Image: The Shining (1980)
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The grueling grading period is over. The semester is finally finished. You’ve probably taken a few well-deserved weeks off, but now it’s time to start working on your own research and writing projects. Many of us use our precious summer “vacation” to churn out articles and book chapters. But as the tenure-track market tightens and pressure to publish increases, many people – especially junior faculty – feel intense anxiety over their summer writing schedules.
“I’m going to write my book.”
“I have to write and submit three articles this summer.”
“I need to write every, single day. At least 1,000 words a day.”
Do any of those pledges sound familiar? If so, I have some bad news: You may be setting yourself up for failure. Even worse, crafting an unrealistic summer writing goal might actually be harming your ability to write at all, creating a vicious vortex of procrastination, anxiety, and guilt.
The solution is to set realistic goals and maintain a regular writing schedule. Instead of being rigidly attached to an overambitious writing schedule, it’s better in the summer to think of your writing time as somewhat more flexible than it might be during the academic year. It’s summer, after all, and you do need to recharge your batteries. There is a way to relax and be productive, trust me. Just follow these simple rules:
Stop thinking about your writing in terms of large projects.
You may indeed be working on a book. But no good has ever come from sitting down in your writing space and thinking: “Ok. I’m going to write my book today.” Ditto for thinking you are sitting down to write a chapter or an article. No, you’re not. You’re sitting down to write a small section of something, be it an article or a book chapter.
That bit of advice may sound like semantics, but the words you use really do matter in terms of your motivation and goal-setting. After a day of writing, you should feel as though you’ve accomplished something. If your goal for the day was “to work on my book,” then you will usually end up feeling as though you didn’t accomplish enough by the end of that day. Because how could you? No one can “write a book” in a day, a week, a month. It’s the accrual of days, weeks, and months that produces a book. It’s the motion that’s important.
Set up a realistic writing schedule and then (mostly) stick to it.
The key word there is “realistic.” If, at the beginning of the summer, you promise yourself that you will write “every day” or write “8 hours for 5 days a week,” you are probably trying to do too much. I do know professional writers – think journalists – who could accomplish that, but for the rest of us, it’s just not feasible.
If you insist on producing a rigid daily word count or writing without days off, you’re priming yourself for a burnout. I’ve seen it happen time and time again: People start off their summers by working nonstop and then, only a few weeks in, hit a major wave of fatigue. That can be very hard to recover from (I speak from experience here).
You’re better off scheduling your writing in blocks of two to four hours, with regular breaks. For the summer months, I don’t recommend trying to write more than four days a week. We all have families, friends, and lives. You will be more productive during your writing sessions if you’re happy and relaxed instead of stressed out.
Writer, know thyself.
Craft a writing schedule and goals that work for you. That’s tricky because it requires you to really be honest about yourself and what kind of writer you are. Do you tend to be focused for a couple of hours and then do very little at your desk after that? Then schedule writing blocks of one to two hours to accommodate your style. Do you need a deadline in order to work at all? Then set one up with a friend (again, however, be realistic about it).
Experiment a little before you construct your writing schedule. If you usually write at night (something I highly discourage, since our creative reserves, ability to focus, and willpower tend to be drained by the end of the day), then try a morning shift. If you use the pomodoro method (typically that involves working for a 25-minute block, followed by a break), then try writing for a longer period of time. If you write every day, try writing for three or four days in a row and then taking two days off. Play around with your writing schedule and habits until you hit your groove. You’ll know what works because you’ll start seeing dividends in your productivity level. When you’ve found what works for you, stick with it. That’s the writing schedule that should become standard and (mostly) nonnegotiable.
It’s possible to feel like you’ve used your summer months wisely, I promise. But not if you’re starting out with impossible goals and a completely unrealistic writing schedule. Professional writers don’t write all the time. In fact, many of us goof off a fair amount and yet still manage to churn out essays, talks, grant applications, op-eds, and books. The secret sauce is that we’ve discovered sustainable writing practices and we stick to them. If I can work on a new book project and still find time to go to the beach, so can you. Pro-tip: Don’t forget the sunscreen.