Crafting Scholarship: A Successful Writing Life

by Robert Milardo, Ph.D.
NCFR Report
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Research

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Robert Milardo, Ph.D.

In their first few years, more than two thirds of new assistant professors produce nothing in the way of journal articles, the kind of work that is most prominent in tenure and promotion reviews (Boice, 2000). This is a startling finding and one that commands attention. In my conversations with successful authors, both newly minted assistant professors and more established scholars, I have noted recurring themes that define productive writing practices across disciplines as well as practices that interfere with productivity. Success in writing derives from some very different approaches grounded in a few key principles.

Contrary to the common wisdom of popular writing textbooks, productive authors are diverse in their writing habits. They are consistent in regard to their persistence and interest in scholarship, but they organize their writing in ways that are responsive to their personal preferences and social conditions. Regardless of personal preferences, writing occurs in a social context--an overly stimulating academe requiring an array of competing commitments that are often unsupportive of writing time, as well as a gendered relational context composed of family relations with partners, children, and elderly parents in which caregiving responsibilities largely fall on women. I may plan a writing session on Friday, but if my dean calls a meeting, my partner's car breaks down, one of my children is ill, or my mother falls and injures her hip, all bets are off. The array of unanticipated interruptions is a constant challenge, especially for those who write as part of a complex of professional obligations like teaching and service. Having a quiver of effective responses that help normalize writing time improves our chances of success. So, let's focus on what it means to normalize writing time.

Scheduling writing time

Write often and regularly

Productive writers share one common attribute: They write regularly. Scheduling writing sessions is among the most consistent recommendations for writers, and for good reason. Productive faculty report that scheduling regular writing sessions is among the most important strategies. The question is, just how often is regular? In her book Becoming an Academic Writer (2013), Patricia Goodson recommended scheduling daily writing sessions, if only for brief periods of time, for instance, 30 minutes per day. Paul Silvia, in How to Write a Lot (2007), recommended allotting time for writing each week, starting with about 4 hours at a minimum allocated over one or more days. Before he recently became a parent, Paul wrote for 2 hours each morning, Monday through Friday. Now, with two toddlers, some change in Paul's writing schedule has occurred, but the commitment to daily writing has not. He says:

I have two children now, so the writing schedule I described in the book, write every weekday from 8-10 a.m., seems like a feverish delusion. As parents of young children know, 8 a.m. is almost lunchtime. Now I write from 5-6:30 a.m. each weekday.

Paul's commitment to writing regularly continues unabated and is a consistent message throughout his book (Silvia, 2007). In interviews with productive faculty in the field of educational psychology, faculty consistently emphasized the need to schedule writing time as a regular entry in a weekly calendar, and many wrote daily (Mayrath, 2008).

Robert Boice, in his book Advice for New Faculty Members (2000), demonstrated how new faculty fail to learn to write with regularity and efficiently in graduate school, often writing in binge sessions to meet a particular deadline. The average time to write dissertations is a stunning 4 years after data collection. This doesn't suggest that routine weekly writing sessions were part of the mix, and it doesn't bode well for success in the academe. It also suggests some inefficient mentoring and a lack of institutional support.

Blocking writing time

New faculty shared the belief that writing is best done in large blocks of time, which may never come or come irregularly. This is an issue with which I, and many others, struggle most. Boice, Goodson, and Silvia all emphasized writing daily in whatever times are available, even 30-minute sessions. I've never done this and always thought it near impossible. I write regularly, but not daily. Mostly I write in scheduled writing sessions consisting of a single 4- to 6-hour session and a few shorter 2-hour slots per week, and I grab a stolen moment here and there. As I write this article, I am averaging a whopping 10 to 12 hours per week. Incidentally, I teach three classes most semesters, often chair a major committee for my college, and have spent the better part of my career as a journal editor. And just so you know: I rarely work weekends; I do work late a few evenings each week; and I have no children or caregiving responsibilities for elderly family members. In all of this assemblage of work and personal life, I do privilege writing like I do teaching. I think you should, too.

Privilege writing time

I like writing, and I'm determined to write regularly, if not quickly, so I schedule time for writing each week. The only exceptions to this schedule are conferences when I am away from campus and advising week once each semester, which I enjoy thoroughly. I imagine there are some other exceptions, but none all that common or predictable. And to be honest, I occasionally take some time off when I'm fatigued or just needing some free time to wander. I think my colleagues do as well, but we don't talk about it. Persistence and commitment need not be rigid.

Boice (2000) described a group of new faculty who were productive early on in their careers. They learned to work in brief sessions daily. These quick starters worked efficiently and were mindful of their writing habits. They were rare birds: Thriving new faculty comprised about 3 to 5 percent of the total Boice interviewed. Their work habits were unique among their peers, but not especially unusual or unfamiliar.

In my own interviews, productive writers are rarely as consistent in their writing habits. They fall into several camps. Some write regularly when time permits during the week. They may not keep to a precise schedule because of unpredictable events (e.g., child care), but they still manage to complete some writing each week. Others prefer to write in intensive bursts or multiday sessions. A minority write in prescheduled sessions of a few hours duration each week, which is my typical schedule. Although most find brief sessions imperfect, they do so out of necessity because their schedules don't permit longer sessions. Preferences aside, they write when they can and do so with regularity.

Writing in the midst of family obligations

In order to better understand how my colleagues organize their writing and research time, I asked Heather Helms, a colleague at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a very accomplished scholar, about her writing and whether she schedules time each week:

I know that is such good advice. Well, I try, and then children get ear infections. People get sick, and the dean calls you for a meeting, and you get put on a committee. I do try to have a set number of hours in a week, 4 hours that I can dedicate to writing. I need chunks of time. An hour just doesn't work for me. It is just the way I write. It also means I don't publish at the same rate as people [who write more regularly and during prescheduled times]. The people who gave me that advice are just machines. They are also men and they also tend not to have children. [Laughs.] They also tend to have power that I don't have.

Heather prefers to schedule blocks of time for writing but, like many of her colleagues (and mine), she finds that children sometimes get unexpected illnesses, deans sometimes call meetings, and elderly parents sometimes have mishaps. These relational commitments and the unexpected attentions they require are paired with an overlystimulating academic environment. I can't remember a time in which I had nothing to do, for instance.

There is competition for our time and attention, and then there are family obligations that largely fall on women. As in all matters of work and home, gender rules, although there are exceptions. When I asked Bill Marsiglio from the University of Florida if he scheduled time for writing, he replied: “I have a 5-year old.” Bill specializes in qualitative research on fathering, has published a variety of books on the topic, and fathering his young son is clearly important:

I write in spurts and it's not always predictable when they happen. If my son is here, I typically don't work while he is at home. I choose to spend time with him rather than writing. Sometime I'll have a block of time [for writing] but it is a day-to-day thing. Early in my career I could do whatever I wanted. In the last 5 years having a young son has really altered the way I organize my life and particularly my writing life.

Bill may not write as often or for such long sessions as he once did, but he does manage to continue writing with some regularity, in spurts, as he says, and if not daily then for several sessions each week. This may not be Bill's preference, but he finds stolen moments and writes when he can. His recent book on fathering with Kevin Roy (2012) attests to his continuing productivity.

The comments of Paul, Heather, and Bill also demonstrate how one's writing life varies over time. Although before these three individuals became parents they were able to regularly schedule time for writing, parenting a young child altered the available time and the predictability of executing neatly organized schedules. In a similar fashion, as faculty move into senior positions over time, they become involved in faculty governance (chairing committees, departments, graduate programs), supervising graduate students, and an array of leadership positions in professional organizations all of which compete with writing time.

Managed writing time

Nonetheless, we still manage to meet with our classes. We don't find the time to teach; we meet our classes regularly, and all other activities, other than a family emergency, become secondary. In over three decades of teaching, I don't recall missing more than a class or two. I can't say that about writing sessions. I suppose if I were a parent my teaching record would not be as unblemished, but I'm sure you get the point. So, why is writing a secondary activity and one that occurs only when time permits? Regularity seems fleeting for most academic writers. Typical responses to my queries about scheduling writing time were consistent. It is viewed as impossible, or simply unworkable:

  • “It doesn't work for me.”—Harry Reis
  • “No, I have tried to work that way. It has not worked thus far for me.”—Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan
  • “No, I don't. I write anytime. I often write throughout the day with lots of breaks.”—Michael Johnson
  • “These days I write whenever I find the time. A lot of scholars reach a point in their careers where they suddenly discover that all of their time is eaten up; it's a gradual thing: committees, students, [leadership positions in the American Sociological Association] and NCFR. If I get a free Saturday, I'll just go for it.”—Paul Amato

Scheduling routine writing time is challenging for many, including those with very productive careers. There were exceptions. Rachelle Brunn-Bevel remarked:

Yes, well, I didn't always work this way. I would fall into scheduling everything else first, like teaching and meetings and then fit writing in between those things which was a problem because everything else had more pressing deadlines [and] writing would get pushed off. I definitely realized I needed to schedule a time for writing way in advance and have it on my calendar like a regular appointment so that I don't schedule other things at that time or writing continually gets pushed back for what I perceive as more pressing deadlines.

Me: How long is a session?

Rachelle: It depends on the semester, but this semester I have scheduled three 2-hour blocks for myself on nonteaching days. So 2 hours on Monday morning, 2 on Friday morning, and then 2 hours on Wednesday afternoon. I've tried to use 4-hour blocks, and it can work sometimes, but I feel for a weekly schedule 4 hours is a lot to block out without interruption.

Rachelle quickly developed some productive habits that often appear in the recommendations of writing mentors: She makes writing a priority, establishes bounded writing times, manages distractions like email, and sets clear goals. Like many of the writers with whom I spoke, Rachelle is reflective about her own process. She knows what works for her and why and arranges her writing sessions accordingly. All of the writers I spoke with were clear about their own preferences for writing and the conditions that were conducive of productivity. Some, like Rachelle, preferred sessions of a few hours, and others, like Heather, Paul, and Michael, preferred longer sessions of 4 hours or more. They are clear about their preferences, although they cannot always arrange for them and often have to accept less than their ideal conditions.

Among the many faculty whose careers Boice (2000) followed, writing was considered what new faculty did when they had time, when everything else was done. It's a simple matter to put off writing, although you are not very likely to put off teaching. At times, I too confuse what's important with what is merely urgent. I do try and respond to email queries and the like promptly, but I privilege writing, teaching, and little else with such consistency.

I have no precise recipe for having a successful writing life, in part because preferences vary and change over time, as do the relational and professional contexts in which we work. Nonetheless, one the basis of my own experience and, more important, by observing the work habits of productive writers (and not-so-productive writers), there are some key ingredients to a successful writing life. Here I have covered the basics, a bit briefly but, I hope, convincingly. A successful writing life includes these five essentials:

Best writing practices

  • Make writing a priority with the same regularity as teaching.
  • Establish bounded daily or weekly writing times.
  • Manage distractions like email, phones, and social media.
  • Be adaptable. You may not find a preferred and long writing slot, but you will find briefer moments.
  • Don't confuse important with merely urgent.

There is one more issue, if you don't mind: The key to a successful writing life is to write regularly, and to do that you need to show up, butt in chair. 

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