Flow and academic writing


Some days you are on a roll, others you can’t concentrate. Today I have definitely been ‘in the flow’. So far I have added comments to a paper on our X-Delia project, corrected proofs for a paper and a chapter, addressed reviewers’ comment on a chapter in a forthcoming National Teaching Fellowship book and blogged about the forthcoming ECEL conference. Csíkszentmihályi defined the concept. In essence it can be defined as follows: 

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

It can occur across a range of activities: swimming, playing video games, walking, etc. I think it is particular relevant to describing the way in which academics work and more particularly how we write. My writing style is pretty much a stream of consciousness; I am lucky enough to be able to write a lot quickly. The downside of this is that the writing usually then needs a lot of editing. For example, I found with my last book, Designing for Learning in an Open World, that it took me 3 or 4 times as long to edit the book, as it did to write it!

I don’t know how others go about writing, but this pretty much sums up my approach:


  • I will mull ideas around in my head (for example I have been thinking on and off about writing this blog post for a while). I might do this whilst driving to work, cooking or when I am wandering around the house.
  • Sometimes ideas come to me in the middle of the night, I try and get up and write down the main points, so that I don’t forget them in the morning
  • Then there is the process of the first draft. I find it essential to be alone when doing this, somewhere quiet. My favourite place to write is in the kitchen, which is nice and sunny.
  • I don’t write a structure for the piece, I just let the ideas emerge. This is the stage where flow really comes in, total concentration and immersion in what I am doing, to the extent that I don’t even have a sense of the time involved.
  • Once I have something down it is then a process of re-gigging, moving things around, supporting arguments with references (I find Endnote invaluable for doing this).
  • I am very much a visual person, so I like to support my ideas with illustrations where possible. Often my writing emerges from initial ideas developed for keynotes or talks I have given.
  • Once I have a reasonable draft I tend to put the article aside for a little, so that I can then come back to it afresh.
  • I find I need to print out and read the near final version, to iron out any last minute problems or mistakes. 

There are six main components of flow:


  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment – i.e. for me being totally focused on what I am writing.
  • Merging of action and awareness – putting my ideas down on ‘paper’ thinking of both the text I am writing at that moment and the overall focus of the piece.
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness – being totally unaware of my surroundings.
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity – I love seeing the ideas develop and crystalise into something meaningful. After a particular fruitful brainstormings session with my team around the concept of our 7Cs of Learning Design framework, I found I had to write a summary of what we had discussed to enable me to capture the key points and I posted this as a blog postA visual representation of the framework was a key aspect of this.
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered – time definitely takes on a new meaning when you are ‘in the flow’ hours can feel like minutes.
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience – translating ideas into writings is one of the highlights of being an academic for me. I was amazed to see my recent book come out in print. To see my ideas in black and white, to flick through the colour illustrations.

So those are my thoughts on how I see flow and its role in my writings as an academic. I would be interested to hear other peoples’ ideas, whether they have similar experiences or whether they write in a different way.



9 Responses to “Flow and academic writing”

  1. Simon Kear Says:

    I envy you, Grainne … and other prolific writers.

    For me, the most important thing is to get something on the page - anything, really - that I can then work on later. I may not even keep much of it but the act of writing is important to kickstart the whole process.

    But I do think blogging has reshaped the way I write - and in a good way. It’s less formal, and of course open to my peers immediately. It’s the area, if any, where I might feel ‘the flow’.

    But some days, even writing the shopping list is beyond me!

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Totally agree with you Simon, getting something down, anything down is the key… Blogging has certainly transformed the way I think and they way I write - I find it liberating!

  3. Geraldine Langan Says:

    I have to say my best thoughts and processes happen during the night and I have been known to get up at 3am and write. It is very exciting when the flow is strong and thought processes clear. I write absolute rubbish after 9pm for some reason and that can be a disadvantage. When I read it at around 6am in the morning I wonder who wrote it :) Love the blog.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Geraldine yes funny how ideas often come to us at night! Also funny the way people like to work at different times of the day guess it is related to whether you are a morning or evening person. Hmmm that has got me thinking about writing about creativity and being an academic … watch this space ;-)

  5. Flow and writing | The Body Electric Says:

    […] is my own observations and response to Grainne’s latest post http://e4innovation.com/?p=658 mainly because I’ve just spent three days solid writing and doing nothing else in order to […]

  6. Monica Wedler Says:

    I get my ideas in the middle of the night. Dreams that I know I will lose forever if I don’t get up and write them. Some other times, on the other hand, I would be involved in something and all of the sudden I get the idea for something, and I have to stop what I am doing to write what I just thought about, otherwise I might forget it, just like the dream.

  7. Gráinne Says:

    Good points Monica!

  8. Rosemary Gilbert Says:

    Now, I know how our student feel when they have an assignment and it must be written during a class period. Also, I must get out of bed to write down my inspirations for future articles and a book within me ready to come forth.

  9. Penny Morgan Says:

    My writing typically happens late at night. I keep journals and have kept them for years. Writing is expressive to me in the events that take place in my life. I now write about my first experience as a mom and write letters in my journal to my daughter.

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