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For many academics, summer is traditionally associated with open stretches of time and ambitious writing agendas. Many of us put off writing articles and book proposals during the year in anticipation of all the free time we plan to have. As Beth L. Hewett wrote recently in Inside Higher Ed, “’tis the season for publishing,” and we can use these summer months to work more effectively with editors.

So here we are, with much of the summer behind us. Have you started writing yet? The answer might be “sort of” or even no. It happens every summer.

The reasons for scant productive writing during summer might range from having kids home from school or planned vacations that cut into concentrated work time. Some of us rightfully need a few weeks of downtime after a hectic academic year. However, you might also not be writing because:

  • You have no idea what to start working on because you have several projects in various states of progress.
  • You don’t remember where you left off on individual projects.
  • You are stuck on a project or projects.
  • You simply don’t know how to begin.

The result is often paralysis -- despite having an overwhelming amount of work you want to accomplish while precious summer days continue to slip away.

I’d like to propose a simple strategy to get moving on these writing projects: take a week to develop a master scholarship plan and figure out where you are. That may seem like wasting another week you cannot afford to lose when you are already behind, but I’d argue establishing a scholarship plan not just for this summer but also for next year is time well spent.

When coaching faculty members to develop a master scholarship plan, I typically start with a simple chart. A column to the far left-hand side lists “projects/project ideas” at the top. Other columns are: “outlet,” “status,” “deadlines” and “notes.” I pass out the chart, and we spend an hour working through the following questions to fill it in:

  • What do you owe colleagues, editors or journals? What projects did you promise you would deliver? (Each of those items is a project and can be listed in the chart, along with the relevant outlet, status, deadline and notes).
  • What items do you need to finish for yearly, third-year or tenure and promotion review? When do those projects have to be submitted to have a reasonable chance at publication? (For example, if you must have a solo-authored manuscript, one of the items in the chart might be the book proposal with a closer deadline.)
  • What conference presentations have you given recently that can potentially be turned into articles or white papers?
  • What conferences do you apply for every year? When are the deadlines? What new conferences do you want to attend? What are those deadlines? (Such projects can be listed as “Presentation for Conference ABC” if you aren’t sure of a clear presentation idea yet. Just getting them on the chart helps put them on your radar.)
  • Are any grant applications due? When are the deadlines for the upcoming year?
  • Have any half-completed projects remained half completed for some time?
  • What dream projects do you want to do? What are vague ideas for scholarly projects that you don’t want to forget about? (Each idea can be listed as a project.)

Once we get the initial skeleton filled in, we spend the remaining time completing the remaining columns. For status, a short note is filled in saying something like, “just an idea,” “rejected from journal X,” “draft” or “with a co-author,” along with what was worked on the last time they touched the project.

Faculty members also dig deep into email, looking for threads of conversation on what exactly they have to work on and where conversations on projects were left off. They also scan for revise and resubmit and rejection emails from journals, as well as email receipts of submissions to find out when projects were submitted and if they need to check back on those projects. They also write notes about resources needed to complete the project (interlibrary loan books, other articles, another study that confirms a finding, documentation style requirements for a journal and so on).

Next, for large projects on the chart such as future books, we typically look up several presses and a link to submission criteria for each project to post in the notes. For grants, we look up links to criteria and deadlines, along with links to sample grant models.

Once the chart is complete, we review the now completed “big picture” of scholarship and use the planning week to figure out what one or two projects should be tackled first and what is necessary to move those projects forward. I typically suggest starting with projects we owe colleagues, because some of the paralysis and anxiety is often due to guilt over not completing those items for others. I also encourage faculty members to identify projects with immediate deadlines as well as what absolutely must be completed for tenure and promotion within the following year to stay on track.

We also take a close look at half-completed projects; typically, they are projects that faculty members are no longer interested in but feel they must complete because they have made some progress. We set a 30-day deadline to finish these half-complete projects -- or otherwise abandon them.

With the big picture of scholarship re-established, faculty members typically do not have trouble choosing a few projects to complete over the summer, and the very act of making the chart and identifying a to-do list prompts many faculty to feel like they have already made some progress. The list may look overwhelming, but it does provide a snapshot and visual to-do list of what is needed on a variety of projects. The list is also useful for participating in a faculty writing group, as suggested by Eszter Hargittai, because there are clear goals to work toward.

Taking stock is an important way to productively get started when summer paralysis strikes. It’s worth setting aside the time to do it, because the new academic year will be here before you know it.

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