Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Importance of Planning: Taking Charge of Your Writing Success and of Your Career

While I was writing my dissertation and during my first year as an Assistant Professor, I got my writing tasks accomplished. However, there was no method to the madness. I felt as if I was traveling down a river in a raft, keeping afloat, but not really in control of my progress or my direction.

I had heard about writing and accountability groups, but did not think those were for me. I finished my dissertation in a timely manner and, and had an article accepted my first year on the tenure track. I figured I was doing just fine, so long as I could keep up the pace.

The winter of my second year on the tenure-track, however, I found myself feeling a bit isolated and not very motivated. It was the first winter where my husband and I hadn�t taken a vacation to somewhere sunny since we met, and that wasn�t sitting well with me. One day, working in my gloomy office, I got an email from Kerry Ann Rockquemore inviting me to join an online writing group. I decided to give it a shot.

In the online writing group, each person states their goals for the month and reports their progress daily on the forum. It was eye-opening for me to sit down and map out what I wanted to do over the next month. I told the group I was working on my book proposal, and that I hoped to finish the proposal and one of the sample chapters by the time winter break ended.

Slowly, I learned to set reasonable goals for the month, the semester, and for the pre-tenure years. I enjoyed the support and community of the electronic forum, and found that my relationship with my work slowly was beginning to change.

Once I began to write every day, report my progress to the writing group, and keep track of my writing goals, I began to feel as if I was in the driver�s seat. Achieving tenure became something I consciously was working towards, instead of something I simply hoped I would be able to achieve.

By keeping track of my progress each day, week, month, and semester, I learned how much I could expect of myself. Logging in each day kept me conscious of how much time I was actually spending writing, and how much time I spent doing other things. Slowly, I began to realize that writing should be my priority, and that I could and should do it every day. It was a real revelation to me that I could write on my teaching days, and that writing at least an hour every day kept me connected to my projects.

Setting new goals for each month allowed me to approach each new month with a fresh attitude. I slowly learned to develop reasonable expectations for what I could accomplish in a month, and felt a sense of deep satisfaction each time I met my goals for the month.

At the end of the semester, I could look back over the semester and see how much I had accomplished. Taking the time to tally up my accomplishments each day, week, month, and semester allowed me to stop and reflect on what I had done, and to feel better about where I was going and how I was going to get there.

Keeping track of my progress allows me to set and achieve reasonable goals. Once you know how much you can produce in one semester, and once you become familiar with the average timeline for publication, you can develop reasonable expectations about what you can accomplish during an academic year or, if you are on the tenure track, within the time you have left before going up for tenure.

Now that I know my rhythm, my pace, and my average productivity, I can set reasonable goals for myself for each semester, each year, and over the course of the next five years. I can look at that plan and see that achieving those goals will fulfill the research requirements of my tenure case.

Planning for academic success takes out a lot of the uncertainty, worry and self-doubt that plague many academics. It allows you to be in the driver�s seat, and to be in charge of your productivity and of your career. Keeping track of what you can accomplish in a day, a week, a month, a semester, or a year allows for you to plan in the short and long term.

I find that planning for success takes out a lot of the anxiety over success. I know what I can expect of myself and what standards I can hold myself to. In my case, it turns out that those standards are in line with what my university expects of me.

What about you? How much can you expect of yourself? For those of you on the tenure track, how do your own standards for productivity line up with those of your university?

Friday, October 22, 2010

When Is Your Prime Time?

For me, mornings are a very special time. At the crack of dawn, before my family wakes up, and a little later, right after everyone leaves the house are the two best times for me to write. Mornings are special because they only happen once a day, and they are the times I can be most productive. It took me a while to figure this out for myself, but now that I am certain of when my prime time is, I do whatever I can to ensure that I write each morning.

If I miss out on writing early in the morning, it is very likely that I will not get any writing done that day. In addition, since I know how productive I can be in just 30 to 60 minutes early in the morning, I feel as if it is a waste to use that time any other way. Why spend my most precious moments of the day running errands, responding to emails, shopping online, or filling out university-mandated forms when I can spend them writing? For me, the morning is prime time, and that is when I write.

Once I have done my writing for the day, even if it is a busy day and I can only get in 30 minutes, I can face the remainder of the day knowing that I have started off using my time wisely. I have already made progress on that which is most important to my long-term success: I have written.

Everyone has their prime time, and it likely occurs at roughly the same time every day. Do you know when your prime time is? If you don�t, ask yourself the following questions: When you are most alert? When is your mind the clearest? When do you find it easiest to focus on one task? If you still don�t know, the best way to find out is to try. Spend every day next week, Monday to Friday, trying to write as soon as you get up. If it doesn�t work, try a different time.

Those who have families may find it difficult to write first thing in the morning. Some people are able to wake up very early and write for 30 to 60 minutes before the rest of the family wakes up. Others spend their mornings getting everyone else out of the house and then get their writing done once everyone leaves. Others have to drop kids off at daycare and school, and seek refuge in a coffee shop after dropping everyone off. Still others make sure that writing is the first thing they do when they arrive in their office.

Some people are not at their best in the mornings, but feel particularly energized after an afternoon workout. Physical activity is a great way to cleanse the mind. I knew of one woman who had to teach early in the morning, making it difficult to write first thing in the morning. So, she wrote in the afternoons. After teaching her two classes, she went straight to the university pool, where she swam for 45 minutes. After swimming, her mind was clear and fresh, and she was able to sit down and write for two hours. One great thing about this strategy is that she knew she would write after swimming, so her time in the water was also time she could prepare mentally for her writing session.

There are some people who truly are night owls and can write late in the evening after everyone in their family has gone to bed. Honestly, I know many people who tell me this is the best time for them to write, but who find it difficult to make it happen every day. However, I think it can work for some folks. The trick is to find ways to make it happen. If your prime time is late at night, an evening walk, workout, cup of hot tea, or yoga session might be a useful pre-writing routine. It is also probably a good idea to have a light dinner and to figure out a way to make lunch your main meal of the day as a large meal may make you sleepy and less productive. If you plan to write at night, it is best to avoid the after-work happy hour, although I do know a woman who writes at night with a glass of red wine on her desk. If you do write in the evenings, allow yourself time after writing to relax and clear your mind before going to sleep.

One of the keys to writing every day is to figure out when your prime time is. Once you know when the best time for you to write is, and you make it a habit to write every day at that time, you will begin to see that time as non-negotiable. If you only have a prime time of 60 minutes each day, why spend it on anything other than the most important task of your day?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not All Writing is Created Equal

I talk to people about their writing a lot. Every so often I meet someone who has been on a roll with writing, but finds themselves stuck in a rut where they can no longer move forward. After talking about their project, it often becomes clear that they are having trouble moving forward because they are at a new stage of writing.

For example, �Karla� recently told me that she was having trouble finding the time for writing over the past week. I found this unusual because the last time we talked, she was excited about her project and its long-term possibilities. After talking for a bit, it became clear that Karla was no longer at the stage of brainstorming and creating new ideas, but that she was now at the stage where she had to pull everything together and massage her outstanding work into a coherent, scholarly, whole. It turned out that not only did Karla find this kind of work less exciting, but also that getting near to the end of the project made her nervous about going public with her ideas.

There are different stages to the writing process, and we draw from different sorts of energies to complete each stage. Most of us excel at one stage, but do less well at others. It can be helpful to reflect on the various stages of writing and to become aware of which stages you like best. Here are the stages, as I see them:

Stage 1: Conception � This is when you are coming up with ideas and writing the first rough draft. The best way to get through this stage is to not be inhibited by perfectionism and not worry about grammar, coherency, or format, but to just get your ideas onto paper. When you are at this stage, it is best to do this first thing in the morning when your ideas are fresh and you are ready to forge ahead. Although this is the most exciting stage for many, it also is the stage when we are most unsure of where we are going, and thus can be subject to feelings of self-doubt about the worth of our work. If you are stuck at this stage, one strategy is to put a pillow-case over your computer screen and just type away for fifteen to thirty minutes. Not being able to see your writing will help you to feel less threatened by the blank screen and less inclined to go back and correct errors.

Stage 2: Pulling together � This is when you re-organize your free-writes, brainstorms, previous work, and literature summaries into a coherent first draft. Some people do this on the screen; others cut and paste using real scissors and paper. Whatever you do, it is important to think about how you think and organize best and develop a system that allows you to create a coherent first draft. At this stage, you might find yourself staring at documents on and off-screen and struggling to decide on the best format. Despair not: If you are working on this every day, those ideas are percolating in your head, and you soon will come up with a workable format. If you are feeling stuck, try printing out your documents and using a creative, visual format of re-organizing your ideas such as cutting and pasting pieces of colored paper onto a corkboard.

Stage 3: Revision � This is when you have a complete first draft and are ready to make it better. It can be very helpful to give this first draft to a trusted colleague, telling them that this is your first shot at the paper, and that you are looking for constructive feedback on organization and suggestions for expanding the background and theoretical literature. Some people do revisions by hand by printing out each version. Others are comfortable doing edits on screen. When I am in the revision stage, I like to carry a copy around with me, so that I can squeeze in edits whenever I have time. If you are stuck at this stage, the best solution can be to find someone to read and give you positive feedback to help you move forward.

Stage 4: Copy-editing and References � At this stage, you have a complete, revised draft with your conceptual framework, literature review data, analysis, introduction, and conclusion, all in order. You just need to dot the i�s, cross the t�s, check your citations and run your spell-check. If you are stuck at this stage, hiring a professional editor can be a fabulous investment.

Stage 5: Submit � You are finished, and just need to figure out the online or mail-in process to submit your work! If you are stuck at this stage, it could be helpful to talk to friends who have read your work, know how fabulous it is, and can encourage you to press the �submit� button sooner rather than later!

It helps my productivity to be aware that there are different kinds of writing, and that my energy and concentration levels determine which kind of writing I can do most effectively. Creating new prose takes the most concentration for me, and I usually like to do this when I have a bit more time to reflect and process information. Line-editing, on the other hand, I can do even if I have just five minutes to look at a paragraph.

When you plan for your writing for the coming week, it might be helpful to look at your calendar and figure out what sorts of tasks you are best able to do each day. If you don�t teach on Monday, that might be the best day to draft a new section or to re-organize Chapter Two. On Tuesday morning, you might have fifteen minutes before preparing for class to check the bibliography for that almost-completed article.