Beating the Summer Writing Blues

Joy Gaston Gayles and Anthony Ocampo share some strategies to help you feel more confident about the quality and quantity of your work over the next few months.

July 9, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/heather_mcgrath

Dear Mentors:

Summer is here! I'm excited because I finally get to focus on my research and writing. I’ve not been able to make the kind of progress I'd like on my writing projects during the academic year since starting on the tenure track. For the past few years, I've always looked forward to summer to play catch-up.

But I'm also feeling anxious about another summer of not meeting my writing goals. The last two summers, when I expected to get a lot of writing done, I hardly got anything out of the door. I'm also nervous because I'm running out of summers before it's time for me to go up for tenure and promotion. Part of my frustration is the realization that it takes me a long time to write. I'm starting to wonder if this is the right profession for me, given that writing has been such a struggle. It seems like my colleagues are cranking out manuscripts in their sleep!

I’m concerned that my reputation in the field will be damaged because I struggle to meet deadlines with collaborators -- particularly when the turnaround time for writing papers for special theme issues or book chapters is short. I start with good intentions then quickly feel overwhelmed by all of the stuff on my plate that must get done. When I finally do get around to writing, it’s usually because I have a looming deadline. I feel rushed, anxious and as if it’s not my best work. I know there has to be a better way to do this work. If not, I may need to consider another career option.

Sincerely,

Summer Writing Blues

Dear Summer Writing Blues,

Thank you for being so open and candid about your anxiety and fears concerning summer writing productivity. It can be difficult to balance teaching, service, research and writing during the academic year. We’ve worked with many faculty members over the years who share the same concerns. Please know that you are not alone in the struggle to find time to write -- and to write through resistance.

The writing and publishing process involves a lot of rejection, which is why many people tend to avoid it. Also, most of what you’re experiencing is not an individual problem but a structural issue. Faculty members usually prioritize their time based on what they are being held accountable for in the present. The seemingly urgent tasks on your to-do list take priority over the truly important tasks that contribute to your long-term success. This is another major reason why research and writing often fall by the wayside day after day and month after month.

The great news is that some strategies can help faculty members align their time with their priorities to increase productivity all year long, including those our organization, the National Center for Development and Diversity, offers. Such strategies also help faculty break the habit of waiting until they have long periods of time to get their writing done. We can’t guarantee that the approaches we suggest work exactly the same for everyone. But we know that faculty members who experiment with different strategies feel more confident about the quality and quantity of work that they produce over time.

Inventory your writing process. Every writing project has a logistical process. Each writing task -- whether it’s drafting a journal article, writing a book proposal or preparing an external grant application -- has a distinct set of steps that move you from start to completion. Therefore, you must have a plan. Writing without one is like going on a road trip from Los Angeles to Atlanta without bothering to look at Google Maps. Yes, you can drive east and eventually get there, but it would not be time efficient, and you’d be frustrated all along the way. Like a road trip, some parts of writing are going to be exhilarating, but a fair amount of it is going to be pretty boring. And, inevitably, it’s going to take a very long time.

Do yourself a favor and map out the necessary steps for your writing project. And make sure to break it up into goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, attractive, realistic and time framed. Once you do this, estimate how long each of these steps may take. Trust us, we know academics, so you’re probably going to underestimate how long things actually take. As a result, we suggest that you multiply your estimated time by 2.5 to give you plenty of breathing room. For example, if you think writing a literature review is going to take two weeks, give yourself five weeks to write it. Don’t implement a set of expectations that will further dampen your morale and momentum. Over time, modest goals lead to big gains. We promise!

Please remember, too, that every step in the process also has an emotional component. We love some parts of a writing project and avoid others like the plague. Other times, writing can drain us emotionally because of the topic we are writing about. It’s important to know which sections of the writing project take us longer so we can relax our expectations.

For example, the current book project of one of us, Anthony, focuses on LGBTQ children of immigrants. One thing he realized in the middle of his writing process was that writing about experiences of young queer people growing up was challenging because of the incredible hardships they faced. Given his topic, it was easy to get emotionally overwhelmed by his data, so he decided to give himself a day or two to decompress whenever he encountered an interview that was especially difficult to hear.

Ask for what you need. In our experiences coaching faculty members, time is one of their most commonly cited needs. All faculty members are juggling multiple obligations in their jobs -- from teaching to service to other writing projects -- and yet they are often overambitious about when they think they can meet a deadline. They underestimate how long a task will take, and then when the deadline approaches, they panic and become avoidant.

We can’t tell you how many faculty members we’ve encountered who have spoken about collaborators going MIA. We also met faculty who have admitted to us that they are avoiding their collaborators’ emails regarding a deadline because they don’t want to disappoint them.

Instead of being avoidant, we want to encourage you to get clear about what you need. If you have a tight deadline, see if you can negotiate with your collaborator for an extra few weeks. If the deadline is firm, then consider finding outside assistance, like a research assistant or a professional editor, to help you get unstuck. In other words, ask yourself: What resources do I need to move my writing project forward?

Because he’s done an inventory of his writing process, Anthony is aware that the hardest part of writing an article or book chapter occurs at the front end. So whenever he is beginning a new writing project, he intentionally schedules a one-hour conversation with a trusted colleague. He then inarticulately vomits out all the ideas he has for the project to his friend. Over the course of that hour, the two together figure out the main argument of Anthony’s piece and then do a bit of storyboarding or outlining to catalyze some momentum. Whenever Anthony becomes resistant to writing, he calls on his friend to help him. Your process may be different, but the point is to get to know where you predictably get stuck and what resources you need to get unstuck.

Create meaningful accountability structures. As campus workshop facilitators, we have the privilege to meet with faculty members all around the country to talk about the challenges they face when trying to get their writing done. Anthony often presents the following scenario to those who attend the workshop.

Anthony: Let’s imagine you teach a 10 a.m. class on a Monday. And at 10:15 a.m., you’re on your couch watching some show on Netflix. What would happen?

Faculty member: That would never happen.

Anthony: Let’s just imagine that it does.

Faculty member: Some student would go to the department office and report that I wasn’t there. Then the department administrator would call me. Then I’d probably get in trouble with the chair.

Anthony: OK, let’s imagine that you have a 10 a.m. meeting on a Tuesday with the dean. And at 10:15 a.m., you’re on your couch watching some show on Netflix. What would happen?

Faculty member: Now I know that would never happen.

Anthony: Interesting. Now let’s say that you’ve put it on your calendar to get some writing done at 10 a.m. on a Monday. And at 10:15 a.m., you’re on your couch watching Netflix. What would happen?

Faculty member: Nothing.

Herein lies the irony: writing and publishing are a major part of your tenure and promotion evaluation. And yet, on a day-to-day basis, writing doesn’t have the same accountability mechanisms in place as our teaching and service. If we miss a writing session, literally nothing happens (that is, until we encounter our annual review/third-year review). So we have to manufacture our own accountability mechanisms.

They can take a number of forms. Maybe all you need is a “nag buddy” to text or email you on a daily basis to make sure you touched your writing project. Another strategy could be to set up a monthly call with a writing group to check in about the progress you made with your writing over the past month. You can determine whether these check-ins will involve feedback exchange or just a verbal check-in of your progress. There are many different ways to create accountability for your writing, so pick whichever one is the best fit for you this summer.

We hope that you are willing to experiment with these strategies this summer. Much of what we teach at National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity is very different from how faculty members have been socialized to work in academe. Therefore, we understand that what we are suggesting may not be easy to do at first. We’ve found, however, that when you are open to experimenting with new strategies for as short as two weeks, positive change happens. It will be important for you to try the strategies, collect data on yourself and use it to assess and make changes to how you approach research and writing.

In the beginning of her career, the other of us, Joy, did not have a sense of what her writing process was like, and she questioned if academe was the right field for her, given how much she loathed writing but loved her publications when they came out. She was ashamed to talk to her colleagues because she didn't want to expose herself and risk them regretting the decision to hire her. Over all, she was productive. But it didn’t feel good to binge write, because she became so tired and fatigued that she didn’t want to write again until there was another deadline.

When Joy experimented with the same strategies we are sharing with you, she experienced explosive productivity, felt great about the writing process and, most important, created a life outside academe. She now has more time and energy to spend on her family and friends.

In sum, instead of dog-paddling toward your writing goals, take the time to master the mechanics of the process. Getting intimately familiar with your writing process can make writing not only more efficient but also more enjoyable.

Peace and productivity,

Joy Gaston Gayles, professor of higher education and university faculty scholar at North Carolina State University

Anthony Ocampo, director of campus workshops at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity and an associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona

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