Burning Questions 3: How Long Do I Write?

by Judy Stone-Goldman on June 24, 2010

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A visual timer--good cue, but no distracting noise

This is the third entry on questions posed at my April 2010 ASHA Institute workshop, Reflective Writing for Personal-Professional Balance.

Today’s question deals with the issue of time:  How long should I write?  This question, like many, has a short answer and a long answer.  The short answer is, “It’s up to you.”  Of course, the long answer offers more to think about.

Here are some questions you can ask that may influence your decision about how long to write on a given day:

Are you new to writing?

If you are new to reflective writing, you may find it helpful to set a specific time for your first few writing sessions.  You can view 10 minutes as a short writing session.  If you are comfortable writing and find the words flowing, keep going for 20 minutes.  In Pennebecker’s research on writing as a means for recovering from trauma, subjects were instructed to write for 20 minutes every day.  My reason for suggesting 10 minutes as a starting point is that people new to writing may be afraid that they won’t have enough to write about.  Starting with a short segment can help build confidence.

Do you have something urgent to write about?

Sometimes we feel an urgency to write because of an experience we need to process or emotions that are pressuring us.  In these cases, we may find ourselves writing without paying attention to time—we write until we get our thoughts down or relieve the emotional tension.  But reflective writing is not solely for those times of emotional urgency.  To develop a writing habit—and thereby increase the benefits of writing—plan to write routinely.  If you don’t wish to or can’t write daily, plan to write three times a week for 10 to 20 minutes each time (over time, you are likely to increase the frequency as well as the duration).

How much time do you have available?

Some days you may find that even 10 minutes sounds like too much to spare.  Write for five minutes!  Write for two minutes!  Give yourself permission to sneak writing into the nooks and crannies of a day.  Then, when you have more free time, indulge in the luxury of a longer writing session.

What are your goals for your writing?

Reflective writing might be your primary goal—to explore your personal world, release emotions, make sense of experiences, and move yourself towards balance.  In this case, you may choose to devote all your writing time to reflective writing, whether 20 minutes or an hour.  But reflective writing also functions beautifully as a warmup to other kinds of writing or even other kinds of projects.  I call it my “getting started writing,” priming me for tasks that may be challenging and working through the anxiety that is fostering procrastination.  I find 15-20 minutes a good amount of time for “getting started”—too much longer, and the temptation is to keep writing rather than moving to the task at hand.  (Of course, I ignore this suggestion all the time when my writing proves revelatory.)

The point of setting time limits is to help you create space for writing, not to distract, restrict, or stress you.  Try using a timer: it gives you a boundary while removing the mental distraction of keeping one eye on the clock.  I love my visual timer (shown in the photo)—the red space shows the time remaining in the selected time segment, and the clock is silent until a little ding when the time is up.  Even when I have ample time to write as long as I wish, I sometimes set the timer for 15-minute segments.  The structure gives me a different experience than open-ended writing, and I am reminded that I can find comfort in a small pocket of writing time.

Questions for Reflection: What are your thoughts about having time to write?  Do you feel like you need a long stretch of time? Does it seem like there’s never enough time?  Do you want to wait to write until you have a long period of free time?

Writing Prompts: If I write for just 10 minutes I will ________ (then keep writing).  If I could write without limit I would ________ (then keep writing).  My goal is to set aside time for writing ________ (then keep writing).  I am most comfortable writing when ________ (then keep writing).

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