I’ll be the first to admit that I went a little overboard with my writing goals for this summer. I’m sure that I’m not the only one.
In addition to drafting and submitting a large collaborative grant proposal, I’m also committed to analyzing data and writing up reports for three sponsored research projects, drafting an article due in August, launching a couple new research projects with colleagues (with all the IRB fun that entails), prepping another large grant proposal for the fall, hosting a weekly podcast, and preparing for the launch of my new book this November. I’m also hoping to spend part of the summer thinking ahead to the nine conference proposals that went in for this fall and trying to get some planning for those completed.
And all these projects aren’t counting the ones that I’m forgetting at the moment.
As much as I love my collaborators and my work, at some point I have to ask myself, how do I accumulate this load of projects?
I’ve narrowed it down to a few reasons. First, it’s hard to say no to working with people you like when they call you or email you and invite you to be one of the cool kids on their writing project. Many of the folks I’m working with this summer and into the fall are people that I respect in my field and whom I’m proud to conduct research with.
Second, when you love what you do, you find a lot of fascinating things to research. It’s hard to turn ideas away when you are interested in keeping your scholarly pipeline flowing.
Setting the first two reasons aside, however, leaves a third major area that threatens many academics: the lure of the “easy article.”
We’ve all been there. You consider an idea, argument, review of the literature, etc. and you think to yourself, I could throw that together in a few weeks — that’s an easy article.
I’ve got news for you, folks. There is no easy peer-reviewed article. That is an academic myth, probably perpetuated by graduate students and junior scholars who are trying to find shortcuts to publication. It’s a form of denial that is the foundation of the idea that writing and publication doesn’t really have to take hard work, intentional thought, and dedication.
We all know that articles aren’t just thrown together. They are (painstakingly) drafted. And re-drafted. And revised. And set aside for a while. And then taken up again for another round of writing before (finally) being sent out for review. And that’s if you’re lucky and you don’t get sidetracked somewhere along the writing process by all the other tasks of academic life.
But, wait, you say. I know someone who had an academic peer-reviewed article published that only took them a few weeks to write.
Are you sure that’s not an urban legend that you heard about a colleague of a colleague? Okay, so maybe it happens. But it’s rare. And focusing on these rare occasions may end up being more demotivating than anything else once we get into a project and realize it’s more complicated than we thought it would be.
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but I do feel the need for a little realism as I enter a summer where I’ll be moving, at minimum, seven different projects forward at a pace that’s meant to leave me feeling like I can claim writing success by the time fall term rolls around. Even with this load of projects, I know that I can’t make the mistake of thinking that I can hammer out several of these pieces quickly and use the summer to become a kind of article-writing-machine.
As all academics know, peer-reviewed articles become more complicated once you start drafting them. Tensions arise between your argument and literature that you didn’t know existed. You realize that there is a more nuanced way to present your ideas that requires a little extra thought. You can’t quite seem to get your organizational structure to work out. Any number of things shift an “easy article” into a “will-this-ever-be-done-article.”
Every summer, when I find myself over-committed, I pause in late July to re-prioritize my projects and to answer the question, “what would it take at this point to have a successful summer?” By making a new list of “to-dos” I am always able to get a better grasp on what I can actually complete in the final summer month and what will need to continue into the fall.
I always promise myself that I won’t ever take on this many projects simultaneously again. My time and energy necessarily must go into each project I sign on to and there’s only so much to go around. But in a rapidly growing area of research like the one I work with (distance education), the opportunities are abundant and it’s incredibly difficult to say no.
I know I’m not alone in this.
At this stage in my career, I’m starting to accept the load and create a plan for regular prioritization cycles to keep things moving forward. After several summers of up to a dozen projects being juggled at one time, I’m learning to face the reality of what it means to have a full academic writing pipeline.
Rather than fight it, I’m planning on it.
To think on:
- Ask yourself what will it take to make your upcoming season of writing successful and plan backward from there to accomplish the goals you set for yourself.
- How do you choose your writing projects or prioritize your writing when you are working on more than one manuscript or project at the same time?
- What kinds of limits do you set on your work load for summer?