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July 27, 2011


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I am a new prof, starting this fall with 2 small kids and 4 new course preps so I'd be interested in hearing tips as well. I tend to do my clearest thinking very early in the morning so my plan is to set aside 1-2 hours per morning (early - maybe 5-7 am) for writing projects only and maybe one weekend morning giving it more like 4-5 hours. This is the goal anyway!


Family: me + wife who is a professional, working long hours, and 2 children.

I like anon's goals. Here's what I do: wake up no later than 5:30a.m., preferably b/w 4:30a.m. and 5:00a.m., then toiletry, followed by work until about 6:40a.m. Wake up kids, make lunch, breakfast, help them with workbooks and reading, and then wife or I take them to school. Back to work about 8:30a.m.. At some point in day prepare for classes and do committee work, and the rest of the time--even if there are only 20 minutes of down time--research, read, and write. Home at 5:30p.m.: make dinner, eat, homework with children, music lessons with them. Back to work at 8:30. Leave time for hobbies. Sleep no more than 6 hrs a night--no more on weekend than on weekday.

Life is too short to waste time. Savor every moment.

Jeff Yates

As with many academics, I simply commit to presenting a paper at a conference and then have to have it done and sent to panel discussants before the conference date. This gets it done reasonably well. Books are a tougher issue ...

Jeff Yates

I almost forgot - many people find the following book helpful in writing:

"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" -- Anne Lamott

Kevin Jon Heller

When I wrote my book, I realized that I could no longer rely on the binge writing that had served me so well since college. Instead, I gave myself a daily word quota: 500 words per day during the week; 750 words per day on the weekend. If I wrote more than the quota, I could "bank" the difference -- and once I had banked the requisite number of words, I could take a day off.

I didn't always make my quota, but I hit it more than 80% of the time. And lo and behold, I produced a 180,000 word book in a less than a year. Without the quota, I don't know what I would have done.

Another tip: write anywhere, even if it is just a couple of hundred words. And do it every day: at the airport, on a plane, over morning coffee, etc. You would be surprised at how quickly it adds up. Even 200 words per day for a month is more than 6,000 words. Do that for a few months, and you have a law review article.

Mary Dudziak

There are at least three separate issues here -- where, when and how.

Especially with little ones, "where" is often at home, and that means that "when" is either very early or late, depending on what works for you. For a lot of folks, beginning the day when the rest of the family is asleep works pretty well. But what if the baby decides to wake up at 5 am? Both because I write better late instead of early, and I couldn't count on my little one sleeping until 6, I would often write once everyone else was in bed.

Especially if you are writing at home, you need a designated writing place. It doesn't need to be a separate office (though that's ideal). It might even be a corner in the basement or another room, set up with whatever you need. When you go to your writing place, tell yourself that you're not allowed to do anything but write. No phone, no email, no blog reading, no class prep. Tell family members that they're not allowed to disturb you there. Even if you do this for just an hour a day, you will make progress -- even if the first day you find yourself staring in frustration at a blank laptop screen.

For weekend writing -- you probably need to get out of the house, but your office my not be ideal. Colleagues with more time on their hands may want to talk when you're taking three hours away from family to focus on writing. An ideal solution can be a carrel in your university library, especially a locked or reserved carrel. Long ago when I was in the middle of family mania, a locked carrel at my university library -- smaller than a closet -- was the one place I could find complete peace and quiet.

As to "how" -- there've been lots of blog discussions in the past about words-per-day vs other methods. I wish I was like Kevin, but the word quota goal doesn't work for me, and I am more of a binger. Maybe that's why Jeff's approach of committing to conference papers has been important to me. It gives me an inescapable deadline. But what if you're a newby, and its hard for you to get conference papers accepted? Or there aren't a lot of conferences in your field? Perhaps construct a writing group -- locally or on-line -- and commit to circulate your paper to that group on a date certain. Or commit to yourself, and plan a family trip or something that you can only do if you meet your deadline. Any sort of commitment, as long as you take it seriously, will do it.

Best of luck!

rebecca bratspies

Good luck!! FWIW: I am a big fan of using write or die ( I make a 15-30 minute commitment every day (akin to the 200 word minimum mentioned above). I MUST write for that long every day. Most days, I get drawn in to my project and work for longer. But, on days when I am teaching two classes, have meetings or family responsibilities, I just do the 15 minutes. That amount of time keeps me engaged with my project, so I can pick up where I left off.

Jeff Yates

I noticed that I didnt address the the where/when dimension. I'd like to say that I have a very disciplined approach of 1.7 hours per day at a certain place and time, but I don't - mine is closer to the haphazard method Franita describes - and I have the permanent dark circles under my eyes as a result. Also, my schedule is more flexible than some schedules. But, I do try to go somewhere where I am free of people who will distract me - oddly often coffee shops - the background noise does not bother me and it's a place where 'nobody knows my name'. Also, I find that my ability to work in certain ways depends on the type of thing I'm working on - if a social science empirical piece, I really need 3-4 hours of block time to get back into the project. With a book or more traditional legal scholarship I can work in the method described above by Kevin - it does have the downside of needing massive documentation materials nearby (although this is getting easier with technology, e.g. evernote, pdfs, etc.). Finally, I will provide one tip that helps me a lot -- one of the hardest things to do is to get started, to get the flow going (i.e. writers block) - I often beat this by starting to edit my manuscript about 5 pages back ... and the flow starts from there... for what it's worth :-)

Franita Tolson

Thanks so much, all of this is really helpful. Like Mary, I tend to be a binger and I think that the hour a day/250 word approach is a way to help me break that habit and also a way to keep me engaged in my project so that I don't feel like I am starting over every time I write. I get so frustrated when I don't have a 3-4 hour block to write that I either give up for the day or I end up writing in the middle of the night. The key, it seems, is to learn to work in spurts and in a place where interruptions are kept to a minimum.

Yet it is amazing how something so obvious is incredibly difficult to accomplish in practice. Since college, I have been adept at pulling all nighters to accomplish my goals, but as I age, I am finding that I am not built for this type of schedule anymore. I have to turn into a morning person that maximizes daytime hours, which is no small feat for a night hawk like myself. I think that my other challenge will be to avoid using my writing time as time to do even more prep for my new class. But that is another story. :(

Jeff, I just ordered my copy of "Bird by Bird" - thanks for the recommendation!

Thaddeus Pope

Over the past few years, I have found myself using Jeff's "precommitment" strategy. Almost all my articles and book chapters are invited and promised months in advance. I calendar the deadlines as well as several earlier threshold dates. This usually works pretty well except that the unexpected emergency upsets even generous time buffers.

My classes have been late afternoon or evening for several years. I try to do writing before lunch and then turn to class preparation and teaching after lunch. I may then pick up the manuscript later that night. Depending on my level of alertness, I will fill cites, read-through for revisions, read sources, and/or find sources.

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