Shut up and Write!

A couple of months ago a friend told me about the ‘Shut up and Write’ movement in San Francisco. The idea is quite simple; a group of writers converge on a location, presumably one with good coffee. After 15 minutes of chit chat they, well – just shut up and write. They write solidly for an hour, then take a break for coffee and more chats before they leave.

I tend to think of writing as a solitary activity which needs a closed door and the phone/email/twitter off the hook. The idea of being with other people to write sounded so illogical I was naturally  keen to give it a try. In fact…

I’m doing it right now.

As I write this post I’m sitting in one of my favourite cafés on campus, opposite my friend Jonathan who has recently set up “The Research Whisperer” blog. We met up about 20 minutes ago, read a bit of the paper, had a coffee, checked our email and gossiped just a little bit. Then I set up my phone to count us down a 25 min window of time with my pomodroido app and here we are – shutting up and writing.

[21:18 minutes to go]

It’s a curious thing, but Jonathan’s relentless key tapping reminds me that I should be writing, so my fingers keep moving. All the hub bub in the café doesn’t bother me – in fact it feels comforting. I’m reminded that I am not alone… but surely this isn’t the only reason for the enduring success of the ‘shut up and write’ movement?

As I look at Jonathan I notice he has stopped typing furiously and is now using his mouse pad and it occurs to me: this mode of writing is a bit like doing an aerobics class at the gym. Although my fingers are feeling a little bit tired already, and this bench I am sitting at is ever so slightly too high for comfortable typing, I keep going. I don’t want to look like the fat, unfit person up the back of the class who isn’t keeping up. This is peer pressure of the best kind!

This method of writing is part of a suite of productivity techniques which are collectively termed ‘time boxing’. The idea of time boxing is that the best way to tackle any big job is to break it down into a set of small, discrete tasks then limit the time you have available to do them.  Once you have decided on a mini goal you set a timer and off you go.

For instance, I decided to write a blog post on the ‘shut up and write’ concept while doing a shut up and write session, which is… kind of meta, but a doable goal. The key to making the technique work is to create bite sized chunks of work – which is not always easy on a big job like a thesis.

[14:20 minutes to go]

If you think of the whole thesis as one task it’s likely you will feel a sense of panic, which can manifest in ‘jumping’ from task to task rather than finishing one thing and moving on. For instance, as you are reading the vague sense of panic starts an internal dialogue which goes something like this:

“hmmm, that’s an interesting point the author is making. Clearly I need to know more about that area of literature. Should I keep reading this, or find out more about that area of literature? Maybe I will just download a couple of things…”

Time boxing encourages you to stick with one thing and finish it as much as you can. For example, you might pick a subheading or small amount of data to analyse for 25 minutes.

Jonathan is staring into space now… I wonder what he is thinking? Maybe he is stuck. I’m going to keep my eyes on my keyboard and keep ripping the words out. Maybe that will help him get focused. I find myself looking forward to the end of this 8 minutes so that I can chat with him some more because I’m getting tired of writing now…

[I did some editing for about 4 minutes here. Now I feel a sense of excitement. I want to get this last idea out in the remaining 4:07 minutes]

The other thing that time boxing is said to help with is perfectionism. I must admit, I am too much of an impatient person to be a real perfectionist, but I have found myself falling victim to the 2 steps forward one step back syndrome. I will open a piece of writing in the morning with every intention of finishing it, but find myself doing  ‘just a little bit of editing’ in the first paragraph. Maybe checking up on that reference  or two to make sure I have every nuance of the quoted author correct. By the time I get to paragraph two it’s time for lunch. Time boxing can help me get over this problem by setting a tangible goal for each session of writing.

[1.01 mins remaining...]

Well it seems that the ‘shut up and write’ method works for me – at least to produce this blog post. The rest of the café faded away and all I could hear and see was my fingers, and Jonathan’s, typing. There was a sense of urgency, of moving towards a goal, which really helped me get this post finished. I think we should do this next Friday too! Who wants to join us?

Editor’s note: this idea worked so well that we now have a regular ‘Shut up and Write’ group meeting on the the RMIT University city campus every Friday morning. If you are interested in joining us you will find us at the bench table, Pearson and Murphy’s cafe at 9:30am

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87 thoughts on “Shut up and Write!

  1. I find working in public spaces far more effective than working in solitary confinement. It’s the Audience Effect that does it, I think. The fact that you are being ‘watched’ – as you should be for walking into a cafe with a laptop and heap of notes, hardly subtle – that compels you to look productive and efficient rather than just some slacker mooching off their free wi fi.

      • Funnily enough, I work better in cafes than in libraries, i feel ‘watched’ in cafes. In a library everyone’s so focussed on their own tasks it’s almost the same as working alone. I like to think of studying as a performance activity.

    • G’day Katy,That’s correct. This will cretae a pingback or trackback and when I open the student challenge blog, it will notify me that you have written a post. Check out the comments on my sidebar and see which ones are pingbacks, go to their blog and see what they have done to cretae the pingback.

  2. I think this is a great idea. If anyone in the Preston/Northcote area is interested to give this a try let me know.

  3. I agree with the positive responses above. I was just talking to a colleague about my love of sitting in cafes working – the social setting without it requiring my social extroverted input, really works. We were also talking about ‘getting down and writing’ and why I was keen to organise a writing retreat purely about “shut up and write” over 2-3 days. Unfortunately, my role has changed and taking that time off to do writey write has temporarily been abandoned. But a short sharp session like this? Potentially what the Dr, Phd of course, ordered.

    • So our first ShutupNWrite session (keep wanting to write “Stitch N Bitch” heh) was fun / interesting / great! I finished my aim – a detailed plan for the #MootAU11. We met and chatted, then my SNW mate moved to a different table. I started writing – oo I’ll just look at something on my iphone – look up at SNW mate – oh no she’s writing, better keep writing. Repeat: oo iphone, look at colleague, she’s writing, me too me too. OK I can do this, it’s just 25 minutes before we take a break. writey writey! Hey, I’m doing it! Writing. Oh no disturbed myself, writing writing. can do this. Hey, she’s on her phone having a conversation! Well, look at me I’M writing, nah nah, writing writing writey write. And so it went for two lots of 25 minutes. But I did it, focus on one task, and it got done! We shall be continuing and possibly expanding the shutupandwrite session in future.

  4. I agree to an extent. I have found that one of the most motivating places to work is in the library – where it’s quiet and everyone else is working. Also, I am fortunate in that I have an half hour commute on the train and it is always quiet, with people reading their newspapers or books or catching up on the sleep that they didn’t get the night before. But sitting a cafe – it depends on how loud the music is playing.

  5. I would love to do that. Anything to get me out of my little box of an isolated studio. It could turn into a bit of a writing flashmob but I imagine the YouTube footage would be less entertaining!

  6. What a great copncept! I’m sharing this with the rest of my cohort. We’re all working full time as well as pursuing our Ph.Ds, and we’ve talked about meeting regularly as a writing group once we pass comps as a way to keep each other on track. This could be a great way to go about it.

  7. This is such a brilliant idea! I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before. It’s a revelation and I’ll try it soon

    Thanks

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  21. Thank you for this great post! I found it just in time as I have been struggling with my writing the last month or so getting distracted by every little thing and I am tired of feeling guilty for not being productive… I will be trying the ‘shut up and write’ idea with my study group next week and I am really looking forward to it!

  22. I’m considering how I could make this work with my PhD cohort who are spread across the US and Japan. Skype? Anyone have experience with doing this as a virtual “shutupandwrite” endeavor?

    • haven’t used ‘shutupandwrite’ across continents, but have tried it with colleagues in UK, using SMS to signal end of session (agree to switch off internet during session to avoid distraction), but guess that might not be feasible in your context, but skype msg should be.
      At root of ‘shutupandwrite’ is the commitment to partners to work together, albeit separately. I think it is the accountability to another which makes it so effective.
      Do let us know if you find a solution.

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  26. I’m heaps late, but is shut up and write still happening (like right now?)? Can I join you guys too? I’m def. in need of a s-a-w session!

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  28. Thanks so much for this post and for sharing your experiences of two steps forward one step back and opening a piece of writing with the best of intentions to finish it but ending up editing etc and being no where close to finish by lunch time! I always thought it was my perfectionist nature and wondering how to discipline myself better! Will try time boxing and try to get a group to ‘Shut up and write’ on our campus too!

  29. great idea..im initiating it in my qual research support group but including sharing of info.education of how to write qual research..a kind of “shut Up and Write Seminar that goes for one day with breaks to discuss and breaks for coffee

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  58. Reblogged this on Karina Quinn and commented:
    I’ve been doing Shut up and Write since I read this post at the start of my PhD and I pretty much can’t stop raving about it. I’m almost finished my book, I’ve done it in excellent time, and it’s because I’ve done most of it in the company of writers and postgrads (many of whom are now friends), in gorgeous cafes, with good coffee, and the exquisite space that is created when a bunch of people gather to produce text. I thought I would never write a book. I thought I would spend my whole life wanting to write, but never actually doing it.

    Shut up and write is the single biggest change I have made to my writing practice, and it has had the single biggest impact on my productivity as a writer.

    You don’t need to wait for someone to organise a group. One other person makes a group. Sometimes some of us do shutupandwrites over twitter if we can’t meet in the flesh.

    Grab a writer. Set the timer on your phone to 25 minutes. Write.

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