Dear Kerry Ann: How Can I Salvage My Summer Writing?
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.
Dear Kerry Ann,
Every year when things get busy during the semester, I tell myself that I can get the majority of my writing done during the summer. It sounds reasonable: I’ll have more time, less stress, and I can be alone with my thoughts. But for a variety of reasons, this summer has slipped by and I haven’t even started (much less finished) any of my writing projects.
Today, when I realized that I only have four weeks left before the new school year begins, I started to panic. I feel angry at myself, guilty that I let so much time pass by and terrified that I’ve put myself in a hole I won’t be able to climb out of. I know it’s impossible to meet my summer writing goals, but I don’t know how to salvage any of my summer writing.
Panicked on the Tenure Track
Take a deep breath -- it’s going to be OK. You’re not the only one feeling like you blinked and all of the sudden the beginning of the new school year is right around the corner (this note is actually a composite of the requests I’ve received in the past week). The summer seems like such a long period of time when we are looking at it through the lens of end-of-the-year exhaustion. It can feel like there’s an endless horizon of unstructured days. But in reality, it’s only 12-15 weeks (depending on your calendar) and it goes by very quickly! If you can forgive yourself for what hasn’t been done thus far, I can suggest a few ways to turbo boost the back end of your summer.
Get Real About Why You Have Not Been Writing
It sounds like you’ve fallen into a common trap for early-career faculty: you procrastinated your writing until the summer and then created an unrealistic fantasy that an entire year's worth of writing could be completed in 12-15 weeks. I hope that you can see from your standpoint of this moment that approach is a setup for failure and guaranteed to stir up feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety (none of which are terribly good motivators for future writing). This isn’t an invitation to beat yourself up, it’s an opportunity to get real about your expectations and work habits moving forward.
I encourage you to take your analysis even deeper by asking yourself what specifically is holding you back. Are you making some technical errors (e.g., you aren’t setting aside specific time for writing, you’re setting aside the wrong time or your tasks are too complex)? Are there some psychological obstacles (e.g. perfectionism, impostor syndrome or a hyperactive inner critic)? Or is it that you’ve had some external reality that has kept you from writing (e.g., birth, death, illness, moving)? If you can clarify what exactly is keeping you from writing, it will both stimulate some compassion for yourself and enable you to create the kind of customized support you need over the next four weeks.
Create a 30-Day Writing Plan
If you have four weeks left before the fall semester begins, then it’s critically important to make a clear and realistic writing plan for the next 30 days. I suggest that you pull that list of writing goals back out and -- without guilt or shame -- prioritize. You will not get everything done, but you can make significant progress in 30 days. Depending on your discipline, year on the tenure track and what’s on your list, you may want to start with the low-hanging fruit (revise and resubmits, manuscripts that are close to being complete, or sections that you can finish and put back in a co-author's hands) just to get momentum. Or alternatively, you may choose to focus on just one big goal and bring it to completion (such as book proposal and sample chapter). Whatever you choose, don’t make the same mistake of being unrealistic and imagining you will somehow get all of your goals met in four weeks without a concrete work plan.
Write Every Day
I cannot say this enough: the most productive academic writers write every day (Monday through Friday). They don’t get by with binge-and-bust writing and they don’t engage in magical thinking (“I hope a year's worth of writing can be done in three months”). They just make writing a daily practice. In your case, Panicked, I recommend writing first thing in the morning. If you put the time and the tasks you need to complete in your calendar at the beginning of the week, then when it’s time to write, all you have to do is set a timer, write and take a break every 30 minutes. What’s critical here is that you don’t try to write for eight hours a day for the next four weeks (that would put you right back in the binge-and-bust cycle). The goal here is to start a consistent daily writing practice that you can sustain throughout the academic year.
Join a Supportive Community of Daily Writers
While we all imagine that we should be perfectly disciplined, organized and motivated writers, I do not recommend you go it alone for the next four weeks. You have not had good results with that strategy thus far, so let’s open up to some alternative possibilities. I strongly recommend you find (either online or in your local community) a group of people who are committed to writing on a daily basis. Don’t worry about whether they are in the same discipline or what they are working on. What you need is a group of people who are actively engaged in the activity you’ve been avoiding since May.
It doesn’t have to be complicated or cost any money! For example, I was struggling with my writing at the beginning of the summer. So I posted on Facebook to see if there were any academic writers who wanted to get together at a café in downtown Detroit and write on a regular schedule. Guess what? People responded, we picked a time/day/place, and we’ve been writing together ever since. Writing groups come in many forms, but the only thing that matters is that you connect to (or create) whatever kind of support and accountability will keep you consistently writing.
For all the panicked academic writers out there, please know that you can not only salvage your summer writing, but you still have time to make it a super-productive summer even if you’re just now getting started. Your moment of panic can turn into an amazing opportunity for you to make intentional choices to prioritize your writing, experiment with new habits and connect yourself with the community, support and accountability you need this summer.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity