Summer Writing: Try a Tomato?


Photo by Thelonious Gonz

Summer always slips through my fingers, like the fish that got away. I never manage to get to the beach, or out on my sailboat, or to the free outdoor concerts, as much as I hope to in April (or, as I dream of in February, as the snow falls). September always brings a to-do list with lots of stuff that, sadly, is still left to do.

Academic summer writing is the same way. As we reconvene in September, how many of us cast our eyes down and mutter that we did not get anywhere near enough done. The mood, the timing, the temperature, the situation…something kept us from it. As the summer winds down, we frantically try to finish off the stuff we have been (let’s face it) goofing around with all season long. It’s disheartening.

As a graduate student, I had to write almost all the time, and even as I deposited my dissertation, I felt that I was still developing my method of getting it done without too many tears. Now that it is almost a year later, I still struggle with the best way to get the most done as a productive writer. I would rather lecture, supervise, carry out my current research, plan my next research project…but, if I don’t write up and publish, my research will remain unknown, and where’s the good in that?

So, here’s my proposal: We’ve got six weeks of summer left; let’s help each other. I will tell you a few of the tips that worked for me, and you share some that worked for you…or didn’t. I didn’t invent any of these methods, but some I have made my own. Here are a few:

  • Go someplace else. If you have been writing at home (in your pajamas, admit it), go to a library. You’ll find that any campus or town librarian will help you find a nook, get connected, and maybe even print stuff out, when they hear you are a frantic academic. It might be even better than going to your own campus, where it is too easy to get distracted by colleagues and students. I wrote my second exam paper (a giant lit review) at the local community college, reporting in the morning and working for a few steady hours. I had all the documents I needed loaded onto my laptop, so I was able to…
  • Keep the internet off. There are lots of applications out there that can either track the time you spend on non-work websites, or keep you from accessing them for a period of time. If your phone has a data feed, you can try shutting that off and just receiving phone calls for a few hours. I leave my personal email open and downloading at home, so that I cannot check it during the day (although this backfires if people contact me through my work email). Of course, there are days where I find I must immediately know the difference between a yawl and a ketch …and the morning is gone. If you are making good use of any methods to keep the internet at bay, please share in the comments.
  • Reward yourself. The oldest trick in the book. Set it up that you can’t do X until you do Y. The trick is choosing the task to be small enough and the reward to be sweet enough so that you are indeed motivated. Hey, you’re an SLP, you can make it work for your clients, now try it for yourself.
  • Try a tomato. No, not to eat. I have had some great successes using the Pomodoro method. The key components are planning out how many 25 minute sessions it will take to complete a task, and then, when you start a session, do not allow yourself to be taken off the task. Any outside thoughts or distractions can be scribbled on a separate piece of paper so you don’t forget them. I use aspects of this, with my own modifications. I find 25 minutes too short, and sometimes use the radio news report (every half hour) as my time marker, or use an online countdown timer set for 40 minutes. The tomatoes help me when I am desperately stuck, because I can commit to one lonely tomato. That’s not so scary, is it? Then, I must write something, (anything!) until the bell releases me. My dissertation contained a whole truckload of tomatoes.
  • Keep a notebook. If you are in the habit of keeping a lab notebook, this is just an extension. Jot down your progress and stumbling blocks. Then, when you are stuck, spend a tomato, I mean a few minutes, looking over what you have already accomplished. Give yourself a pat on the back, and keep at it.

The last tip? Don’t get so involved crafting the perfect blog entry that you avoid working on your “real” writing for a whole afternoon!

Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz, PhD, CCC-SLP is an assistant professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY. She teaches courses in speech science, voice disorders, behavioral feeding disorders and research design. Her research interests include cross-language and bilingual speech perception, multi-modal speech perception and integrating technology and instrumentation into the communication disorders curriculum. She has been a practicing SLP and feeding interventionist since 1998.


  1. Dissertation Writer on the Fringe says

    This was really helpful to me. As I wrap up the writing of my dissertation in these few weeks left in July, I am encouraged by your advice. I have never heard of the Pomodoro method, but have used other online timer programs. I eventually trick myself out of using them and the procrastination ensues. Thank you for sharing this! I am feeling motivated to attack my writing in smaller chunks. I have a tendency to set my daily writing goals much too high and then wonder why I feel so overwhelmed and behind later in the day. Ahh, glad to know I am not alone in this phase of the program.

    • Shari says

      Fringe, you can do it! When you have one section done (or near to done), don’t re-visit it. Go on to a section that is giving you trouble. When I found myself at your juncture, I made lists of things to do that were incredibly minute, but I could tackle them. For example, I might have to-do items such as “Fix sentence in section 1.3, it is unclear” or “double check if it is the 2001 reference or the 2003.” These were small but real targets to hit. Keep us posted and best of luck!