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Academic Coaching & Writing

I. Taking Stock of Your Writing Progress to Plan a Productive Academic Year

Sep 01, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Classes have started. Your email box overflows with requests to join committees, submit conference proposals, and participate in a host of other academic projects. Before you become even busier, it’s a good idea to take stock of what you accomplished toward your writing goals over the summer. If you’ve fallen short of your aspirations, you are not alone. The very idea of summer inspires dreams of wide-open time. You may have envisioned all you would have done by fall: the articles, chapters, grant or book proposals. But much-needed vacations, family obligations, and professional commitments have all chipped away, bit by bit, at what once seemed to be a wide-open summer.

With teaching and administrative tasks heating up, you may feel a little panicky. Summer’s gone. How will you continue progress on your writing or regroup and accomplish what didn’t get done over the break? Despair over missed opportunities won’t help. On the contrary, the adrenaline flooding your nervous system when you squarely face the fall calendar can re-energize you to plan to make progress during the year.

A realistic adjustment of goals, though, may be necessary. If you take a hard look at what interfered with your progress, you may even catch what runner’s call a “second wind.” You can find the energy to create a more moderately paced but realistic framework for meeting your writing goals. Figuring out how to modify your behavior to achieve those goals first requires identifying the barriers.

How Did You Get Here?

In my work with academic authors, I see several common types of barriers. For researchers writing as part of a team, delays in getting data or drafts from coauthors can stall progress. This situation is highly frustrating because it is, to some degree, beyond your control. 

Another common source of delay comes from catching up on long-delayed personal and family commitments. Authors can get caught up in balancing their writing commitments with the many aspects of their lives that got postponed during the academic year.  Or, they are pulled into other worthwhile, but time-consuming, professional activities that ultimately lead them away from sustained focus on their own manuscripts. 

Other authors dutifully slog away on key tasks to develop their manuscripts, such as developing their literature review and writing up their findings. But they struggle to see the big picture and to pull all the pieces together into a meaningful, compelling argument. 

If you find yourself caught in any of those common scenarios, consider the following suggestions as you chart a course for a productive writing year.

How to Get Unstuck

If unresponsive collaborators on a coauthored piece have stalled your progress, try emailing them once again to remind them of the situation and deadlines the team needs to meet. Then, focus on what you can do for your contribution to the article. Also, if you can shift your attention to a manuscript for which you are the sole author, consider taking that step.

Building productive relationships with coauthors is a complex and sometimes politically sensitive process. If you’re struggling with this issue, I recommend researchers in the sciences read an excellent chapter on “Authorship Issues” in Philapa Benson and Susan Silver’s book What Editors Want: An Author’s Guide to Scientific Journal Publishing. Humanists and social scientists may benefit from the sage advice in the chapter “Writing With Others” in Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published.

If other professional and personal commitments have consumed your summer writing time, consider withdrawing as much as possible from those activities. Enlist the support of family and friends to help you clear the decks of your everyday life for whatever time you can withdraw from routine commitments. If there is a fall break on your schedule, translate it into your own personal (if brief) writing retreat. Could you perhaps rent a cabin for a long weekend or even for the week of fall break? During this retreat, set your email to “away” mode, explaining that you will respond to messages on the date you have set to reenter the fray of academic life.

On the other hand, a very different approach may be required if your writing slump stems from a struggle to bring together the pieces of the work you have been diligently developing all summer. First, build some breaks from writing into your weekly schedule. Set aside times for disengaging from intense thought about your project and stimulate your other senses. Exercising, spending time in nature, or listening to music are just a few ways to interrupt what has become an unproductively intense focus on your writing project. There’s no one, right way to give yourself some rest. But such breaks really do pay off. You may find a few days of vacation, completely unplugged from intellectual work, does the trick. Or, you may discover real benefit in just taking two hours a day, each day, to totally disengage from your focus on your project and allow your brain to take in a rich range of (nonwork) stimuli. Once you’ve recharged your batteries, so to speak, you will find it easier to gain perspective on how to pull your manuscript together.

Making the Transition

Finally, I want to encourage all authors making the transition from summer back to the academic year to make the following commitments.

  • Focus on action. No matter what factors interfered with your dreams for what you could accomplish over the summer, don’t spend even 10 more minutes mentally berating yourself. Have you ever heard an academic say ‘Wow, I can’t believe how productive my writing has been this summer. The words just flew from my fingertips; I’m away ahead of where I’d thought I would be by this time!”  Ever?  If you have, I suspect that author was practicing what is politely called “impression management.” Hitches in the writing process are incredibly common for good reasons. Let yourself off the hook and focus on actions you can take in the coming days to make progress.
  • Take frequent breaks. Don’t focus so completely on moving your project forward that you forget to exercise your body. Taking short breaks is a necessity, not a luxury. Something as simple as two or three 15-minutes walks spread across the day can increase the clarity of your thinking and boost your overall productivity.

This blog begins a series addressing common challenges academics face related to the writing process. Upcoming blogs will debunk myths about the most efficient paths to productivity, explore the causes and cures for writer’s block, discuss how to increase your chances of striking writer’s gold in the form of the “eureka” moment, and how to attain a highly creative “flow” state of writing.

Forthcoming blogs in this series will address the following topics:

  • The Big Lie About Academic Writing: "I just have to write it up"
  • When Writing Seems Like a Dark Journey, Trust Your Headlights
  • What Really is Writer’s Block?
  • Overcoming Anxiety About Academic Writing
  • Overcoming Procrastination
  • Are you a Pre-Crastinator?
  • Is Dyslexia or ADHD Affecting Your Writing Process?
  • Hitting the Writer’s Jackpot: Flow States and Eureka Moments

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