Write that thing

Photo by Narelle Lemon

Photo by Narelle Lemon

You’ve got that thing to write. It’s tugging on your sleeve like a puppy.

“Write me,” it says, blinking its huge eyes.

You swat it away, because you’ve got Stuff To Do: marking, meetings, an avalanche of emails.

All that sits on top of teaching/ running the lab/ giving feedback on thesis chapters.

Then there’s daily life: cooking dinner, renewing your insurance, ringing your mum. There’s so much stuff.

But you want to write.

You’re thirsty for clear space. You yearn for the quiet periods that allow you to follow your thoughts, connect with others and extend the conversation. This is why you got into the academic game. It’s about the questions and ideas, the possibilities and solutions. It’s about a particular kind of creative thinking.

Writing can be hard going but it’s also intensely satisfying. So, while you’re wading through emails or washing clothes, that thought’s nagging: gotta write that thing.

How are you going to find time? Sometimes you create time by giving something up. You give up sleep, and so you get up early or write late into the night. You write on the train. Leisure time evaporates. If you have kids, you trade favours with your partner/ parent/ neighbour — “Will you take the kids for Saturday afternoon and I’ll owe you one?”

I’m not criticising this. We’ve all done it.

But I want you to know about a strategy that is an alternative to just getting by. I want to share an approach that can be sustainable and not cost your sleep.

It’s the strategy called “Shut Up & Write”.

Have I lost you already? I understand. Please bear with me.

I don’t like the name. To be honest, the first time I heard the term “Shut Up & Write” (#SUaW), I thought: Nope. That’s not for me. For starters, who are you telling to shut up? That’s rude. I’m not in grade two. I’m a grown up.

My reaction went on. I’ve fought for this uni/ college/ lab role. And now you want me to do… what?! No way. I’m not buying. It can’t be very different from what I’m doing now.

This was my reaction for about three years. But then, I got to know people who do Shut Up & Write at my university. They were good people. And I read more about it. And, you know, I really needed to write that thing. 

So, I went to a Shut Up & Write session.

It’s pretty simple. People meet somewhere — a coffee shop or library — and write together in 25 minute bursts. I’ve mostly been to places where we find a big table and sit together. We write at the same time, but work on individual projects. After a writing sprint, we break for 5 minutes. This break is very important. We chat. We connect. We buy coffee. It’s a way to break down the social isolation of writing and to pace ourselves.

And I must stress, no one ever says ‘Shut Up’. (Thank goodness.) No one’s rude, bossy or condescending. The person who is timing the 25 minute session just says, ‘Go!’ and later, ‘Time’s up!’ (this is called the pomodoro technique).

Now, I’m a little bit shy, so it took courage to walk up to my first session, but Shut Up & Write is all about engaging in your research as part of a community. Everyone was very welcoming.

How is Shut Up & Write different from what I’d been doing till then? Well, I’m a part-time self-funded PhD candidate. Although I had dedicated research days, I was loose about writing times. “I’ll get round to it this week”, I thought. However, sometimes, I didn’t get round to it. Now, I have precise Shut Up & Write appointments in my diary for when I write, and it’s at times when I’m going to meet people, so I’m motivated to turn up. These diary dates are at least weekly, so I can work steadily through a project. This works for me at this point in my project, but you might like to go to Shut Up & Write more frequently. It’s the regular diary appointments with others that make a big difference, because now I’m getting words on the page.

I still write on my own, but Shut Up & Write underpins my productivity. This is different from stealing time to write, because you’ve got regular diary dates, regardless of deadlines. You give yourself the gift of protected writing time.

The community aspect is very valuable. My project is in the humanities, and I don’t have the structures of a lab or research group to provide me with a ready-made community. As others have written, it’s not great for my mental health to sit alone at my laptop all day. I get lonely and a teeny, tiny bit sad. I know I’m not the only one. So, Shut Up & Write is a strategy to prevent my feeling isolated and it works very well.

I also like that anyone can be included in Shut Up & Write communities. Just bring along your writing implements (pen & paper, or laptop). I’ve gone to sessions and met lecturers, researchers, professional staff, PhD candidates and Masters candidates. If you’re working on a project, come along. I’ve met people writing grant applications, novels, thesis chapters, data analysis… you name it! All are welcome.

Another other aspect I want to share with you is that Shut Up & Write opens up mental space. Right now, I have a book chapter, conference abstract, and grant proposal to write for my studies. This is on top of two reports to write for my paid work. Yikes! These things need to be done.

In the past, a sense of guilt or frustration would have nagged at me. These feelings have a heaviness to them. When they’re very strong, I sense them literally weighing on my head and shoulders. This experience is oppressive, disheartening and prevents me from thinking about the piece that I’m writing.

In contrast, I’ve found that Shut Up & Write relieves with my anxiety about scheduling. I no longer expend energy worrying when I’ll write a piece. It’s in the diary. I know I’m going to write at, say, 9:00am on Wednesday. The beauty of this is that the aspects of mind that engage in creative thought also know about the diary date. As a result, my mind is freed up to play with ideas for writing. Without forcing things (when I’m not too swamped other priorities), I sense that my mind mulls things over, on autopilot. Then I find I sit down at Shut Up & Write and have something to say.

It’s not without effort. I’m part-time and so don’t study every day. Some of my full-time friends rock up to Shut Up & Write and just write what’s on their mind, but I have to prepare. I need to come with Cornell notes so I something to write in the writing sprints. That’s just how my mind works with part-time study. I’ve figured that out. You might find other approaches works for you.

Finally, the Shut Up & Write sessions that I go to are in public spaces. I find it difficult to write in noisy environments (coffee grinders, background music), so I wear headphones during writing sprints.

Where can you find a Shut Up & Write session? You can join virtual #SUAW from anywhere in the world. It requires an internet connected device, Twitter account and knowledge of English. Otherwise, you can go to an existing Shut Up & Write group (no Twitter required), or join with friends to start your own.  I’ve seen Shut Up & Write gaining momentum at universities. Where I’m enrolled, the student association and library staff both host regular sessions. It’s worth inquiring!

In my neighbourhood, there are morning groups and all day sessions.

So, get writing. The coffee’s good, it’s fun and it works.

And about that other Stuff To Do: yes, go ring your mum. She’s sorry and she misses you.

Rosemary Chang is an academic developer.

In her role at RMIT University, she partners with university staff on scholarship of learning and teaching (SoTL) initiatives and developing teaching award applications.

Her PhD research explores experiences of strong emotions in connection to writing through the lens of mindfulness. Her project involves teaching mindfulness meditation to creative writers, and developing a novel.

Her interests include Zen arts practice, contemplative education, and mindfulness in the curriculum. She tweets about writing, mindfulness and life @RoseyChang.


  1. A wonderful post on the many benefits of ‘Shut up and write’. I remain grateful to the Research Whisperers Tseen & Jonathan for introducing me to #suaw. I’ve also used it at home to great effect with my primary school aged daughter when we both had short stories to write.

    Liked by 2 people

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