Making Time for Writing (and research, and teaching, and service, and…)

Relevant Belcher chapter: Week 1: Designing your Plan for Writing

Belcher’s book is full of practical advice on getting writing ready for publication. The simplest and most important is the one I find the most difficult to do: write daily. Last semester, I taught two days a week, and on those two days, it seemed that my entire day was consumed with teaching-related activities. I had grant-writing and committee work to do. I also made the mistake of agreeing to write an encyclopedia entry (won’t do it again ‘till after tenure!!!!), which turned out to be much, much more time consuming than I ever imagined. I had to find a way to balance out all of these responsibilities with a schedule I could stick to.

At the end of the day, the schedule that finally helped me continue to make progress on my own writing looked something like this:

Monday Teaching and teaching-related responsibilities

15 minutes of writing (using a timer)

Tuesday: Grant-writing, encyclopedia-writing, and committee-related work

15 minutes of writing (using a timer)

Wednesday Teaching and teaching related responsibilities

15 minutes of writing (using a timer)

Thursday: Writing
Friday Writing (including attending a writing group on campus with other faculty)

At the end of the semester, I had a finished draft of an article ready for submission, a draft of an introduction to a special issue I am co-editing, and a conference paper; I also made major revisions to another article, which was accepted, and minor revisions to another, which is now out. I also wrote and submitted that accursed encyclopedia entry, submitted an internal grant proposal, and wrote a preliminary draft of an external grant proposal. However, I arrived at this schedule following a series of fits and starts. Before I begin creating a schedule for next year that will allow me to write this book and balance my other responsibilities, I want to consider what worked, and what I could improve.

So what worked?

The first thing that made a noticeable impact on my Thursday and Friday productivity were those 15 minutes writing sessions I forced myself to do from M-W. I wish I had discovered them in September, because the difference, even in the first week, was dramatic. Writing for 15 minutes a day on days that I did not devote to writing kept the writing “fresh” (using Belcher’s terminology). Because the exercise was “low-stakes” I didn’t feel pressured or disappointed if I didn’t make significant progress on my writing –as long as I wrote for 15 minutes, my goal was met, and it didn’t really matter if what I wrote was any good or not, so long as I kept writing (and, by the way, some of my best ideas came out of those 15 minute sessions!). All I did was stop at some point in my day, set a 15 minute alarm on my iPad, open up my current writing project, enter “focus view” in Word (AMAZING!), mute my computer, and write on whatever came to mind. When the timer went off, I stopped (usually), un-muted my computer, exited focus view, and went back to whatever task I was working on. Easy and incredibly helpful when Thursday and Friday rolled around.

The second thing that worked well for me was making Tuesday my “giving back to Caesar” day. This meant that I maintained firm boundaries between my “other” work stuff, things like committee work and grant-writing, and my “real” work, my own personal writing. Because I knew that I only had one day a week to devote to this stuff, this made Tuesdays very productive. Because the grant I’ve been working on is being written with a collaborator, I would check in with him via email and continue about my day. I spent significant amounts of time trying to find an appropriate grant to submit to. Some things about grants (like research questions and methodology) are the same no matter where we submit, so those things I was able to work on. I also spent quite a bit of time contacting program directors and pitching the grant, a useful exercise that will hopefully keep me from wasting my time submitting grants I have zero chances of winning. I also worked from home on Tuesdays, and for some reason found that working on Caesar stuff just flowed better there (I always have one day a week I work from home, this semester it happened to be Tuesdays).

The faculty writing club, which meets for two hours every Friday, has been great for my productivity. It changes things up, getting me out of my office and sitting around a table with other faculty who are also working on writing projects of their own. We chat about what we’re working on and then spend the rest of the time writing next to each other. Weird, I know, but effective for me. The people in my group come from several different fields and schools –one is a chemist, another a sociologist, another works in the school of public health and public policy, yet another is a colleague in my department writing on biological anthropology. We don’t read each other’s stuff, and our research interests are dramatically different from one another, but we share a similar journey and similar struggles in the pressure to publish or perish, in teaching, in fulfilling our academic and professional responsibilities. It always helps to know the road we walk is not nearly as lonely as it first appears to be.

The final thing you might notice about my writing schedule is that Saturdays and Sundays aren’t listed. That’s right. I don’t work on weekends. It might sound insane, but here’s why: I have a young child at home (3), and a spouse whose company I enjoy. If I let work take over my weekend, I lose valuable time with them. So, I made the decision early on to keep work at work: I belong to my university from Monday to Friday, but to my family (and myself!) on Saturday and Sunday. I usually try to resist even checking email, though I do occasionally check in.

What could be improved?

First, I wish I had had this schedule from the get-go. I spent a lot of time doing things that weren’t working: I didn’t do any personal writing on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, which made it difficult to get going Thursdays and Fridays, and I struggled for a good number of months before I figured it out.

Second, I still had some trouble with adequately scheduling my time on Thursdays and Fridays. Belcher rightly mentions that rates of return go down after spending more than 4 or 5 hours writing, and definitely found that the more time I spent “writing” the less productive I seemed. In my next schedule, I want to better schedule my time so that I can get the most “bang” for my “buck.” Moreover, I will have to schedule time for transcribing and coding, which is mindless, time-consuming work.

Finally, keeping my weekends is important to me, but I am concerned that writing a book is not the same as writing an article, and that my current pace might keep me from writing as many chapters as I should to complete the manuscript. I need to figure out what is realistic, and how to set my pace.


One thought on “Making Time for Writing (and research, and teaching, and service, and…)

  1. Pingback: Is Creating a Writing Schedule Just Asking for Trouble? | Writing Fiction Blog

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