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How I Write and Learn

Genius or Sweat? How Academic Coaching Changed My View of Writing

By a Graduate Student

In college, I consistently wrote papers last minute. I rarely outlined anything. My senior thesis–supposed to be a year-long writing project–was written in a flurry in March and April of 2013. (I changed the novel I was writing about in February.) While I was furiously adding footnotes and writing whole sections of my thesis the night before it was due, a good friend of mine was calmly line editing hers. I was jealous–and started to acknowledge that I might be a die-hard procrastinator.

In graduate school, I got a little bit better about starting seminar papers in advance–mostly because I was no longer in my early 20s and physically could not will myself to stay up late to work on anything (helloooo aging). Yet, I still did not plan out what to work on days in advance. In other words, I never set goals for myself (other than “write the d*** paper already”).

In hindsight, I think I had this weird notion that writing in the humanities could occur only with a flash of insight that couldn’t be anticipated. Adrenaline-flooded and face-flushed, I often felt exhilarated (and stressed) by a rush of ideas and an imminent deadline. Planning and plodding along day by day certainly did not embody the romantic view of writers I used to carry with me.

Then, I got to my comprehensive exams in my PhD program. Everything about this process basically made procrastinating impossible–or, at the very least, exceedingly difficult. Not only was I required to read upwards of three hundred books, but also I had to draft my own questions several months in advance of the exams.

I soon realized that I needed some outside help to get me through the process and signed up for an academic coaching appointment (hi Marc!).

For six weeks, Marc and I met weekly to discuss my progress on my exam questions. At first, I was a total mess. I had no idea where to start and felt so overwhelmed by the whole process. Yet, once I had drafted my questions, we were able to map out–in a homegrown-table-sort-of-way–exactly what to do each day in order to meet my weekly goals:

Reading and writing sessions for the week have been divided into small, daily tasks.
The weekly study schedule I worked out with Marc.

Initially, I was somewhat skeptical. Plan in advance? Write in small chunks? But, what about that stroke of genius/flash of insight belief I had clung to for so long? Must that go out the window?

Even though I did not always meet my daily goals (as things shifted here and there), I pretty much always met my weekly goals since I knew that Marc would ask me about my progress every Friday.

During this process, sometimes I would not want to write and did not feel “inspired” to do so. Yet, it became a habit to begin writing after I had my morning cuppa so it started to feel less like a choice and more just “what I did” after that last sip of coffee. Those first drafts were far from perfect–but they were starts. And “starts” were exactly what I needed. All those daily “starts” added up over time. I got to the end–and passed my exams!

Here are a few of the key tools I used to keep track of my goals:

  1. Weekly academic coaching appointments with Marc!
  2. A scheduling system to plan out my days and weeks. I created my own table (as pictured above), but these weekly planners are great, too.
  3. Rewards such as seeing friends outside, baking to de-stress, and taking a bath instead of a shower at the end of a long day.
  4. Movement! Fresh air and adrenaline were key for me. As you can see from the schedules I made, riding the Peleton, doing yoga, and taking my dog on walks were all crucial activities for my mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
The author is on her yoga mat in a balancing pose, and her dog is laying on the mat beside her.
I get to refresh my mind by doing yoga with the best partner ever!

Creating a plan that was specific and actionable (yet allowed for some flexibility) and staying accountable to myself through weekly coaching appointments resulted not only in getting through my exams but also in having a newfound appreciation for writing in small steps. Sometimes, I had flashes of insight that propelled me ahead faster than anticipated. At other times, I stalled. But, plodding along day-by-day ultimately got me just where I needed to be.


This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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