Rebecca Schuman

Author, Translator, Independent Scholar at self-employed

Are You Working? From New Year’s Resolutions to Reality

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By Rebecca Schuman

Editor’s Note: In the “Are You Working?” series, a Ph.D. and academic-writing coach answers questions from readers about scholarly motivation and productivity. For this month’s column, she asked Ph.D.s, via Twitter and Facebook, to share their 2021 writing goals. Read her previous columns here.

Well, the 10 decades of 2020 are behind us, and chances are, your writing goals were another casualty of that God-awful year. You may have decided that 2021 is your opportunity to make up for every single word you didn’t produce amid Covid-19. But how realistic are your New Year’s writing resolutions?

Setting overly aggressive writing goals is the research equivalent of my suddenly deciding to jettison burgers for seaweed-and-cordyceps burritos because I’m going to start eating “clean” in 2021. Of course, I’ll give up on that resolution after a single trip to the health-food store because it’s laughably unrealistic — and I might as well stop at Shake Shack on the way home.

As a staunch advocate of misery-free productivity for academics, I would like to suggest a more measured approach to your New Year’s goal setting and mine: Why don’t I try to replace some of my unhealthiest, pandemic-panic-eating habits with, say, an apple? And why not approach your writing goals in a similarly low-key way so that you can actually achieve them? Here is my advice for readers who sent me their (at times) overly aggressive writing goals for 2021.

My 2021 goal: I just accepted an offer of a great job in the nonacademic public sector, but I’d also like to publish all my dissertation chapters this year.

Signed, Sparky

Whoa there, Sparky. Congratulations, and I love your energy. But let’s unpack this. You’re already working upward of 40 hours a week in a new career outside academe, so your time to do research and write is limited to evenings and weekends. So I’ll work all evening and every weekend, you say? No, my cordyceps-attempting friend, you will not.

Instead, I’d recommend you devote two hours, two days a week — say, one weekday night and one weekend morning — to your publication goals. Divide the work into coherent single tasks, such as:

  • Look into the journal outlets interested in your topic (one work session).
  • Learn the submission requirements of your top choice (one work session).
  • Make formatting and/or style changes according to said requirements (two to three work sessions).
  • Read through each chapter that you plan to turn into a separate article, and make notes on the edits that will be required to transform it into a publishable journal article (two to three work sessions).
  • Rate the difficulty of those editing tasks as “easy,” “harder,” or “hard” (one work session).
  • Tackle the tasks in order, from easy to hard, skipping anything you get stuck on and return to it in your next pass (10 to 20 work sessions).

Realistically, Sparky, turning your chapter into a journal article is going to take you about four months, provided that you work consistently. If you wrote a now-standard “three-article dissertation,” it is humanly possible for you to submit all three of those chapters to at least one journal each in 2021. But that does not account for the time it will take to go through the peer-review process and to revise and resubmit, either to the same journal or elsewhere.

A more doable goal: Aim to publish one or two articles this year, and have the rest in process. That, I know you can do.

My 2021 goal: I need to make up for every damn word I didn’t write in 2020.

Signed, Penitent With Pencil

As someone who published barely a word in 2020 (the year that was supposed to turn things around after my marriage ended and my father passed away, in 2019), I feel you, Penitent. However, never in the history of productivity have writers ever gotten “caught up” by ordering themselves to catch up.

Take this relatable anecdote, for example. Have you ever accidentally broken the windshield of your parents’ car — for reasons that involve a very poor showing at the craft-sales table of the 1992 Temple Beth Israel Hanukkah Fair — and then been required to pay for the repairs out of your meager teenage income? All right, perhaps you haven’t. But do you enjoy making your student-loan payments even though you graduated in 2005? Is it rewarding to pay your mortgage even though your basement flooded twice last winter? You do not; it is not.

The German word for “guilt” and “debt” is the same: schuld. Which suggests that both can be alleviated by a transaction of some sort, but also evokes the feeling that often comes over people when they repay something they owe — i.e., guilt.

Approaching your writing table (or couch) with a sense of guilt will actually create yet another obstacle to writing anything. So try what I call the “GPS Approach.” (I have not actually trademarked GPS Approach, but please feel free to pay me if you start using it.) We used to find our way via outdated maps, wrong turns, and shouting matches. Now we let technology navigate for us. The GPS has no concept of a wrong turn — it simply reroutes us from where we are, and is concerned only with getting us to our destination.

So, rather than expecting to quickly repay the looming debt you owe on the page, just reroute yourself. Every day you write something is new, and everything you write is a victory. You will reach your destination — both faster and happier — if you’re not yelling at yourself from the passenger seat.

My 2021 goal: I need to either finish my book and find a publisher, or give up on it.

Signed, Resigned Sad Panda

There’s a lot to unpack there. This is an issue that plagues the academic and nonacademic writer alike, in good years and bad — and none of it is as black and white as an adorable panda friend. I can’t speak to the thousands of other books that have died incomplete deaths throughout the ages. But in this particular January 2021 milieu, I would hazard a strong guess that what you are doing here is satisfying your need for clarity and certainty, in a world that has provided us with neither, with something you feel as if you can control.

If you lob your book straight into the trash and then set that trash on fire, after understandably failing to meet an impossible goal (both hyper-productivity and the recovery of the publishing industry are unlikely in 2021), then at least you have closure, right? At least it’s done?

The idea of keeping something as huge as a book in voluntary purgatory is unpleasant. I get that. But there are some midway points that you can reach instead.

For example, rather than demand that the notoriously fickle publishing industry come through for you, why not resolve to have a draft of your book to a trusted group of readers by Thanksgiving 2021? Give those readers three to six months with the manuscript, and do not touch the thing during that time.

That way, it will still be out of your hands for a while, and by the time it returns to you (sometime in early 2022), more of the world will be immunized (I hope), and the hurtling meteor of our national consciousness will not feel as hurtling, and so the uncertainty of your book project won’t seem like the end of the world, and then you can see if you still feel as strong an urge to give up on it.

Someday, if you want to, you can certainly junk your book (or, for others, dissertation) project. But if and when you do, make sure it’s on terms set by you — not Armageddon.

Rebecca Schuman is a professor pro-tempore of literature at the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the New School in 2003 and her Ph.D. in German from the University of California at Irvine in 2010. She has been an academic-writing coach and productivity specialist since 2013. Ask her a question on academic writing or productivity via TwitterFacebook, or email.

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