A Chaos Goblin’s Guide to Writing (Reader Q&A)

I’ve written some (OK, maybe a lot) about the way I (dis)organize my time.

My goal is not to throw shade at list lovers and über-organizers. However, I feel like the only “how to” voices we hear online come from the people who advocate that success, money, and happiness stem from buying planners and planning-related stationery and/or boxes and/or shelves, hiring more people to take care of your kids (or relegating childcare to the possibly reluctant spouse), and basically making your time highly structured.

I am here for all those of us to are unwilling or unable to do some (or all) of the above.

My approach to life and everything else is that of a chaos goblin. If you’re a chaos goblin, too, if you do not strive to eradicate all disarray from your life and impose long-term order, but rather allow for (myriad) imperfections in yourself and others and in how you spend your time, and you focus on what suits you and yours best at any given moment, embracing the fact that you will have great days and terrible days and everything in between, and that it’s cruel (not to mention pointless) to force yourself to do stuff you absolutely don’t have to do, then maybe this blog post might just be of use to you.

This post was inspired by some writing-related questions I received from a reader. I will get to them shortly, but first some general principles.

I am not objectively lazy, even though I sometimes feel like I am. I always have many things going on, which means that there is usually something I will feel excited to tackle, and, in the absence of hard deadlines, I indulge myself as much as I can. Maybe I planned to work on a paper, and maybe I will, but maybe I won’t. If I am really itching to work on fiction this morning, I will. The thing is, by trying to do whatever pulls me most at any given moment, I actually get a ton done, and pretty fast, while I minimize feeling miserable.

I never miss real deadlines. However, any “deadline” that I deem soft,  unreasonable, or for other reasons missable or ignorable, I will do my best to miss and/or ignore. It’s a compulsion and connected to my personality. This is why I abhor the college SRO requiring single-PI proposals a week in advance when I know it never takes more than an hour from me enabling SRO access to the proposal actually being submitted. This is also why saying I will start writing a proposal three months in advance and finish it a month ahead of a deadline to let it marinate will never fucking work for me because I know this is a bullshit arbitrary deadline posed by me and I will delight in watching  it pass as time marches on toward the actual submission deadline. I really, really like to mess with myself whenever I try to be too tight-assed about anything. I don’t call myself a chaos goblin for nothing.

I have a family and while they do intrude on everything I do, non stop, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Husband and I never really outsourced childcare beyond daycare centers and afterschool. We’ve hired a babysitter maybe 10 times total for all of our kids combined. The people we trusted and asked to babysit (daycare teachers) usually didn’t need the little money they could make by babysitting as much as they, too, needed time off. So, as you read this, please note that implying I should get a babysitter to take care of some of the distractions will not be useful, especially now that my younger two are 9 and 13. To paraphrase Stephen King in On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art/work. It’s the other way around.”

Without further ado, here are the questions from reader Positive Definite, who’s part of an active academic writers’ group.

1. When and where do you like to write? Do you write in the same place at the same time every day, or can you write anytime, anywhere?

Technical writing: I use Latex for papers, MS Word for proposals and collaborative papers with experimentalists. I mostly do my technical writing on one of my desktops (work or home office).  I don’t like laptops, and do I use my laptop when I travel, but otherwise stick to the desktops. Before the pandemic, I did most of my technical writing at work or at home in the evenings. During the pandemic, well, it’s all at home, in my home office.

Creative writing: I use Google Docs and work either from my desktops or, quite often, on my phone. (I also read most books these days on the phone, desktop, and occasionally Kindle. I used to think I’d never abandon hard copy for ebooks, yet here we are. My already double-stacked shelves are thankful.)

One problem during the pandemic is that I share the home office with husband and Smurf. Husband has set up another space for himself since he’s been teaching online all summer, but Smurf and I are office mates pretty much all day, every day. He sits at his desk next to me and can get quite distracting (he’s a little chatterbox in general, plus he sometimes rages at his Roblox games). Middle Boy is just outside and often quite loud over Discord with his friends. Overall, there’s a lot of noise near my currently only desktop computer. To combat this, I put on headphones and, if I need to focus or the kids are really loud, I also play some music (the key here is to play something I like and know well). This is how I survived grad school in a cube farm with 20 other students, and the strategy works for most kid-generated distractions.

During the pandemic, I have actually managed to impose more structure on my time than usual — or, rather, more structure has spontaneously self-assembled from the chaos —  likely because I have much more time overall and am far less exhausted than I usually am. I think the absence of the face time associated with teaching, service, and travel makes all the difference. (Note that I don’t find interactions with my grad students or collaborators draining, but invigorating.) These days, I get enough sleep, an hour of exercise per day, and even though I cook every day, there’s still plenty of time to do work and to relax. I mostly write and edit fiction on the weekends and do work during the week; I participate in writing sprints every other Saturday, which gives me a story seed to work on and submit before the next sprint. However, work week/fiction weekend is not a hard and fast rule, and if I’m on a roll with either technical or creative writing, I will stay with it for as long as it lasts.

2. Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits before you sit down to write?

I slaughter a small animal and offer it as a blood sacrifice to Athena.  Otherwise, I make sure I have my coffee and feel reasonably comfortable (not hungry or needing to go to the bathroom), and that’s about it. I also make sure to preempt whatever whining might be coming my way in the near future (e.g., I feed anyone who needs to be fed).

Twitter is my most sinister time drain (I’m a bit too active on literary Twitter, not too active on the academic one). I use the lockdown feature in LeechBlock (add-on for Chrome) for 2-3 hours at the time when I need to do something. The lockdown works much better for me than scheduling large blocked-out slots, because I will just ignore the latter and open an incognito window. The lockdown, however, is activated when I need it and it’s not unrealistically long, so I don’t feel the need to circumvent it. I will use lockdown several times a day during busy days.

3. Do you have any methods for managing tasks and your time to stay productive and not let projects and deadlines become overwhelming?

Not really, at least nothing that I can easily articulate and share. Also not much that is set in stone, because I like to change things up, and because I can never stick with any measures that feel punitive, even if they were successful in the past. (For example, this is  why I gave up on calorie tracking;  while it worked for weight loss, it’s fucking soul-crushing, makes me overfocus on food, frustrates me because who the fuck knows how many calories are in the stuff I cook, and just makes me feel like an anally retentive robot.)  Finally, I am not opposed to (and by not opposed to I mean I really crave) the adrenaline rush; as someone said, “Deadlines focus the mind.” I might sing a different tune if I were in industry, but, in academia, there are few deadlines that are really inflexible.

I do occasionally make big-picture (like six months to a year) rough plans for getting the papers out, write those up and share them with my students, so they know what’s coming down the pike.  This is especially important in the year before a major grant is up for renewal, but even so the deadlines are really loose (“This to be done by end of this semester”).

At the beginning of a week, I decide on a few big things that I should work on and roughly when, but I am prepared to have a bad week (e.g., this morning started with two fiction declines, yay Monday!) or for something urgent to fall into my lap (e.g., last-minute tenure letter request, anyone?). So I try not to sweat it if I can’t make the original weekly plan. There’s always another week. Plus, I sometimes have a  really awesome week and get a ton done faster than expected, which is always a treat.

I’ve really tried not to be too cruel with myself during the pandemic. I am doing well overall, being that my group does math and computing so we’ve continued pretty much undeterred through the crisis. I’ve been trying to focus on the group members’ spirits remaining high, and on everyone doing well mentally and physically. Students have bad/down weeks and I would never take it against them, so I try not to take it against myself, either, although I am sure the students expect me not to have any downtime myself. I am not going to dwell on my issues with them, as it would erode my authority, but they could easily reason to the conclusion that I, too, sometimes need a break simply because I’m human who is responsible for many other humans.

In all, I do make loose long-term plans (written) and loose short-term plans (unwritten), which often change.

4. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

I can’t say that I have ever received explicit writing advice from anyone when it comes to technical writing. But here are some things that I consider fundamental and try to impart on my graduate  students and postdocs (many of whom are not native speakers of English): correctness, clarity, and logical flow before all else. If it’s crystal clear what you are trying to say and there’s a logical thread connecting your arguments, you are most of the way there. Engaging, beautiful prose, light as a butterfly’s wings, that comes later.

When it comes to fiction, I feel like I probably care about plot more than most literary writers and do not mind spare prose at all, especially if it is clear and precise. One good metaphor or simile can do wonders; I don’t need a pile of bland adjectives instead. And I fucking hate hate HATE it when ornate language is used to mask the absence of plot or authorial vision, or to plug giant logical holes. In fiction, the best pieces of advice are:
a) Make sure the reader cares about your characters, usually because the characters care about something, too, otherwise even the most intricately plotted piece will ring hollow.
b) You could (and should) always have more tension/conflict in your story.
c) Start the story as close to the inciting incident as possible.

Feedback on writing is paramount. For young technical writers, there’s the advisor, but before the advisor there are senior members of the group. They have the benefit of knowing the jargon and being further along in the writing journey, and will give the feedback of a benevolent, interested reader.

With creative writing, feedback is similarly important. I review a lot of other people’s work and have found a small number of people from whose critiques I greatly benefit. They like my work, have a similar style, work in the same genres as I do, and are either on par or a bit ahead of me in the writing game. You need a critique partner (often called a beta reader) who gets you, because their job is to understand what you tried to do and let you know if, when, and how you failed to achieve your own objective, then to possibly offer solutions. Critique partners might be blunt but usually aren’t, and I don’t mind either way, because I trust them. If you are critiquing someone you don’t know well, always err on the side of kindness and express everything as your personal opinion, which it really is. “This seems to me…”; “It reads to me like this happens…”; “This part wasn’t clear to me; you might want to reword it. Here is a suggestion…” This advice goes back to these excellent posts from Critters.org: here and here.

5. Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it? If not, how do you prevent it?

Not really. But it’s important to define what writer’s block actually is. I think most people mean “I have decided that I need to write this, now, and I have this amount of time available for the task, yet nothing is coming out.” I certainly know how this feels, but I don’t think this is a block of any kind; in my opinion, this is your creative brain fighting the arbitrary shackles you’ve put on it. I certainly cannot force myself to write in a highly regimented way. If there’s a big important deadline coming, for instance a proposal deadline, I never have issues buckling down and getting to work — my creative brain has never let me down when it’s really important. However, I think that’s because during other times, I try to give it free rein and work on what I (or rather my creative parts) feel like working on. If I am itching to write a story, I will write a story. Then I will get energized by reading new papers or talking to my students, and before you know it I am working on a manuscript again.

There are also days when I feel irritable and unmotivated. I try to give myself a break if it’s clear I am craving a break. In our line of work, a few days of reading for pleasure or binging Netflix is not the end of the world. If the creative well is dry and it begs you to replenish it, just do it. You will be back sooner and going full steam after you’ve rested.

My recommendation is to listen to this inner voice as much as you can when it’s telling you what it wants to do and, if you can help it, don’t override it. In creative endeavors, indulge yourself as much as you can. And get lots of hobbies! If you are anything like me, having many things you can do means you fight boredom easily, always feel intellectually engaged, draw inspiration from all sorts of sources, and get plenty done on various fronts.

Finally, I have confidence that the muse will come back. It always does, in time, after I have fed it enough through rest and consuming other people’s science and/or art. Do not abuse the muse with unreasonable expectations.

6. Do you have any favorite books, not necessarily about writing, that have influenced the way you write?

In terms of technical writing, I would say no. My advisor was quite hands off and didn’t really edit my papers much, so whatever I learned, I picked up on my own by reading papers and analyzing them. Why does this paper read so well? What are the moving parts? How did they structure their argument? What makes these other papers so boring? How would I rewrite this crappy sentence or this verbose paragraph?

I have been blogging for the last 10+ years, and blogging has helped both my scientific writing  and served as a great preparation for creative writing. All forms of writing benefit from clarity, precision, and logic. In all forms of writing, knowing exactly how certain syntactic structures or choices in wording and punctuation affect your reader make you a better communicator. All forms of writing can and do feed into one another.

If you aspire to become a great technical writer, write in any shape or form you can. Keep a journal. Start a blog on some topics you are passionate about. Write poetry or short fiction or screenplays. Connect with other writers.

I think scientific writing has made me a pretty decent editor when it comes to creative writing (at least of prose). Writing buddies always compliment my ability to spot a problem and articulate why exactly it is a problem. I am sure this stems from my analytical approach to, well, everything.

A book about technical writing that many seem to like: Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. I have it, and I like it, but I am not a die-hard fan, perhaps because by the time I got to it, I felt I already knew most of what is covered therein.

I enjoyed most of Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style , while the oldie but goodie Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a book every writer should have on hand.

If you are into writing and selling short genre fiction, Douglas Smith’s Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction is popular, although I found it soul-crushing in its dismissal of everything that’s not a sale at a professional rate, especially at this day and age when short speculative fiction is no longer a viable commercial enterprise.

The book I love with a fiery passion of a thousand suns is Stephen King’s On Writing (I wrote about it here, and the post is part of a rather extensive chapter on writing in Academaze). On Writing is part memoir, part writing manual, and 100% un-put-downable, even on repeated reads.

Wise and worldly readers, please share your own pearls of writerly wisdom!

18 comments

  1. I have a co-PI like you. She is a major rain-maker.

    I think one of the really important things for a person to be chaotically successful is that she has to be *really really really smart*. My co-PI makes it rain and is valued despite the chaos she sometimes causes her more strictured PIs because whenever we DO get time with her she’s genius. Like, she will fix something in 5 minutes that we’ve been trying to figure out for three weeks. So we pick up the slack and deal with last-minutes and unpredictability because her value added is worth it. (Also it takes me a month to write a full NSF/NIH grant proposal and it literally takes her 3 days. We both get funded and I have a higher % rate… but she has an orders of magnitude higher hit number.)

    Blogging, I think, has hurt my academic writing because in blogging I let myself put in a zillion clauses for effect (it (parentheses in parentheses) amuses me). But… nobody wants that in actual technical writing, even if I mix up commas and parens and dashes so it’s not so obvious. And I’m not as careful with my paragraph structure and I have a tendency to *bold* things and have super short paragraphs (though maybe that’s not so much a problem). It shouldn’t seep over into my academic writing, but apparently after 10 years it has(!)

  2. @nicoleandmaggie: Your co-PI sounds awesome. Alas, I’m no rainmaker. An occasional drizzle, at most. I do respect collaborative constraints and don’t think I’ve ever left a collaborator in a lurch.

    Blogging is awesome because you can experiment with both form and content to your heart’s *ahem* content.

  3. Thanks for sharing! I love reading posts like this, and you’re right that there are so few with your style represented.

    —An über-organizer who likes reading about chaos goblin practices 🙂

  4. @nicoleandmaggie I’m a scheduler/checkbox type of person and my two closest collaborators (one for teaching, one for research) are more chaos goblin style. I think it actually works well because I get to do the long-term planning/overall structure type of stuff and then pass it to them for a adrenaline fueled sprint to the finish. They dislike the former, I dislike the latter, so we get to do the parts we like.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve tried the write 15-60 minutes per day approach and kept a log of word count, etc., but it started to feel like soul-crushing calorie counting. But, ultimately, deadlines make things happen. A writing group is good because even if you slip on your goals for a week or two, you’re reminded by others that writing is important (duh, but often forgotten!) and it stays at or near the front burner. Going at it alone, your writing goals can easily fall by the wayside.

    Thanks again, your post was awesome!

  6. Xyk, I have a question: I am an uber-organiser and I have a senior PhD student who is an uber chaos goblin. I am in the UK and there is hard and fast DL for the student to finish (both in terms of funding and being allowed to submit a PhD thesis). The problem is that the DL is so far away that it has no effect on the student. The student also does not respond to vague self- or supervisor-imposed DLs (they have never missed a hard conference DL and while they do excellent technical work, a vague thing like writing journal papers just keeps being postponed and delayed and dragged out). They actually improved a bit last year, but then the lockdown hit and now it’s back to ultra procrastination on writing. I know how much they still need to do to finish the thesis and am getting very nervous that they won’t be able to finish by the (for them still remote) DL, because the time is not that long as they think. However, I can cajole, support, set internal deadlines (ignored, because they are not real deadlines) and/or press all I want, there is just no effect. And at this point I am simply out of ideas.

    You know how a chaos goblin feels, so how would you deal with a chaos goblin student like this?

  7. Thank you for this post! I am very much like this. Out of curiosity, do you have nocturnal tendencies? It is extremely hard for me to get up in the morning in the absence of external forces (and extremely hard for me to go to bed before 3 or 4 or 5 am — almost always my best working hours — regardless of what time I got up). The phenomenon feels similar to the deadline thing which you so well describe.

  8. Loved this post. I love notebooks and lists, but one problem is that once I’ve made a plan, I feel like I’ve done the work and don’t want to actually do the things I’ve planned. Another problem is fluctuating energy levels; I can plan all I like, but if I’ve slept poorly and don’t have a functioning brain, I won’t be able to do the thinky-things I planned to do. But if I don’t make a list, I forget stuff I need to do. So it’s good to hear from someone who isn’t an advocate for lists and planning, because I really have to be flexible about what I do and when. If it’s just a question of putting in time, I can do less-demanding but research-adjacent tasks (fixing footnotes, say), but thinking work has to happen when I’m firing on all cylinders. If it goes well, I don’t want to stop.

  9. AnonP, this deserves its own post. The short answer is: I think you have to talk honestly with him and really impart what needs to be done and by when, what will happen if he fails, then get him to make his own schedule in writing (rather than you imposing it) and commit to it. However, I’m a little surprised he doesn’t take advisor-imposed deadlines seriously; when I was a grad student, I considered those to be unmissable deadlines. He also might have executive function issues, often related to ADHD, which is another ballgame. I will write more in a few days.

  10. AnonE, I don’t think I am really nocturnal, but I do stay up really late, mostly because of what people call revenge bedtime procrastination, as I learned on Twitter:

    But I’m not a true night person like my husband, who’s catatonic for the first several hours after he gets up (even if he wakes up late), and who is taciturn most of the time, but then around 2 am will get super chatty and share his views on politics and current affairs with great eloquence and passion. He also eats little in the day and is hungriest at night.

    I am super energetic when I get up, almost too energetic. I actually sometimes need to turn on music to focus (I should probably go run 10 miles before I sit down to work). I can do plenty of work then and my analytical brain and attention to detail are excellent in the morning. This is my peak time for doing math, coding, analyzing data, editing text that is already written.

    My most creative time is actually afternoon and evening, which alas I seldom get to utilize. I am super hungry around 3-4, and if I eat then, I don’t have to eat till the next day. My ideal day would be me eating around 3, napping for half and hour, and then comes my most creative daily period till about 10-11. My best fiction and greatest strides in technical writing or challenging troubleshooting are often made in this period.

    Sadly, as I said, I don’t really get to use my peak time during the normal (nonpandemic) situations. Maybe I get 1-2 hours and it’s already time to pick up the kids, cook dinner, or chauffeur them to activities.

    So I use my not ideal but still productive mornings and evenings on days when I am not too dead. The pandemic has been nice because all day is family time and I have more flexibility with everything. I can also just eat something substantial at 3 or 4 and take a brief nap, which then makes my afternoons and evenings much more productive.

  11. Dame Eleanor Hull, what you bring up is what has always bothered me. I understand scheduling relatively mindless activities, but the work that requires deep intellectual engagement cannot be done whenever or for arbitrarily long. When I finish a particularly productive technical-writing session, I feel exhausted and famished, like I did something physically hard. Also, we all need flexibility, chaos goblins or not, simply because we’re people and have lots of things going on, because one night of poor sleep or a sick kid throws everything off. Maybe some people have such a robust support structure for their detailed plans that they eliminate most of these life fluctuations. But ignoring the need for flexibility and the fact that not all work demands are created equal are among the main reason why so many organization paradigms out there seem so alien to me.

  12. I am also a morning person, but if I nap for half an hour after lunch I will also be very productive in the afternoon. That is one of the good things of WFH, being able to nap consistently!
    I like planning, mostly to make sure I have time to do what I need to get done, but it doesn’t obsess me and if other things come up, oh well, I’ll have to prioritize. I use my bullet journal to keep deadlines and things I want to accomplish during the week. But I write what I need. I hate journals that come with questions, especially personal ones about relationships or touchy-feely stuff, for me that doesn’t belong where I write about work stuff and that I take to work with me. And I also don’t do lettering or coloring around, I don’t have the patience and think it’s a waste of my time, but I see it looks pretty on those that do it. Maybe it’s relaxing for some, I don’t know, but it’s not for me.

  13. Thanks Xyk! Re this:
    > However, I’m a little surprised he doesn’t take advisor-imposed deadlines seriously
    I guess this is because I have no leverage to do anything if they don’t keep the DL. In the UK PhD students are students and not employees and even though I won the funding for their position, the funding goes to the person directly. As long as they pass the annual reviews (which they do, because that DL is a real (external) one and so they keep that, plus they are also a great presenter/speaker, so no problem convincing the evaluators that they are progressing well), there is no stick to hold over them and I can’t do anything if they don’t keep the DLs.

    Or maybe I am just not scary enough. 😛

  14. @AnonP– My friend like that ended up getting a consolation PhD (the degree but no letters for academic jobs) and got a job doing consulting which seemed like a good fit for their personality.

    At some point, I have to think that you can’t care about their degree more than they do. Like, it’s great to have suggestions for this person, but at the same time, this part isn’t really your job, especially if they can’t respect your deadlines.

  15. AnonP, I’d say you’re not scary enough. 🙂 There are lots of people who wrote their dissertations “at the last minute,” meaning the night before their weekly meetings with their supervisors. But since we can’t do in-person meetings ATM, it gets easier to make excuses/just not feel the urgency.

    Xyk, my impression is that some people fall asleep when they hit the pillow, wake up rested, and cannot fathom the state of brain fog that afflicts chronic insomniacs, fibromyalgics, and sufferers from various other chronic ailments. I’ve given up even trying to explain to good sleepers why scheduling is of limited use to me.

  16. Why is it that people interpret a description of how YOU operate (chaos goblin) as “shade” towards the uber organized list maker/clean desk people. Nobody ever tells the uber organizers that their way throws shade towards people who can get more done working differently.

    It’s like when people who co-sleep feel personally rejected by people who sleep train, when people who dye their hair or wear makeup feel rejected by people who don’t, or when people who are straight feel their lifestyle is being rejected by people who are not, when actually the only rejection that is occurring is dominant way rejecting the non-dominant. Maybe these aren’t the best examples, but I hope I’m getting my point across!

    (I’m not really a chaos goblin, but I’m definitely not outwardly uber organized either.)

  17. “However, any “deadline” that I deem soft, unreasonable, or for other reasons missable or ignorable, I will do my best to miss and/or ignore. It’s a compulsion and connected to my personality.”

    Loved this. I am the exact same way.

    I take the chaos thing a bit too far though and am almost always at least a couple minutes late for everything except the most essential things.

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