Seasons of Writing in the Academic Year

by | Aug 24, 2017 | academic writing, time management, writer's retreat

Academia ebbs and flows. This, in some ways, is the beauty of it. The beginning of each term feels like a new start, and the end of each term feels like closing a chapter. But of course, this rhythm mostly applies to teaching. Research, especially writing, does not begin and end with the semester. It goes on and on, with writing and research projects often taking years from beginning to end. It can be hard to maintain consistency on those long term projects when we are caught up in the ebb and flow of the semester.

So how do we map our writing and research projects on to the academic year, with its semesters beginning, ramping up, and ending?

Mapping your writing and research projects can be done by putting some time and effort into creating (and managing) a publication pipeline. A publication pipeline is just a fancy term for a visual representation of the writing and research projects that you have in different stages of development. It will vary slightly by field.

The idea is that you keep moving things along from idea to publication. This process, though, can (and often does) take years. As a quick example, I’m starting an ethnographic case study this semester that I hope to be able to write up in June. (And that’s a really rushed timeline driven by deadlines for a special journal issue!)  But with any luck, even if I do draft an article in June, I’ll be working on more articles from that data for at least another year after that.

Meanwhile, the semesters (or trimesters, or terms, depending on your institution), have their own (very different) rhythm. They start fine, like everything’s new and shiny and will be OK. Then about 4-5 weeks in things start to get stressful, with more grading and adjustments in planning and students who need things. By the end we are often on a kind of auto-pilot, hoping to finish the semester in one piece. So for the last 3 weeks or so, I feel like I’m a kid on a roller coaster, squeezing my eyes shut until it’s over.

The question is, then, how to maintain your long term projects while still managing the semester?

I think that it can be helpful to think of the academic year as having seasons of writing.

There are moments when writing seems easy—almost inevitable—and moments when it seems impossible to fit in. If you’re on a two-semester system (Spring and Fall), it might look like this:

June: Yay! Huge blocks of open time to finish all those things I didn’t finish during the Spring semester.

July: Hey? Where did June go?

August: Holy crap. None of my writing projects got done this summer. Oh, well. Last chance to go to the beach!

September: Yay! Everything is shiny and new! I got this!

October: OK, some things not going as planned, but I’m still making it.

November: How the heck am I going to finish all this grading? Where did all my writing time go? I have a deadline that I’m NEVER going to make! Why do these students want so much from me? I’m going to hide until it’s over.

Early December: Why do I do this to myself? Maybe I should just do my backup career. Ugh, I don’t have a backup career!!!

Late December: I will now sleep for ten days straight.

January: Yay! Everything is shiny and new! I got this!

You get the picture. 🙂

Here’s the big idea: if you know that the academic year has seasons, then plan your writing practice accordingly.

There are two big factors in making your academic life less stressful: (1) acknowledging that academia has these seasons and (2) being kind to yourself and planning in concert with them—instead of against them.

Let me explain. So much of handling all the multiple projects and deadlines and ALL THE THINGS that are part of our academic life is how we think about them (mindset!). If you know that certain times in the semester are going to be stressful, then pre-plan a pause in your academic writing practice. If you pre-plan it, then it doesn’t feel like “I messed up and couldn’t get my writing done.” Instead of negative messages about writing, productivity, and our worth as academics, pre-planning sets you up for positive messages about your ability to handle things, know yourself, and plan.

So right now, get out your planner. Identify the three most difficult weeks of the semester. Write a note to yourself in your calendar on day one of those three weeks. It should say something like: “Hey you! Things are about to get rough. But you can do hard things! Be gentle on yourself. Don’t expect to get a lot of writing done for the next three weeks. Just aim for one or two hours each week. You’ll pick up steam again later. ;)” Don’t forget the winky smiley face.

Then, pencil in the one or two hours.

Once you’ve scheduled in (yes, actually put on your calendar) a scaled back writing plan, you can look ahead and create a scaled up writing time at another moment in the year. To scale up again, plan a sprint or a writing retreat.


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