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A clean slate: Moving forward in academic writing by starting over

AcWri at home office (Leon and Aguascalientes)Every morning, as I woke up and walked to my home office to start writing, I checked my “To Do” list on my corkboard/whiteboard. I felt the weight of everything I needed to write. Six different papers, plus five conferences, plus writing slides for keynotes and invited talks. This was really stressful. For weeks, I wondered “should I just delete everything and rewrite my to-do list? Cancel commitments I already have? Should I just give up on a specific paper?“.

By the beginning of this past week, I had already completed my Spring-early Summer commitments (5 international conferences, 2 international invited keynotes in the US and Canada, 1 research visit to a public state university, 2 research field trips). Thus shortly before starting my summer holidays (from July 11th through the 30th), I decided to erase my whiteboard and remove all commitments and objectives. I wanted to start with a clean slate.

Clean slate

Obviously I don’t mean starting over by saying “I’m giving up on every single manuscript I had been working on“. Neither does this mean “I will not honor my commitments to other scholars“. What this means is that I will sit down and reflect on my commitments and rewrite my To Do list. But instead of having a permanent reminder of how much work I have to do, I plan to use my whiteboard to shape my commitments daily/weekly. I am creating a table of writing commitments alongside deadlines so that I can use that as my overall target, and then simply schedule what I need to do per day/per week.

This kind of granular planning (break down writing pieces/research projects into small components that I tackle on an every day basis) is something that I always advocate, but that I didn’t do when writing at home (I always do this at my campus office, also drawing goals and targets into my whiteboards). That’s why I felt that all these commitments were weighing on me. It wasn’t until I closed certain cycles (my travel cycle, for one!) that I felt enough stamina to rethink my full slate. So now I’m working on transforming the papers I presented at conferences into journal article manuscripts and following up on my writing commitments for the rest of the year. And writing and editing syllabi. But with a completely clean slate that I will be filling on a weekly basis.

For some good posts on planning your academic writing, check Pat Thomson on planning versus creativity, Rachael Cayley’s excellent piece on reverse outlines, and Jo Van Every on emergency planning techniques. I’ll be planning my fall writing schedule in the next couple of days.

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