Thursday, December 23, 2010

Calling all Workaholics! Fifteen Things You Can Do When You Are Not Working

Time To Read
I admit it: I have been called a workaholic on more than one occasion. I do make time for myself and my family, but it is hard for me to have “down time,” where I sit around and watch television or relax on the couch and stare into space. First of all, I don’t watch television, and secondly, I find staring into space boring after about … 30 seconds.

As a working mother of three children, I don’t have a whole lot of free time. But, there are moments when my husband takes the kids for the day, or when the children are off at a friend’s house, and I actually do have time to myself. It is hard for me not to use that precious time to write or do laundry. But, I find having a list of things to do other than working is helpful as a reminder of all of the things one could do in those rare moments of free time.

I suspect I am not the only person out there who has trouble relaxing and not working or doing housework. In this post, I provide a list of activities you can do when you are not working….

Fifteen things you can do when you are not working…
  1. Read a novel
  2. Talk on the phone with friends
  3. Go for a walk outside
  4. Attend an event at university concert hall or museum
  5. Watch a movie or TV show at home
  6. Soak in the bathtub
  7. Take a dance class
  8. Invite people over for drinks or dinner
  9. Go to the movies, a restaurant, or a wine tasting with friends
  10. Go to the gym or exercise class alone or with a buddy
  11. Engage in creative activity: writing, art, crafts
  12. Do yoga or meditate
  13. Tend to the garden
  14. Cook a new recipe
  15. Listen to the radio or a podcast
If you rarely or never do these sorts of activities, you might just be a workaholic. Remember, rest and relaxation important for the mind, body and soul. Give yourself permission to do something you enjoy. You deserve a break!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Two Week Method of Writing Academic Articles

Can you really write an article in two weeks? Of course you can, but you are pretty unlikely to be able to write a publishable article in that short of a time. Nevertheless, two weeks is a good amount of time to give yourself to work on a project before taking a break from it.

One strategy that has worked well for me is to write for two hours every day for two weeks on a single short project: a book chapter or an article. Working consistently for two weeks, I can come up with a very rough draft of an article. After working on it for two weeks, I put it aside. If it is in good enough shape to share with a trusted colleague, I will do so. If not, I put it aside and come back to it in a week or two.

How does this work? The 2-2-1 method: (Two weeks, two hours, one project)

  •           Work on a single project for two weeks at a time. You can have other smaller projects, but one will be your top priority.
  •           Work on your top-priority project for two hours a day. This work should mostly be writing, but also can include taking reading notes, revising, arranging the bibliography, etc.
  •           At the end of two weeks, decide if it is ready for you to solicit feedback, send to an editor, submit for review, or just set aside.
  •           Get it off your desk and wait at least one week before you give it another two weeks. This will allow you to approach your project with fresh eyes.

When I revisit my article or chapter after setting it aside, and, hopefully, with feedback from a colleague, I give myself another two weeks to work on it to create a better draft. I continue to do this until it is ready for submission. Once I have submitted an article to a journal, and I receive the feedback, I give myself two weeks to revise it. Depending on the number of revisions required, I may re-submit the article, set it aside, or ask a colleague to review it.

This method works for me only if I do two things: 1) Write every day for at least two hours Monday to Friday and 2) Have this article as my priority for the entire two weeks, meaning I work on it every day, first thing in the morning.

Depending on the project at hand, the level of complexity, my familiarity with the research, and the richness of the data, writing a complete, ready-to-submit draft of an article takes me between one and six two-week sessions.

Working on something for two weeks at a time allows me to approach the project with fresh eyes the next time I pick it up. It also forces me to stop and ask for feedback when I am having trouble moving forward.

The 2-2-1 method may or may not work for you. If it does, great! If it doesn’t, it is still important to decide ahead of time how much time you will commit to a project before you begin. Without setting these internal deadlines, you risk creating a situation where you revise and revise an article without ever submitting it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Five Tips That Will Help You Have a Successful Co-Authorship

Co-authorships are very common in some fields, and hardly existent in others. When these collaborative ventures are successful, they can enhance the scholarship of the collaborators. In many cases, scholars consider co-authorship to be one of their most rewarding activities.

I have co-authored several articles and book chapters with colleagues. Some of these ventures have worked better than others. Others have not worked at all. When co-authorships are well-planned, they can be mutually beneficial and take your scholarships places you had not foreseen. In contrast, when the terms of the co-authorship are murky and the power dynamics unfavorable, co-authorship can turn into a nightmare, especially for junior faculty and graduate students. The good news is that these pitfalls are often avoidable.

In this post, I discuss some strategies you can adopt to ensure that the co-authorship works out.

Tip #1: Begin with an outline of the article
When you begin a co-authorship venture, sit down with your co-author and come up with an outline of the final article. Once you have a skeleton of the article, you can use that to agree on who is responsible for which part, and how long you plan to spend on each part.
For example, your outline could look like this:
   Introduction (500 words: Author A): First draft: 1/30
   Background (1000 words: Authors A and B): First draft: 12/1
   Literature Review (1500 words: Author A): First draft: 12/15
   Methodology (500 words: Authors A and B): First draft: 12/7
   Case Study One (2500 words: Author A): First draft 12/22
   Case Study Two (2500 words: Author B): First draft 12/22
   Discussion (1000 words: Author B): First draft 1/15
   Conclusion (1000 words: Author A): First draft 1/22
   First draft review (Author B): Due: 2/7
   Second review; citation check; copy-editing (Author A): Due 2/14
   Final check for accuracy and proofreading (Author B): Due 2/17
   Submission to xxx journal (Author A): 2/18

Tip #2: Agree on as much as possible up front
If you agree up front on as much as you possibly can, things will go much more smoothly. Here are some things you can agree on up front:

  • Agree on how long the paper will be, how long each section will be, and who will write the first draft of each section.  One of my most successful co-authorships was when my colleague and I agreed to work together to write a 25-page article. At the beginning, we decided on how long each section would be; for example, we decided that the intro and conclusion would each be 2 and ½ pages, that each of our background sections would be 1 page, etc. We also agreed on who would write the first draft of each section.
  • Set clear deadlines at the beginning.
  • Agree on theoretical framework and proposed methodology.
  • Agree on which journal you are targeting for the first submission.

Tip #3: Keep the communication lines open
Establish a weekly check-in with one another by phone, in person, or over email to ensure that both of you are keeping on task and to resolve any potential issues.

Tip #4: Keep track of the files by clearly establishing who is in charge of the most current draft
If you assign sections of the paper to specific co-authors, make sure it is clear who is working on what section at which time. Once you have a complete draft of the manuscript, it is usually best for one person to work on it at a time. When one author has the manuscript, the other author will not make any changes to the file. That also gives the other author some time away from the manuscript and a chance to look at it with fresh eyes when it comes back their way.

Tip #5: Be positive, encouraging, and courteous.
If one co-author is not keeping up his or her end of the bargain, make sure to let them know as soon as it becomes apparent. But, do so in a positive way and offer to help. Your shared goal is to produce a high-quality paper in a timely manner. Keep that in mind as you work through any unexpected difficulties.

Collaborative scholarship can be very rewarding. Following these guidelines can help to ensure that you get the most out of this venture. I look forward to hearing from you if you have any additional suggestions for fruitful collaborations.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Are You a Perfectionist?

Academic publishing requires diligence, attention to detail, conceptual innovation, and hard work, among other things. It does not require perfectionism. In fact, perfectionism can impede academic writing and publishing, and it is important to be able to identify your perfectionism and figure out how to get past it.

What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism revolves around two false premises: 1) that writing the perfect piece is an attainable goal, and 2) that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Although we all want for our work to reflect the excellence to which we are committed, it is crucial to get away from the idea that our work must or even could be perfect.

One reason your writing does not have to be perfect is that your intention is not to have the final say on a matter, but to contribute to an ongoing dialogue. Your attempts to publish in peer reviewed journals and books are your contributions to a conversation, not the end of the conversation. Your writing should be provocative and thought-provoking so that people will respond to it. If it were perfect, there wouldn’t be much to respond to.

Perfectionism leads to Procrastination
For many academics, perfectionism leads to intense procrastination. There are two ways that this works: 1) you are reluctant to write until you have the perfect thing to say; and 2) you are hesitant to share your finished work until it is perfect. If you refuse to write until you have the perfect idea, you likely will find that you write very little. And, if you fear submitting your work before it is perfect, you may find that you never submit it.

One of my colleagues recently shared with me that she finds it difficult to write before she knows what she will say. She will sit down at her computer and be unable to think of anything innovative or even relevant to her project. So, she will busy herself with other tasks – laundry, cooking, paying the bills, cleaning – until she comes up with just what she wants to say. When she finally comes up with the idea, she rushes to the computer and writes it all down. I asked her how often she actually comes up with ideas while doing all of those other tasks. She admitted it had only happened twice this semester.

Although it is true that we sometimes can think of great things while we are engaging in other activities, if we wait until we have something ground-breaking to say, we will find ourselves writing only on those rare occasions. Instead, a much better tactic is to put that perfectionism aside and to allow ourselves to write every day, even if we don’t think we have very much to say. You just have to trust yourself that good ideas will come while you are writing. Trust me, they are more likely to come if you sit down in front of the computer and begin to type or pull out a pad and a pen than if you give up and decide to do laundry all day instead.

Perfectionism Keeps You from Submitting Articles
Another colleague of mine recently told me that he has been sitting on a near-finished article for several months. He continuously finds reasons not to submit it to a journal, even though his tenure case depends on him publishing articles. One of the reasons he is reluctant to submit the article is that this article is central to his research agenda, and his research is at the center of his self-identity as a social justice activist. He, like many academics, sees his article not just as a reflection of his work, but as a reflection of himself. He does not just fear his work being evaluated by external reviewers, but fears putting himself up for evaluation. Since he sees his article as a reflection of himself, and not just his work, his perfectionism is in full gear.

Of course, your work is not you; it is what you produce. When you pour your heart and soul into your work, however, it is hard to separate the two. The first step to getting around this type of perfectionism is to recognize that it is occurring. Once you are aware that your reluctance to submit is related to your feeling that you are your writing, you can begin to have a conversation with yourself that allows you to see that you are much more than your writing. Your writing is just one aspect of your identity. And, it is an aspect of your identity that you need to share in order to enrich. Although you may keep a private journal to record your most intimate thoughts, your academic writing is not meant to be kept private: it is intended to be shared and critiqued. What ends up being critiqued is not you, but your writing.

Perfectionism is pervasive among academics and can lead to a lot of anxiety and stress. However, many academics are able to be happy and successful despite their perfectionism. The key lies in recognizing your perfectionism and figuring out how to deal with it.

I’d love to hear from you: what are some ways you have dealt with perfectionism?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Academic Parents Need to Have Fun Too

Similar to many academics, I live in a small college town in the middle of nowhere, or at least that’s how it seemed when I first moved to Lawrence, Kansas. I since have discovered that there are in fact smaller towns that are even more isolated. Nevertheless, one of my primary concerns when I moved to Kansas was the boredom and isolation I anticipated. Five years later, I am happy to say that I have a reasonably full social life and plenty of great friends.

However, it has not always been this way. I first had to learn what did not work. I also had to learn that it is feasible to be productive, spend time with your family, and enjoy life as well. One way I have been able to do this is to seek out other academics with children with whom I can both be productive and enjoy life.

One thing I have learned is that I cannot rely on social events organized by my child-less colleagues for entertainment. My husband is not an academic, so he finds many functions with only academics to be boring. Many of my colleagues would prefer that I not bring my children to their houses. Because my husband would be bored and my children potentially unwelcome, I often go to these events alone. These get-togethers can be intellectually stimulating, but the people involved often end up talking about work most of the time and fail to provide for much relaxation.  I do attend these events, but don’t rely on them for filling my social life.

Another thing that has not worked so well is to try and have a night on the town with my husband by traveling to Kansas City, which is 45 minutes away. This tactic turns out to be pretty expensive, once we pay for a babysitter, dinner, drinks, etc. Moreover, we unfortunately have had little success finding venues that we both enjoy in Kansas City. We still go to Kansas City, but we usually go as a family during the day or alone, me with my friends, or him with his.

One strategy we have found to be much more enjoyable is to invite a few friends over to break bread with us. Our house parties are very informal, and we often organize them at the very last minute. This past Sunday, for example, turned out to be a beautiful early November day. I called a few of our friends who have children and invited them over. Our three daughters always insist that we invite people who have children to our parties. An all-adult party would be very boring for the kids, and they wouldn’t let us enjoy ourselves. Also, parents with young children often appreciate going to parties where they can bring their kids. Everyone can have a good time because their kids will be occupied with playing with our children and toys. Having an informal gathering such as this at our house at least once a month ensures that our social life is never dull. Of course, we are always happy to attend such events at others’ houses.

Another way that we enjoy ourselves is to go out to dinner with friends who also have children. We usually pick an informal place that is more likely to have food that children like, such as pizza, chicken, tacos, or hamburgers. We also had the brilliant idea to put the children at a separate table. This allows us to have an adult conversation while the children sit at another table and have fun giggling and doing whatever kid things they like to do. Because the kids eventually get a bit rowdy, the more informal the restaurant, the better.

As I write these strategies down, I realize that most of them involve hanging out with people who also have children. We do treasure our many childless friends, but have found it very important to ensure that our social life includes other families with children.

In sum, academic parents deserve to have fun too. And, although it would be nice to transform the academy into a more kid- and fun-friendly place, it likely won’t happen before our kids are grown up. So, in the meantime, it is crucial to figure out ways to enjoy life.

I’d love to hear how you find ways to enjoy yours! What are some of the fun things in your life?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why “Focus on the Book” Is Bad Advice

To achieve tenure at most research-oriented institutions, you either need to publish a series of articles or a book in addition to some articles. The exact number of articles you should publish will vary from one institution to the next. What does not vary much is the fact that “only” writing a book is often not a good strategy for achieving tenure.

There certainly are many fine institutions that have granted faculty tenure on the basis of their having published a single book. Many bright junior faculty are successful at achieving tenure with the only line on their CV under “Publications” being a scholarly book. Nevertheless, I assure you, you do not want to be that person. First, I will explain why. Secondly, I will describe how to publish articles in addition to a book.

I have spoken to many junior colleagues whose mentors and advisors have told them: “Focus on the book.” They encourage them to transform their dissertations into a book that will be published by a major university press. They tell them not to worry about publishing articles or even attending conferences, because their main focus should be on publishing the book. Every time I hear someone tell me they were given this advice, my heart sinks. “Focus on the book” is bad advice for several reasons:

  • 1) Having your entire tenure case rest on one piece of work puts an enormous amount of pressure on you to craft a grand piece of scholarship. For many academics, this stress is ultimately counter-productive, as the pressure to write an opus magnum makes the project seem too overwhelming.
  • 2) If you do not publish articles or attend conferences, how will people know who you are? When you submit your tenure packet, you have to list the names of six to ten people in your field who can vouch for your contribution. If your only contribution is a not-yet-published book, it will be hard to find people who are familiar with your scholarship.
  • 3) Publishing articles in your field can help you get a book contract. The editor of a very well-known university press once assured me that having a high-profile publication on your CV is indeed impressive to acquisitions editors.
  • 4) It takes a long time to write a book. Spending years and years on one project with no tangible results can be depressing. If you send articles out, you can feel a sense of accomplishment with each stage of the article submission and publication process.

If you are still with me, perhaps you now believe that new faculty should not pour all of their energies into writing their book. How, then, do you balance multiple projects? I have three suggestions for successfully balancing more than one project at a time.

  • 1) Different stages: It generally works best when you are working on two projects at different stages. For example, you might be revising a chapter of your book while you are conceptualizing an article draft. Having projects at different stages allows you to capitalize on the writing energies you have and to work on projects in the order that feels best.
  • 2) Different times: I prefer to have one project as my priority for no more than two weeks at a time. For example, the last two weeks my priority was a substantive chapter of my forthcoming book. This week, my priority is revising the first chapter of another book. These are two different projects that I can turn back and forth to and from. The down time also allows me to request feedback on one project and work on the other while I am waiting.
  • 3) Different sizes: If you have a big project (like a book), it can be helpful to have smaller projects that can be finished to keep you going. Working only on a book manuscript for two years without seeing any results can be a long time. In contrast, an article can be published relatively quickly (or at least more quickly than a book)!

Having more than one project going on at the same time (such as a book manuscript and a journal article) permits you to focus your energies where you will be most productive. If you get stuck while writing your book manuscript, you can turn your attention to the article you are working on. If you finish an article draft and ask a colleague to read it, you can return to the book manuscript while you are waiting for feedback.

Rather than focusing all of your writing energy on one book manuscript for six years, it works better to switch back and forth between articles and the book manuscript. The first thing you publish from your dissertation should be an article in a highly visible journal. The steps it takes to publish the article – writing it, revising it, getting feedback, and finding a home for it – will give you a better idea of how your scholarship will be received by scholars other than the members of your dissertation committee. Finally, success at publishing an article can be a great motivator to finish and publish the book.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Importance of Sharing Your Work

Scholarly writing is a conversation with other academics. These conversations happen in formal venues such as academic journals and books, in less formal settings such as academic conferences and colloquia and in informal ways through the sharing of works in progress with colleagues. To be fully engaged with the conversation, it is crucial for academics to participate in all three of these sorts of exchanges.

In Print: Formal Conversations

If you are an academic with a faculty position that requires research productivity, I don’t have to tell you that you need to publish. This would have been made clear to you when you were hired, and you should have some sense of the requirements of your institution. There are all sorts of subtleties with regard to where and how much you need to publish, but you know you need to do it, somehow and somewhere.

Conferencing: Semi-Formal Conversations

You probably also know that you need to participate in conferences. Even if you find the idea of presenting your work at conferences terrifying or if you find academic conferences absolutely unbearable, you still have to do it, at least until you get tenure. Participating in conferences is crucial for attaining visibility in your field, learning about the latest trends in research, and getting feedback on your work in progress. It is very important to figure out what conferences you should attend and to make every effort to participate in them.

Sharing Work in Progress: Informal Conversations

Most new and aspiring academics know about the importance of conference participation and academic publishing, because they are visible aspects of faculty life: people put conference presentations and academic papers on their CVs. What is less visible, yet equally important, is sharing your work in informal ways with trusted colleagues. I would recommend never sending out an article or book chapter for publication without first obtaining feedback from someone you know and trust, and preferably from several people.

Getting feedback in informal ways is important because it allows you to share your work in a less polished form. If you don’t feel as if you are completely done with something, you will be more open to feedback and more willing to change your arguments and ideas on the basis of your reviewers’ suggestions.

In many cases, sharing your work can boost your confidence. We are often our own worst critics, and it can be a real pleasure to hear our colleagues point out how important and well-executed our work is. When you request informal feedback, you can expect honest advice on how to improve your work and finalize it for submission. Often, this will give you the final push you need to send your manuscript out for formal review.

Sharing your work is also important because it can save you lots of time in the peer review process. On average, peer reviews take about six months. You often can get a friend or colleague to read a paper for you and provide feedback in less than one month. (It is always important to agree on a time frame when you give a paper to a colleague for review to ensure that the process is in fact efficient.)

How to Get Feedback: Starting the Conversation

When I was in graduate school, I had no problem getting feedback on my work. Every seminar paper I handed in came back with comments; I could ask my advisor or other members of my committee for comments; and I also had my fellow graduate students on hand to ask for feedback. When I became a faculty member, it quickly became apparent to me that I needed to broaden my networks to continue to get useful feedback. There are several ways to do this.

Tit for Tat: Exchange work with a colleague

One of the best ways to get feedback from a colleague is to offer to exchange work. If both of you are at a similar stage, you can agree to meet somewhere for a morning, during which time you read each other’s drafts in one another’s presence and provide feedback that same morning. That sort of instantaneous feedback is unbeatable in terms of efficiency.

If you can’t find a friend who is at an identical stage as you, you also can ask someone to read something, with the promise that you will return the favor in the future. Many academics have close friends and colleagues with whom they have a permanent exchange relationship: they always read each other’s work at various stages of progress. The advantage to the exchange relationship is that you don’t feel as if you are posing a burden, as you know you will be returning the favor soon.

Form a Writing Group and Build Community in the Process

Another strategy is to form a writing group with colleagues who live near you. You can agree that, over the course of the semester, you will meet four times, and at each meeting, you will discuss one work in progress. This is not always the most efficient way to get feedback, but it is valuable for several reasons. First of all, the dynamics of group feedback are different from individual feedback, and you will get more in-depth and complex feedback than if you just have one reader. For this reason, this sort of group exchange is often best for work in an earlier stage of progress. Secondly, this sort of writing group helps to build community; building community is important for your mental well-being. Finally, it is good for you to know what others at your institution are up to, and it is important for them to have a good idea what you are working on. That way, if a speaker is invited to campus or if there is an initiative related to your work, you will be sure to be involved.

Everyone Does It!

Sharing your published work as well as your work in progress is crucial for any academic. If you need proof of how common this is, I suggest you open up any academic book or article and take a look at the long list of acknowledgements. Most books go on for two or three paragraphs in which the author thanks all of the people that have provided feedback during the writing progress. Most articles list a half a dozen people who have reviewed the work informally.

Whatever strategy you use, it is crucial for you to figure out a way to share your work informally with trusted friends and colleagues before going through the formal review process. It will make your work better, give you confidence in your writing, and save you time in the long run.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Change Your Writing Location and Spark Creativity

Although few academics think of it this way, writing is a creative process. When you write, you pull words together to make a point or argument, to describe a scenario or a person, to analyze data, or to introduce a phenomenon. Doing this well requires creativity and ingenuity.

Once you think of writing as a creative process, it becomes evident that it takes creative energy and that it requires stimulation and inspiration. This does not mean, of course, that you must wait to be inspired to write. With packed schedules and long to-do lists, inspiration rarely strikes on its own. The good news is that you can train your mind to be more creative on demand, and that there are a few tricks you can use to spark creativity.

The trick I am going to focus on in this blog post is very simple: change location. Many writers dream of having the perfect writing spot. For me, this would be a large, sparsely decorated room with hardwood floors, high ceilings, a sturdy cherry writing desk, and most importantly, an enormous window with a view of the sea. Unfortunately, I have no such luxury. Instead, I do much of my writing on my couch, in my cluttered office, and at various coffee shops around town. And, even if I did have an amazing office, it still would be important to try writing in other spaces. The reason is that a change in location sparks creativity.

If you have a favorite writing location that works for you, that is fabulous. However, if you ever find yourself stuck with your writing, it can be a good idea to try a new location, even if it is just for a day. For example, I have a friend who works in her lovely home office most days, but once a week she meets with friends at a local coffee shop where they write together for two hours. For her, injecting a bit of variety in her writing routine provides just enough stimulation to keep going and to continue to be creative and productive.

I have another friend who resolved to write in her office on campus every morning. This strategy worked out well for the first few weeks of the semester. However, as the semester wore on, and fatigue began to set in, she found it more and more difficult to get her creative engines running, and easier to be distracted by all the tasks (and people) that called her attention in her office. She decided to change location, and to try writing at the campus library. This simple strategy of changing location worked wonders for her.

My own strategy is to write at home on my couch for as long as I can each morning. As I do not have Internet access at home, this is a fabulous tactic for me. However, inevitably, as I am at home, my mind wanders and the disorganization in my living room shouts for my attention. As soon as I sense my mind wandering, I pack up my laptop and head out for a coffee shop. That change in location seems to work well. Once I am in a new space, I am able to concentrate again.

There are many possible ways of implementing the idea of changing location. For those of you who have a stable writing location that works, it might be a good idea to meet with friends at a coffee shop once a week to write together. For those of you who are not getting the writing done in your office that you would hope to get done, it might work for you to try a new location: the campus library, a coffee shop, the public library, your home office, or even a friend’s house. For some people, it will work better to change locations every day. For others, adding a little variety into your regular routine is the trick.

The reason changing location works is that, as you are writing, you are – consciously or unconsciously – taking in all that surrounds you. This background noise or scenery will have an impact on how your brain works. If your environment is nurturing and inspiring, that is great and will work to your advantage. Nevertheless, if it is the exact same environment every single day, you might be missing out on an opportunity for creative inspiration by putting yourself in another space. On the other end of things, if you are writing in a less than ideal space – such as your cluttered office or your unkempt living room – you might be limiting your creativity by allowing your mind to focus on all of the things that demand your attention. In that case, you might be surprised how a simple change in location – one with fewer distractions - leads you to new places in your writing.

If you do decide to change it up, let me know how it goes! Either way, best of luck with your writing this week.

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.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Twelve Steps from Dissertation to Book

When I finished my dissertation, I knew I wanted to publish it as a book. I did not, however, have any idea how to publish a book. As I am now at the very end of this long process, I think it is important to outline the steps so that others can know how it works.

I will explain how this generally works. However, keep two things in mind: 1) there is a lot of variation beyond what I describe here and 2) this is generally the process for the first book, not necessarily for the second or third.

Step One: Write the Prospectus. Although it seems daunting, a book prospectus is not a complex document. It contains: 1) a summary of your book that outlines the main argument; 2) a one-paragraph summary of each chapter; 3) a timeline for completion of the book manuscript; 4) a brief description of the target audience and potential classes for course adoption; and 5) the competing literature. Usually these are short documents. Mine have ranged from four to seven single-spaced pages.

Step Two: Submit the Prospectus. Find publishers who might be interested in your book manuscript, and send them the prospectus. Often, they also will want one or two sample chapters. You can send your prospectus to as many publishers as you like. Most publishers list submission guidelines on their websites. These guidelines often indicate exactly what materials they would like to see: usually a prospectus, one or two sample chapters, and a two page CV.

Step Three: Submit the Manuscript. When acquisitions editors receive your prospectus, they make a decision as to whether or not they would like to send your book manuscript out for review. If they do not, they will send you a letter with their regrets. However, if they are interested, they often will call or email you with a request to see more materials. Some presses want to wait for the whole book manuscript to be completed. Others will send out just the prospectus for review. Others will send out 1-4 finished chapters. That depends on the book and the press. They will let you know.

Step Four: The Press Sends Your Manuscript out for Review. You wait between one and twelve months for the reviews to come back. If just the prospectus is under review, this will not take very long. If it is the whole manuscript, usually you will wait several months.

Step Five: You Get a Contract. The press makes a decision based on the reviews. They can decide to a) offer a contract based on the reviews; b) ask you to do more revisions and send it out for review again or c) decline to offer a contract based on the reviews. If it is c), you go back to Step Two.

Step Six: You Sign a Contract. If the reviews are favorable, the press will offer you a contract, which you first negotiate and then sign. Here are some items often up for negotiation: 1) who will pay for the index; 2) who pays for the cover and inside pictures; 3) who pays for the copy-editing; 4) the royalties rate; and 5) when and whether the book will be released in paperback.

Step Seven: You Revise the Manuscript. You revise the manuscript based on the reviews. Some presses will send it out for review again once you revise it. Others will review it internally and ask you to make further revisions. Still others will send it as is to the copy-editor after you make your revisions.

Step Eight: Copy-Editing. Once the book manuscript is revised, it goes to the copy-editor and they proofread the text. This usually takes 1 to 3 months.

Step Nine: Revision. You revise it again, based on the suggestions made by the copy-editor. You then send it back to the copy-editor who sends it to the press after your final approval. You usually have one month to respond to the copy edits.

Step Ten: Page Proofs. Your book is put into page proofs that you get to read and revise again. At this stage, however, you can only make very minor changes. You correct any mistakes and then it goes to the printer.

Step Eleven: In Press. Your book gets printed. This usually takes a couple of months.

Step Twelve: On the Shelf. Your book is available for sale!

As made clear in these twelve steps, publishing an academic book is often a very long process. It is important to keep in mind that it can take years to publish a book, even after you have completed the manuscript. For example, I completed the manuscript for my first book in May 2009 and sent it to a publisher who had agreed to review it. I received the reviews in November 2009, and the publisher offered me a contract on the basis of the reviewers’ evaluations. I signed the contract and then revised the book according to the suggested revisions and returned it to the publisher in March 2010. In June 2010, I received and reviewed the copy-edits. In October 2010, I received and reviewed the page proofs. The book will be out in February 2011 – nearly two years after I had originally “finished” the book manuscript! Keeping this timetable in mind is particularly important if your university prefers you to have a bound book when you go up for tenure.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Six Steps to Writing a Literature Review

In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation, Sonja Foss and William Walters have a chapter that describes a highly efficient way of writing a literature review. I think it provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature in any field.

Step One: Define the area you will be studying. Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in that area, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas.

Step Two: Gather the literature. Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts. Skim the contents of each book and article and look for these five things:
1) Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
2) Definitions of terms
3) Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
4) Gaps you notice in the literature
5) Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating

When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as that takes longer than just typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following the passage. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out the document.

Step Four: Code the literature. Get out a pair of scissors and cut each note apart. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are and place the notes each into a pile. Make sure that each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create your conceptual schema. Go to your computer and type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the themes into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper!

Step Six: Write it up. Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review really can work for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For faculty writing literature reviews for articles, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field you are already familiar with. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to be an effective mentor

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my colleague, Mary, who is in her third year of a tenure track position. As we were waiting for our food to arrive, I asked Mary about her progress on her book project. In our conversation, I pointed out two things: 1) You can submit your book prospectus to multiple publishers and 2) It is advisable to try and publish at least one article out of your book manuscript to draw attention to your work and to gain credibility in the field. Mary lowered her voice and said to me “Tanya, I can’t believe no one has ever told me this before.”

I couldn’t believe it either. I asked Mary who her assigned mentor was. She told me about Jane, a gregarious associate professor who often invited Mary over to dinner and told her how fantastic and brilliant her scholarship was. Jane was providing one kind of mentoring – support and encouragement – but was not giving Jane all she needed to succeed. Jane was depending on this one mentor for all of her needs when, in fact, she requires a variety of mentors to help her on her path towards tenure. In this post, I will explain some of the kinds of help mentors can provide. This information is intended to help both new faculty see what kinds of mentoring to seek out and senior faculty to think of kinds of mentoring they can provide.

1. Support and encouragement. Tenure track faculty need to feel valued, included, and supported. It is crucial for mentors to let new faculty know what their strengths are and to help them build those strengths. This kind of mentoring is particularly important for under-represented faculty who may feel excluded in their departments.

2. Feedback on work in progress. It is essential for academics to have people in their field to whom they can send work for feedback before sending it out for review. Mentors can offer and provide valuable feedback on articles and manuscripts in progress.

3. Advice on professional development. It is often unclear to new faculty just what they need to do in order to be successful in the areas of research, teaching and service. More senior colleagues can explain how to achieve and demonstrate excellence in these areas.

4. Clear expectations for research productivity. Very few junior faculty are clear on just what they will need to achieve tenure. Mentors can help junior faculty to understand what the expectations are in their department, at the university, and at the national level.

5. How and where to publish. It is not always obvious to junior faculty which outlets are most suitable for their research. In some departments, book chapters in edited volumes count for very little, for example. It is important to help junior faculty figure out how and where they need to publish as soon as possible in their career.

6. Strategies for success. Successful new faculty write every day, limit their teaching preparation, and seek out advice from their colleagues. These are strategies that can be learned, and mentors can help new faculty to implement these and other strategies for success.

7. Role models. New faculty need to see successful people similar to them to envision their own success. Faculty of color will do better when they have successful role models who are also people of color. Women faculty can benefit from seeing successful women in their department. Parents with children can learn how faculty with children balance life and work by learning from successful role models.

These are just some of the ways that mentors can be helpful to new faculty. No mentor can or should be expected to take on all of these roles. For this reason, new faculty must also seek out several mentors to ensure that all of their needs are being met. And, senior faculty should provide mentorship in their own areas of strength.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Five kinds of mentors new faculty need

In Robert Boice’s book, Advice for New Faculty, he points out that successful new faculty share a few crucial characteristics. Successful new faculty:

  1. spent three hours or more per week on scholarly writing.
  2. integrated their research into their undergraduate classes.
  3. did not spend major amounts of time on course preparation (after their first semester, they averaged 1–1.5 hours of preparation per lecture hour).
  4. lectured at a pace that allowed for active student participation.
  5. regularly sought advice from colleagues, averaging four hours a week on discussions of research and teaching.

In this blog, I want to focus on #5: Regularly seek advice from colleagues. When I first read that suggestion, I thought to myself that there was no way my assigned mentor would be willing to talk to me for four hours a week. I was right about that. However, what I did not realize is that I needed to expand my idea of what a mentor was. There are at least five types of mentors new faculty need to be successful:

1) Departmental mentors: These are senior colleagues in your department who can help you to understand and navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of your department. They can do this both by providing advice and by coming to your defense behind closed doors. To do this, they need to talk to you. It is crucial to meet with your departmental mentor at least once a semester.

2) Institutional mentors: These are senior colleagues at your institution, who may or may not be in your department. They play a similar role to your departmental mentor, but are particularly savvy about the way the College and/or University operate and can provide you with crucial guidance. I suggest you meet with your institutional mentor at least once a semester.

3) Teaching mentors: These are senior colleagues who are dedicated to undergraduate and graduate education and can provide you with important feedback on your teaching, as well as ways to become a more effective teacher. This person likely will be in your department, as your departmental colleagues are most familiar with your curriculum. Many universities and colleges require Assistant Professors to have peer reviews of their teaching at least once a year. Whether or not this is the case at your institution, it is important for you to meet with a teaching mentor to discuss your teaching at least once a semester.

4) Peer mentors: These are your junior colleagues or people that you know from graduate school or conferences who are at a similar career stage. These relationships are often easier and more casual, yet can be just as important as those with your senior colleagues. Your peers can provide you with feedback on your work, help you to overcome emotional difficulties, provide you with publishing and speaking opportunities, and lend a sympathetic ear. You should meet with one of your peer mentors, by phone or in person, at least once a month.

5) Disciplinary Mentors: These are people more advanced in their careers that are in your subfield, yet not at your institution. As a new faculty member, you need to make contact with people in your field outside your institution both so that they can know who you are and so that they can inform you of important publishing and speaking opportunities. These are people who you eventually will ask to write letters of recommendation for you, and who may serve as external reviewers on your tenure case. You will need to provide a list of about ten people to serve as external reviewers for your tenure file. I suggest you make that list now, and make a plan to meet, in person, or over the phone, each of those people between now and the time you go up for tenure.

All of that said, I will make one final recommendation. Meeting with colleagues is important, but can also be time consuming. To make time for regular meetings in my busy schedule, I try to schedule most of my meetings over meals, especially lunch. I take time to eat lunch every day anyway, and having lunch with a colleague can both be enjoyable and a way to fit meetings into your busy schedule. I also schedule meetings right after teaching, as I generally am not very productive on any other fronts right after class. As for phone conversations with colleagues at other institutions, I often schedule those at times when I can talk while taking my afternoon or evening walk.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ten ways you can write every day

If you've been following the posts this semester on how to have a productive semester, you have already made a plan for the Fall Semester, and blocked out time in your calendar for writing every day.

If you have been writing every day this semester, congratulations! If you haven't, ask yourself "why not?" If you need some ideas on how to actually write every day, then this post is for you!

Write every day” is fabulous advice. But, how do you actually do it? That was my question for a long time before I finally convinced myself to give it a try. Now that I have been writing every day for four years, I can share with you a few ways to make that possible, and explain to you why I do it.

Lettres de Lou

Why you need to write every day

I decided I needed to try to write every day when I found out that scholars who write daily and hold themselves accountable write nearly ten times as much as others! In Robert Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty Members, he explains the virtues of writing every day. Boice describes a study where new faculty were divided into three groups:

  • The first group did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in one year they wrote an average of 17 pages
  • The second group wrote daily and kept a record of their writing; they averaged 64 pages
  • The third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group's average was 157 pages (Boice 1989:609). 

Once I read that, it was clear which group I wanted to be in. I was convinced I should at least try daily writing.

How to write every day

Once I decided I needed to be writing every day, my greatest challenge was to figure out what it meant to write every day. I asked myself, "What counts as daily writing?"

Over time, I came to realize that writing means a lot of things and that there are lots of ways to write every day.

Here are ten ways you can write every day:

  1. Write on a blank page
  2. Line-edit something you have already written
  3. Restructure a paper that you have been working on
  4. Pull together pieces of older documents you have written into a new paper
  5. Check references and footnotes for accuracy
  6. Outline or mind-map a new project
  7. Summarize or take notes on something you have read recently that might be relevant to present or future research projects
  8. Make a revision plan for a rejected article or a “revise and resubmit”
  9. Make tables, figures, graphs, or images to represent visually concepts or trends in a paper
  10. Create an After-the-fact or Reverse Outline
If you think of writing as only #1): Write on a blank page, it will be hard to do that every single day. However, it you are open to other kinds of writing, it will be possible to do at least one of these kinds of writing every day.

I try to do at least two kinds of writing each day, starting with the blank page in the morning. I am at my best early in the morning. I use those early, fresh moments of the day to free-write and to create new material. Once I run out of steam, I might turn to editing something I have written or to checking references. If I get stuck, I will pull out a mind map and brainstorm ideas.

My routine each weekday, then, is to begin the day with writing or writing-related tasks. On a good day, I can concentrate for two hours. Usually, however, my mind drifts after an hour, so I take a break to check email or have some coffee, and put in another hour after my break. I keep track of the time I have spent working on writing so that I can be proud of my accomplishments, and so that I know when I need to stop.

I know that many academics reject as ridiculous the idea that one could or should write every day. To them, I would gently ask if they have ever tried it. And, I would add that it is not only important to try writing every day, but to commit to trying it for at least a month to see if it works for you. It is also important to have others to whom you are accountable and with whom you can share your struggles.

If you do try writing every day, let me know how it goes! If you are a seasoned daily writer, let me know why you keep it up!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Schedule your writing into your week

One of the best ways to become a prolific writer is to write every day. If you write every day, you will make progress on your manuscripts, you will become a better writer, and it will become easier for you to write. To ensure that you write every day, however, it is crucial that you schedule it into your calendar.

Yes, I mean, literally, take out your calendar for next week and set aside time for writing every day. I am sure you are a very busy person with many responsibilities. However, if you are reading this blog, then you likely are looking for ways to be more productive. And, one of the best ways to become more productive is to schedule your writing time and treat it just like any other appointment. Here is how.

Schedule writing every day. Take a look at your schedule for next week and figure out when you might have between 15 minutes and two hours to write every day for five days a week. I prefer to work Monday to Friday, and to leave the weekends to spend time with my family. If, however, you absolutely must work on weekends, it still is advisable to write for at least 15 minutes during the week so that, come Saturday afternoon, you do not have to spend all of your writing time re-acquainting yourself with your manuscript. Spending at least 15 minutes a day with your manuscript means that it will always be fresh in your mind.

Schedule at least 15 minutes but no more than two hours. If you think that there is absolutely no way you could make any progress in 15 minutes, I encourage you to try to think of something you could do in 15 minutes. For example, I imagine you could proofread your introduction, free write, update your references, or revise a footnote in 15 minutes. On a previous blog I listed “Seven Ways You Can Write Every Day.” I also suggest that you do not schedule your writing for more than two hours at a time. If you do have a day with no other obligations, it is likely more productive to schedule two hours of writing, followed by two hours of reading than to try to schedule four hours of writing. After reading and writing for four hours, schedule in a long break that involves food and exercise and try to go in for another round. Alternatively, you can take the afternoon off, knowing that you have just had a very productive morning!

Treat writing like any other appointment. This means that, if you have scheduled writing from 8am to 9am on Monday, and someone asks you to meet at that time, that you have to say, “No, I can’t meet at 8am, how about we meet at 9am?” You, after all, will be very busy from 8am to 9am, working on your manuscript. If you are nervous about claiming you are busy when you are “just” writing, keep two things in mind: 1) If you are at a research university, writing is part of your job; and 2) It is quite unlikely that anyone will actually ask you what you are doing when you tell them that you cannot meet at a particular time.

So, go ahead, take out your calendars, and schedule between 15 minutes and two hours of writing into your week next week.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Five Steps to Setting Semester Goals

There is no denying it: the Fall Semester is here. The beginning of the semester is always a hectic time for academics. We often are anxious about all we have to do in the moment – finalize syllabi, set up appointments, prepare for classes, and re-arrange our schedules – as well as all we have to do over the next few months.

Although you probably are in a frenzy to get ready for the upcoming semester, I am going to suggest that you add one more task to your immediate to-do list: Set goals for the Fall Semester. In this post, I am going to lay out why you need to do this now and explain exactly how to set your goals.

Academic life revolves around semesters which start and end several times over the year. The beginning of a new semester, then, is something that academics experience over and over again. However, even for those of us who have been teaching for many years, new semesters continue to be times of high anxiety and insecurity. We may have taught our classes several times before, but we never know how this batch of students will be. We may have been in our department for years, but it is often unclear what issues or challenges our department will face this year. For new professors and graduate students, the horizons are even less clear. The unknown, logically, leads to anxiety. Setting goals for the fall semester will allow you to see a bit more lucidly what lies ahead and will relieve some of your anxiety by permitting you to come to terms with what you can and cannot accomplish.

Thus, even though it is one more task in addition to all you have to do, I highly recommend you take thirty minutes to sixty minutes out of your busy schedule and sit down and write out your goals for the Fall Semester. Here is how you do it.

Step One: List all of the tasks that you would like to accomplish this semester. Look over your calendar and through your emails to make sure that you do not forget any important tasks.

Step Two: Separate those tasks into categories. The categories I use are: Research, Teaching, Service, and Personal. Dividing these tasks into categories will help you to prioritize your tasks according to your professional trajectory. For example, if you are at a Research I institution, and your Teaching and Service categories are much longer than your Research categories, you may need to figure out how to move things around.

Step Three: Arrange your tasks by month. It’s almost the end of August, but go ahead and put in August anything that needs your immediate attention. Anything with a September deadline goes in September, and anything with an October deadline goes in October. Once you have dealt with the tasks that have deadlines, you can decide where to put the remaining tasks that do not have firm deadlines.

Step Four: Arrange your tasks by weeks. If you have four writing goals for September, then you can place one in each week of the month. If you have two, then give yourself two weeks for each. The point is to decide NOW when you will turn your attention to each task. This will help you to keep on track and to feel less guilty about not dealing with everything at once.

Step Five: Cut. If you have tasks that do not fit into your semester plan, now is the best time to decide that you will either put them off for another semester or remove these tasks from your list of goals. Believe me, it is much better to make this decision now than to have this weigh on your shoulders for the rest of the semester. If the project is something you really would like to do, make it a priority for the Spring semester. If it is something you wish you could get out of, find a way to do that diplomatically. For example, you could say: “I just made a detailed plan for my semester, and have come to realize that I simply do not have the time to complete this work this semester.”

I wish you the best as you plan for the Fall Semester.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Five Reasons Academics Should Set Writing Goals

Some writers may see the setting of goals as the purview of corporate types and far too unromantic for creative tasks. I, however, have found setting writing goals to enhance, not stifle, my productivity and creativity. Setting goals allows me to prioritize my time and tasks and to make sure that my most important tasks are accomplished.

I set goals both for tasks I will accomplish over the course of the semester, month, and week as well as goals for how much time I will dedicate each day to writing. For example, my goals for the Fall Semester include: 1) Drafting two chapters of my book on deportees; 2) Checking and coding my interviews from the Dominican Republic and Brazil; and 3) Making the final revisions to my book on immigration policy. My goals for next week include: 1) Putting the final touches on a conference presentation and 2) Submitting the final draft of a co-authored book chapter. During the Fall Semester, I plan to write for at least one hour a day and code interviews for at least 30 minutes a day.

I learned about goal-setting from Kerry Ann Rockquemore, and have found setting goals to be enormously helpful in terms of my productivity. In this blog, I give five reasons why I find setting goals to be useful.

Reason #1: Setting goals allows you to track your progress, and to feel more productive.
For example, when I set goals for the semester, at the end of the semester, I can see how much I have accomplished. In academia, often, no matter how productive you are, it never seems to be enough. When you learn to set reasonable goals, however, you can feel good about having accomplished them. Often, I might feel as if I have not done very much in a semester. However, once I look over my goals and look at all I have accomplished, I feel more productive.

Reason #2: Setting goals on a regular basis allows you to figure out how much work you can accomplish and helps you to avoid becoming overburdened.
Many academics find themselves unable to meet deadlines and running breathlessly to the finish line. Some people enjoy these marathon sprints. I, however, prefer to move slowly and steadily. Having set goals for the past three years, I have a very good idea as to what I can accomplish in a month, a semester, or a year. Thus, when I am at my limit, I know when to say “no” to additional obligations.

Reason #3: Setting goals helps you to stay on task.
If, at the beginning of the semester, you have an R&R, copy-edits on a manuscript, two article reviews, and a new chapter to draft, you can prioritize those tasks by setting goals. I set my goals and make plans for what will get done when on the basis of deadlines and the time tasks will take. If you start the semester working on the new chapter, you may never get to the R&R or article reviews – which are likely time-sensitive tasks. You will probably feel better about your progress if you get the smaller tasks done first and then move on to the larger, more daunting task of drafting a new chapter. Setting goals helps you to plan and organize your time effectively.

Reason #4: Setting goals helps you to move along at a steady pace.
For example, I usually set a goal of writing at least one hour each day. On days when I have fewer other obligations, I set a goal of writing for two hours. As I know I have a goal of writing at least 60 minutes each day, I make sure to find that time each day, Monday to Friday, to write. This helps to keep my projects fresh in my mind and make it easier to pick up where I left off whenever I need to.

Reason #5: Setting goals helps you know when to stop.
As I mentioned above, I have a good sense of how much time I can dedicate each day to writing, and how much I can accomplish in a semester. When I reach my writing goals – in terms of time or tasks – I stop. Stopping when I know I have done enough allows me to enjoy the time I spend doing non-work related or non-writing related tasks. Having set goals and met them allows me to enjoy the rest of my life guilt-free.

Setting goals is not necessarily about being more productive. It is about learning how to find the time in your life to do the things you want and need to do. In my life, writing is important, but so are teaching, parenting, my friends, my family, and my community. Setting goals allows me to make time for each of those.