When and how do students write?

When and how do students write?

I found this great article the other day, “Seven Effing Great Ways to Build Your Writing Routine.”  The author encourages us to find our writing “sweet spots” in order to maximize our daily/weekly output.

Consider the following questions:

  • How long does your typical writing session tend to last?
  • How frequently do you sit down to write?
  • On average, how many words do you write per session?
  • At what time of the day do you do your writing?

Back when I taught novel writing as a “writeshop,” my students wrote in class and we talked a lot about writing process. I’ve moved away from that model over time, but next year, I need to be more explicit and deliberate about talking to students about WHEN and HOW they write. I’ll share this article with them.

Also: I’m thinking about having students log in or “check in” when they’re writing. Like the way I can check in on Facebook or GetGlue when I’m watching a particular TV show or reading a certain book. (What do you think about this, friends?)


This semester, I lowered the Weekly Words requirement from 12 weeks of 2,250 words to 10 weeks of an even 2,000 words.

This is way down from the 12 weeks of 3,300 I required three years ago. Why did I let up? Ball State students take 5 and 6 three-credit classes a semester, not 4 four-credit classes, and most hold down jobs. I felt like I was asking too much–given their circumstances–and the burn-out rate was significantly lower this term. No one dropped.

  • Of the 15 students enrolled, only two drafted less than 20,000 words. They came up with a partial by the due date, but missed a few weeks here and there.
  • Ten turned in 20,000 to 25,000 words, or a little over the required amount.
  • Only two turned in well over the required amount every single week and thus ended up with double the required words. In fact, they were so close that I decided to feature them both here.

The Winners

Adam Gulla came in first place with 40,000 words. He gets a subscription to Poets & Writers. 

Adam Gulla
Adam Gulla

He took me up on my offer to “count” handwritten journaling and drafting. Every week, he turned in 2,000 words in a Word doc, plus he’d scan his journal pages where he wrote up character profiles, developed backstory, and built the world of his science-fiction novel.

One of about 50 such pages Adam sent me over the course of the semester. .
One of about 50 such pages Adam sent me over the course of the semester. .

We came up with a formula for what each page equaled.

Smart idea.

Every semester, I encourage my students to do this, to “count” pre-writing AND writing-writing, but Adam is the first student to take me up on that offer.

Veronica Sipe came in second, less than a thousand words behind Adam at 39,290.

Veronica Sipe
Veronica Sipe

She’s working on a historical novel with post-colonial themes (she’s also majoring in Spanish) that takes place in an invented South American country.

As I look back at my weekly emails from Veronica, I see that she always sent me her words well ahead of the deadline, and that she always had more than the required 2000 words.

So, what do Adam and Veronica have in common?

When and How They Wrote

Here’s how they answered the four questions above.

How long does your typical writing session tend to last?

Adam: I tend to have multiple writing sessions a day. My quick, sporadic writing sessions usually last twenty minutes each. My planned writing sessions last two hours.

Veronica: I have two kinds of writing sessions: casual ones that last about an hour and a half, and longer ones that can last as long as five hours, with a couple short breaks. Those are rare, though.

How frequently do you sit down to write?

Adam: I try to write multiple times a day, every day (and despite my best intentions, this is not always accomplished). What usually ends up happening is this: I get up in the morning and crank out a few words before class; I write during my lunch break; I write in short spans after each homework assignment I complete; and finally, I write later in the evening.

Veronica: During the school year I find time for writing maybe once or twice a week. More often in the summer.

On average, how many words do you write per session?

Adam: During my quick writing sessions, I tend to get 200 words on the page. During my planed writing sessions, I come out with around 1200 words (again, despite my best intentions, this is not always the case).

Veronica: If I have direction I can get about 2000-3000 words in a couple hours.

At what time of the day do you do your writing?

Adam: I write at all times of the day, but late nights (9 PM – 2 AM) and early mornings (5 AM – 8AM) are the most productive times for me to write. During these hours, no one disturbs me, and I can devote complete focus to my work.

Veronica: On days when I have nothing else to do, I like to write in the early afternoon. On work/school days, I prefer writing at night. I also like to take a notebook to work and to lecture classes so I can write if I have a break or get bored. Which is probably not very responsible, but oh, well.

Adam: For the longest time, I used to edit while writing (I still find myself doing this on occasion). It was a constant process of adding and taking away until two hours were gone, and the only things I had to show for it were a few paragraphs of roughly 500 words. Sometimes, I could spend as much as ten minutes deciding on the “perfect” word. As you can well imagine, my writing routine used to crawl by slower than a crippled snail. It was frustrating. It took me months to write a short story. And worst of all, the stories suffered from it. I would spend so much time consumed by sentence level concerns and specifics that the elements of plot, character, and story logic were being neglected.

I have since adopted the process of getting everything inside me on the page first and foremost, without being too selective. By doing this, I dump my ideas without hindrance. From here it’s a matter of going back over the rough draft and touching it up, piece by piece. This process has more than doubled my writing proficiency. I find it much easier and much more convenient to have words on the page that I can work with. For me, the most enjoyable and productive part of writing is rewriting. By using this process, it streamlines my writing routine.

Congratulations you guys! And I hope you finish those novels! 



  1. Bridget says:

    Really great post, Cathy. I love the idea of having students “check-in” when they sit down to write. You may want to talk to Eva Snider, Jennifer Grouling, and Aly Schweigert about their recent ventures into gamification of the writing classroom– definitely different and on a grander scale, but their thoughts on “check-points” and checking in might be of interest to you!

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