Writes well with others

I’m writing this in the Graduate School of Business and Law cafe. And when I say writing, I mean writing like a demon. Writing like someone is chasing me. Writing like I stole it (with apologies to the cyclists).

I’m burning up the keyboard because:

(a) Ben is here, writing with me, and

(b) I’m trying to get this post drafted in 25 minutes.

There is a timer sitting beside me, counting down. All of this speed and activity has come about because I have set up a Shut Up and Write session on Monday mornings.

It is Monday morning, so I’m shutting up and writing.

Shut Up and Write

Shut Up and Write is a clever trick that helps you to actually put words on the page (as opposed to checking e-mail, checking Twitter, checking the Web, checking references, checking in to the Not Writing Today clinic…). The idea is simple: Invite some of your colleagues to a cafe for a regular writing session. After introductions, each person sits quietly and writes. It doesn’t matter what you write, just that you observe the social norms of the occasion and write, studiously and with purpose.

The system works because you have made a private commitment to writing at this time, acted on that commitment by turning up, and used the mutual support of others to help you stay the distance. It’s a one-step program for the procrastinator in us all.

Pomodoro Technique

We write in 25 minute blocks, using the Pomodoro technique. Again, this method is simple. Set yourself 25 minute blocks where you do one thing exclusively for 25 minutes. In this case, write. Over the course of about two hours, we work for three 25 minute sessions with breaks in between. In the breaks, we chat and buy more coffee.

I couldn’t do this all day. A friend of a friend does, when he has a hellish deadline that he cannot move and cannot miss. At the end of it, he says that he feels like he has run a marathon. It is very effective, but quite draining.

How it works

To get it started, I picked a time and place that worked for me, then sent out invitations. I told people where and when, and described it in these terms:

  • People arrive, get a coffee, introduce themselves, catch up, etc.
  • Once everybody is settled, we write for 25 minutes. What you write is up to you. I will be using the time to rework that draft that I have been promising Margaret for the last five weeks.
  • After 25 minutes, we break and have a chat, get more coffee, etc.
  • Then we write again for another 25 minutes.
  • Rinse and repeat.

I sent it out to my colleagues by email, Yammer and Twitter. I encouraged people to pass it on to others.

By taking a lead, I’m committing to being there for the first few sessions. After that, people will probably keep going even when I can’t be there on occasion. I’m also committing to  advertising the sessions so that people don’t forget, and new people get a chance to find out about it. I’m not so good at this, which is probably why there are only two of us today. But that is OK. As long as I’m not on my own, I’m more productive. This is an idea that doesn’t need a lot of people to make it work.

New ways of working

Both of these techniques are completely new to me. I’ve only been using them for about a month. As with this blog, I was introduced to the idea by the Thesis Whisperer. She invited me to a Shut Up and Write session that she was establishing on Fridays. I liked the idea so much that I set up my own for Mondays, my research day.

It is just one of a number of new ways of working that I’ve experimented with recently. All of these ideas share some similarities:

  • They are simple. Once you have heard the idea, you know enough to implement it.
  • They don’t cost anything. Take away the money and you take away most of the bureaucracy.
  • Together, these elements mean that I can implement the ideas myself.

I don’t need to ask permission. I can just do it. That is very liberating.

And if I can do it, anyone can. Why don’t you?

Update: We now have a map of Shut Up and Write sessions around the world. Please add yours to the map.


  1. Write on! I find I leave the unpleasant writing tasks which pile up during the week to the friday session. Somehow it is easier to face these while in convivial company 🙂


    • I find that bracketing the week between two Shut Up & Write sessions works well – on Mondays I sketch out ideas to follow up on over the next few days, and on Fridays I tackle the (generally less pleasant) things that I haven’t gone back to before then…


      • This is a brilliant approach, Ben! I tend to think of each event as a thing in and of itself. But of course they are a continuum.


      • I was about to say that the only thing I write with a pen these days are shopping lists.

        Then I looked at the note-pad beside me on the desk. And thought about the recycled paper that I write to-do lists on. And…

        I would be kinda fun to look at what people use the different technologies for.
        Must… resist… Google Scholar… search…
        Must… resist…


  2. Hi,

    we have just set up a new SU&W group at ANU… We meet on Fridays at the lovely School of Music cafe and do two 25 minute sessions (3rd optional!)

    Fridays at 2pm,
    Biginelli Espresso, http://biginelli.com/
    Level 5, School of Music, (Building No: 100) Childers Street, Acton,
    Canberra ACT 2601

    Contact: @lizb_2010
    or http://www.facebook.com/#!/PARSAANU



    • Thanks, Elizabeth,

      ANU is my old stomping ground. I did my undergraduate degree there a long time ago. I had a friend at the School of Music, so your note brought back some lovely memories.

      Thanks for adding your session to the map.



      • Hi Jonathan, oh I’m glad! There is a nice vibe in that music cafe… please do join us if you are ever in Canberra! best wishes, Liz


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