the space between their arm and body, and immediately falls asleep.]

Pictured: The best way to spend your break between writing sessions.


While this technique is credited to Francesco Cirillo, who used a tomato-shaped timer (hence the name “Pomodoro” – tomato in Italian), you can use any sort of timer, including a cell phone or computer-based timer.

Dami Lee and Pomodoro

[Image Description: a 4-panel comic by artist Dami Lee (@dami-lee). Panel one begins with text: “According to the Pomodoro technique, a timer can really help set healthy work habits.” We see a tomato-shaped timer above the words “Set a timer for 25 min.”, a picture of a person writing at a table as the timer rings above the words “Work until the timer rings” and a picture of the same person stretching at their desk beside the text “Then take a 5 min break. Repeat until the task is finished. In Panel two, the person is looking at three differently shaped timers that appear to be floating in the air: a square-shaped timer, an egg-shaped timer, and a chicken-shaped timer. In a speech bubble, they say, “I just need to find a cute timer to buy online!” In Panel 3, we see the person sitting at their computer, looking at timers as the sun shines through the window. Panel 4 is the same scene but at night: they are still searching for timers online, and we can see the moon and stars through the window.]


You can also modify the suggested times to fit your own writing needs. Maybe working 20 minutes and taking a 5-minute break works better for you, or working 25 minutes then taking a 10-minute break. Experiment to see what works for you – or IF this method works for you – and don’t feel bad if it’s not your cup of tea. No writing strategy is universally helpful, so read on for additional strategies you can add to your rotation.


Free-Write Sessions

If you’re having trouble getting started with a writing session, you might try beginning each writing day with a free-writing session. I’ve found it helpful to use a notebook and pen rather than a computer, as this helps me minimize my self-editing and visually reminds me that this is not a final form of writing. You can also try free-writing on a computer using a different font type or size than you usually do for a similar effect.


[Image Description: Jerry (Jim O’Heir) in Parks and Recreation stands in front of a poster board with “Parks and Recreation” written across it in various font types. He waves his arms for emphasis as he says, “I think that Comic Sans always screams FUN!”]

Pictured: You, convincing your brain that this is NOT a final draft and that it’s okay to use writing to work through ideas


For your free-writing session, it may be helpful to set a timer – I’d recommend starting with a 20-30 minute block of time – and set yourself a prompt. I like to pose myself a question, for instance: What are the stakes of my paper/chapter? Why do I think this is important/why am I personally invested? How does this chapter connect to a particular theoretical concept? What stands out to me about a particular example/piece of evidence? Then, in my free-writing session, I attempt to answer this question using a writing style as close to stream-of-consciousness as I can muster, which typically does not read as a standard “academic” prose style. For free-writing, the goal is to start getting ideas on the page without self-editing or “correcting.”

At a later point, you can come back to the work you’ve generated and see if parts of it might be incorporated into your current writing project. Sometimes I’ve been able to use phrases from my free-writes, sometimes it’s been a helpful exercise to think through an idea, sometimes it’s helped me to get into a writing flow, and sometimes it’s just helped me to feel that at least I got some writing done when I was trying to build in a daily writing practice.


Writing Graphs/Calendars

Creating a graph or calendar of your planned and actual writing times is another strategy that can help you organize and stick to your writing time. You can use your digital calendar to plan out blocks of time where you will be writing – and only writing – and treat them as appointments with yourself that can be prioritized in the same way you would treat any other scheduled appointment.

Wendy Belcher, of Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks fame (a great resource), includes PDFs on her website of a weekly calendar that you can print out to document your writing time and tasks (see the hyperlink to “Calendar for Actual Time Spent Writing This Week Form”

Documenting your writing time and tasks in this way can also allow you to see how much work you’re already doing!


Internet Restricting Apps

Internet restricting applications, such as SelfControl (a free open-source Mac application) or Freedom (which includes a free trial of 7 sessions), can also help you to minimize distractions while you’re working from home


[image Description: No Face from Spirited Away almost falls over as an ocean wave washes over him. The wave has the text “emails emails emails emails” repeated on it many times.]

Pictured: You, trying to work in a sea of unending emails.



Digital Writing Groups

While we are prevented from gathering together in coffee shops and on campus, digital writing groups may be one way to maintain writing as a social practice, even at a distance.

You can start small, reaching out to even one or two fellow graduate writers, at this institution or elsewhere, to see if they are interested in participating in a digital writing group. Decide what your goals are collectively for the writing group – is it mostly about accountability and checking in about writing goals, or will you be providing feedback on pieces of writing? – and then create a structure and schedule for your digital check-ins.  See here for additional tips on starting a writing group.

Does starting your own digital writing group sound like a lot of extra work? You’re in luck! For Spring 2020, the Graduate Writing Center will begin offering a weekly Digital Writers’ Room during the campus closure.

Join a weekly 2-hour digital writers’ room for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, hosted via Zoom. The digital writers’ room is intended to foster a collaborative graduate writing community amidst the need for social distancing. Facilitated by Lead Consultant Iris Blake, each digital writers’ room will begin with a check-in for participants to set goals for a 90-minute block of writing. The goal-setting will be followed by a 90-minute writing session, during which time participants should primarily be focused on their own writing; however, they are welcome to use the chat feature in Zoom as needed. At the end of the session, participants will discuss together any roadblocks and writing successes from the writing session, share resources, and set writing goals for the next week.

Check back on our website soon for information on dates and times

Taking a Break

And sometimes, the best thing you can do for your writing (and mental health) is taking a real break!


[Image Description: An owl wearing glasses and a pink bow sits on a couch, typing on a computer as a dog sleeps curled up on the ground beside them. The owl closes the computer, throws it over their head behind them, and curls up to sleep on the couch instead.]


For myself, I like to commit in advance to what day or days I won’t be working to minimize any nagging feelings of guilt about the work I could be doing. Make the space and time to take care of yourself and your loved ones – your writing will still be there for you when you return, and so will we, albeit virtually for now!

Stay safe out there folx!