How to Get Writing Done

To advance in academe you must publish. But where to find the time?

September 21, 2015

For tenure-track faculty at many institutions, the pressure to publish is high, as a successful record of publications is often crucial to getting tenure. But untenured faculty juggle so many other responsibilities -- teaching, grading, committee work, the everyday challenges of getting acclimated to a new position -- that it can be all too easy to let writing responsibilities fall by the wayside.

As a new academic year begins, how can you commit to writing regularly during your busy semester? Here are a few suggestions for increasing your productivity and working toward seeing your work in print.

Give yourself a research day and hold fast to it. During my first year in a tenure-track position, I felt obligated to say yes to many of the invitations and requests that came my way -- including not only saying yes to committee work and other things I was asked to help out with but also agreeing to suggested meeting times, even if these conflicted with my weekly writing schedule. I was surprised, in a group email, to see another colleague respond to attempts to schedule a meeting by writing: “No, I can’t do Monday -- that’s my research day.” Monday was the only day of the week this colleague didn’t teach classes, and therefore he kept the day reserved for writing. I didn’t teach on Mondays either, yet I felt that meant that I was technically available and could make a meeting if someone asked me to be there. But my colleague’s email made me realize that you can say, “No, sorry, I need to keep that day clear for writing.”

If you are in a position where publications are required for tenure, don’t forget that research is an important part of your job. Saying that you can’t be available for, or even be part of, certain meetings or committees is not a shirking of job responsibilities, but a way of juggling responsibilities to ensure all are met.

Open up the laptop. When I began my doctoral program, a mentor advised me to develop the habit of writing 500 words every day, without exception. A few years later, as I was struggling to complete my dissertation, I received a simpler -- and even more helpful -- piece of advice: just open up your laptop once a day.

Once you get your laptop open and pull up the Word document for your current project, you will start writing, and it’s likely that you will not only hit your daily word count requirement, but continue beyond that. Even writers who close their laptops after hitting their daily 500 words will, over a period of only 10 days, have 5,000 words written, which is the meat and potatoes of an article draft. Don’t get daunted by the idea of writing an article or chapter. Take it on in small doses and commit to it: consistently sticking to simple goals will quickly add up.

Keep the writing process going. Don't leave your writing behind after you do your daily 500 words (or one hour, or two pages, or whatever commitment you make to yourself). Engage with thoughts and ideas as they pop into your head throughout the day: in the grocery line, in the shower, while watching television and so on. Some of my greatest moments of clarification and inspiration with regard to my work have come to me not when I am sitting in front of my laptop trying to pound out those 500 words, but when I’m doing things I find relaxing or enjoyable, like going for a jog or making dinner.

You might be done with your daily writing by 9 a.m., but try to avoid turning off your laptop and putting your work completely out of your mind for the rest of the day -- instead, let ideas continue to simmer in your head, and you’ll find that even more will brew. Sometimes stepping away from the screen allows us to think through things from different angles. A change of scenery -- some fresh air and sunlight after hours in the office -- can be crucial to getting creative juices flowing again or providing that much-needed sense of direction.

And, like thinking, writing doesn’t have to happen only in front of the laptop. When I’ve had moments of inspiration while on a jog or stuck in traffic, I’ve used my cell phone to record my voice speaking out my ideas, so I have them saved to type up later. Get creative about when, where and how you work on your research and you may find you are suddenly much more productive -- inspiration and solutions to writing problems may crop up at unexpected moments, and learning to harness these opportunities can make you a much more productive writer.

Find a potential venue for your work. Locating a journal that will potentially publish something you’re working on can help you to prioritize certain projects over others, push you to finish a piece, and force you to set reasonable time frames and length limitations on your work. For example, in researching a journal that you think may be a good fit for an article you’re writing, you may learn that the journal is publishing a special issue closely related to your topic, but that submissions must be received within the next three months and must be between 6,000 and 8,000 words. Suddenly, you have both a concrete deadline and a set word count to work with. The real possibility of seeing your work in print in the near future can often be just the motivation you need to turn a rough draft into a finished product.

Consider the type of writing you are doing and what counts most for tenure. When I started my tenure-track position fresh out of graduate school, I thought that giving frequent conference presentations -- as many as four or five a year -- would be a good way to show that I was doing research and staying active with regard to scholarship. Preparing for conferences also felt very familiar and manageable in my first whirlwind year as a full-timer: I could write the 500-word abstract, expand that into a seven-page paper that I could talk through in 15 minutes, and, down the road, eventually turn that talk into a publication.

However, because I was quickly jumping from one conference to the next, I wasn’t leaving enough time for the most important step in that process: expanding and revising the talk into a publishable article after the conference. Instead, I was spending too much time on the conference experience itself -- drafting and rehearsing my talks, packing my suitcase, rushing into and out of airports and hotels and convention centers, with not enough time set aside to simply write. I’ve since scaled down to attending only one or two major conferences a year so that I can focus most of my time on turning my work into publishable peer-reviewed articles -- which will carry the most weight when I go up for tenure. I also ensure that any material I present at a conference is something I can develop into a publishable piece in the immediate future, rather than leaving it to lapse as a talk that never becomes an article.

Connect the classroom to the research. At some institutions, scholarship on teaching and learning is valued and can be counted toward tenure like any other publication. Find out how such scholarship is viewed at your institution and whether it can be counted toward the publications you need for tenure and promotion. Journals like the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning publish pedagogical research from all disciplines.

Capitalizing on opportunities to write about what is happening in your classroom is a way of killing two birds with one stone -- instead of feeling as if teaching limits the amount of time you have to spend on research, consider how the classroom can become a space for conducting research and producing scholarship.

Remember how long the process takes and that the clock is always ticking. It can be tempting to procrastinate on your scholarship during your first year or two as a new hire, since you may not be going up for tenure for five or six more years. But remember that the process of publishing something can be a very lengthy one, often much longer than one might anticipate or hope for. This is true not only in the case of publishing a book but also even when it comes to publishing articles. Submissions to a peer-reviewed journal can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to be evaluated, and even if your piece is accepted upon initial submission, it might not appear in print for a year or more. (And, at a time when publishers and journals can easily fold under economic pressures, you may find that your tenure review committee does not accept forthcoming publications.)

If you are invited to revise and resubmit your article, you may be given anywhere from six months to a year to revise the piece -- time you should use to make substantial revisions if you want your piece to be accepted the second time around. From there, your resubmitted article may be reviewed by the editor or sent out for a second round of peer review before it is accepted. As such, in revise-and-resubmit cases, the entire process from initial submission to publication could be as long as two to three years. If a piece you resubmit is ultimately rejected, you will need to start this entire process over, either with another journal or a different article.

Use your knowledge of how the long the publishing process can take as a source of motivation, even in your early years on the tenure track. Remember, too, that although tenure may be years away, you will likely have a mid-tenure review. If, by that point, you’ve published little or nothing, you may raise concerns with your department chair or dean, adding stress that you don’t need as you begin the second half of your countdown toward tenure.


Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College.


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