Are You Working? How to Stop Writing From the Weeds

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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 faculty members and graduate students about scholarly motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via Twitter and Facebook. Read her previous columns here.

Question: Every time I try to revise my chapter, I end up getting sucked into some exciting or urgent new idea that makes me decide I need to change the entire trajectory of my project, immediately.

I’m Writing This From the Weeds, Where I Am

Dear Weeds,

If I had a dollar for every time a client or friend has had this issue, I’d have at least enough money to buy the latest arbitrarily inflated stock. Anyway, getting lost in the weeds is an affliction that can come for even the most focused writers. It’s harder than it seems to avoid the temptation to let some sort of revision-epiphany spiral into changing your entire monograph.

Following that urge to rewrite, however, is almost always a bad idea. Why? Because most of the time, it isn’t actually an epiphany: It’s a procrastination technique. It’s your insecure brain, trying to trick you out of finishing and submitting and (gasp!) getting criticism. I guarantee that if you allow yourself to pursue this game-changing revision once, you’ll be well into it when, oh look, another epiphany! And off you’ll go down yet another path.

Here are two ways — a figurative double-mask, as it were — to shield yourself against this no-good cycle:

Never use the same revision session to both identify a problem and try to fix it. That is, use one session to spot problems in your manuscript — as if you are an editor of the work and not its author — and another session to deal with them. Ideally you want to dedicate an entire week’s work just to reading your draft through as if you were that editor, precisely so that you have the big picture in mind when some significant revision occurs to you. That’s how you avoid getting lured into those weeds.

Let’s say you really do have a game-changing epiphany. Do not touch your manuscript yet. First, make a spreadsheet and put the following in it:

  • In the first column, describe the proposed revision.
  • In the next, enumerate the chaos that would ensue if you pursued it: Exactly which chapters’ arguments would have to be reimagined, and in exactly which ways?
  • In the third column, list what you would gain: Exactly how would your book truly be better than it would have been before?
  • In the final column of your spreadsheet, describe what you would lose: time, effort, years of work, and, yes, whatever brilliant idea you had before.

Once you complete what essentially amounts to a scholarly profit-and-loss statement, leave everything for 24 hours and revisit it after a full healthy meal. Does this overhaul still seem like a good idea? On the 5-percent chance that your answer is “yes,” then sure, go for it. Otherwise, stay the course.

Question: After everything that everyone has been through for the past year (or four), does anything I have to say as an academic even matter?

A Tree Falling Alone in the Forest

Dear Tree,

I’m going to imagine you as a mighty sequoia. I’ve gotten a variation of this question every month since I started this endeavor, and I think it’s really interesting, because it’s a symptom of the world that social media hath wrought: Everyone’s an influencer now, or feels like they need to be.

What does it even mean to have your work “matter”? What’s the metric? Some viral Tweet that benefits nobody but Twitter? “Superstar” status at a conference that means at least half of the people there secretly or not-so-secretly hate you because they ain’t you? Earning enough royalties that your academic publisher finally has to cut you a check?

Everyone matters to someone, and most people don’t matter to most other people, and thinking that you, of all people (and by “you” I also mean “me”), should matter in the larger scheme of Planet Earth, is indicative of the inherent narcissism in all of us, thanks to the performativity of our social-media world.

So dial back on the “mattering” and think, instead, about what really matters to you:

  • Does your work affect your students’ lives for the better, either equipping them with skills that will increase their own chances of success or simply helping them see the world in a different and more thoughtful way? That matters.
  • Does your work engage with colleagues you find stimulating, kind, and pleasant, in a way that increases the sum total of knowledge in your field? That also matters.
  • Does your work honor voices that have historically been marginalized? That matters.
  • Does it do something else that I’m not mentioning here but that is close to your heart?

So sure, maybe your work isn’t directly related to Covid, or the flameout of the American Republic — but what matters is that it matters to you.

Question: Pandemic teaching has sucked up all of my time and most of my will to live. How can I even think about my research at a time like this?

Wrung Out Sponge

Dear SpongeProf,

I don’t know about you, but in the Now Times, I think winter break was approximately 50 weeks too short. The new term has barely started, and already everyone’s losing it! It really does seem like every single minute of time students “save” in asynchronous or hybrid online classes is a minute that somehow crashes down upon the laden shoulders of the not-exactly-seasoned online instructor. (And lots of us are, understandably, under-trained in our new jobs as emergency remote instructors; the learning curve is intense.)

My university allows faculty members the opportunity to offer our own thoughts on every batch of student evaluations after we read them (amazing, right?), and I readily admitted that in the fall-2020 term, I worked three times as hard as I ever have, to teach half as well as I ever will. Between recording lectures (and doing my hair, makeup, and lighting so as not to appear the full-fledged Zoom Ghoul), administering message boards, grading all sorts of new-format assignments (and coming up with assessment metrics for them), having remote office hours on what felt like a near-constant basis and being compassionate and present for students who were often really suffering, I came perilously close to burning out.

The result? Based on their comments, I learned that those students who appreciated my efforts probably would have felt the same way had I given them 25-percent less of my life force — they mostly just wanted to know that their professors cared about them in trying times. And the students who pitched a fit about some aspect of the course, and took it out on me? They would have done so no matter what I did.

This all led me to a valuable conclusion about pandemic teaching: It is possible to “cheat” just a tiny bit at prep or grading. You don’t have to have every single second of your class session planned — in fact, students love it when you wing it a little. Change some small assignments from graded to “complete/incomplete” — students love that, too. (Find more tips here on how to avoid burnout, whatever the format you’re teaching.)

Cut corners in a few places so that you can give your all to those aspects of the course that you and your students most value, such as synchronous class discussions. Be honest with yourself: You’re experienced enough now that if you absolutely had to go into class cold, you could, and it might actually be fun. I’m not actually suggesting you do that — I just mean that you should feel some sense of reassurance that you could if you had to, and it would be fine.

Furthermore: Teaching expands to fill the time you give it — so, start giving it just a little bit less. Regular readers of this series know that my go-to writing advice for stalled productivity involves devoting 15 minutes of time, one to three days a week, to your writing project. The same approach can work to help you get some writing done in an era when you are buried under heavy and new teaching obligations.

When you sit down to do teaching prep or grading, first spend (you guessed it) 15 minutes on your scholarship and writing. Read part of an article; write half a sentence; make a few notes to yourself in a draft. Do something that prioritizes your own work and then transition to prioritizing your students.

The results will be profound, I promise. You’ll resent the timesuck of pandemic teaching less when you know it hasn’t fully killed your own aspirations, and that positive mood will spread to your students. You’ll inadvertently make a bunch of possibly weird but also interesting connections between what you’re working on and what they’re working on, enriching the experience for everyone. And, most of all, you’ll take just a few of those minutes lobbed onto your shoulders by the pressures of pandemic teaching, and fling them back out into the universe.

Rebecca Schuman is an adjunct assistant professor of German at Vassar College and 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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