Once you’ve found and protected time for writing, your next challenge is to decide what to work on in that time.
In Making Decisions About Your Writing, I talked about prioritizing amongst multiple projects. In this post, I want to talk about starting a new project from scratch.
This topic came up recently in Office Hours in the Academic Writing Studio, and I’m drawing on that conversation as I write.
This will be uncomfortable
You work in a very output-focused environment. You are probably asked regularly to report on outputs and to make plans for things like sabbaticals in terms of outputs. The very early stages of a new project don’t have clearly defined outputs.
As a Studio member said in our Office Hours conversation,
I’ve got nothing to show [for my research leave so far]. Some books that have gone from the to-be-read pile to the read pile. I’ve got a three-sheet of some key concepts. But it’s, it’s all going on up here.
You want to take some risks.
- Start something you aren’t sure is feasible, and risk not finishing it.
- Read things to find out whether you are interested enough to delve into a topic
- Explore an archive to see if anything catches your interest
- Have some conversations to just explore possibilities
This kind of work may not produce the kinds of outputs the bureaucracy recognizes but it is definitely what leads to “all going on up here”. Think of it as planting seeds, and adding fertilizer. Trust that things will grow.
Ambition, dreams, and guiding stars
A common response to the discomfort of not knowing what the outputs will be, is to play it safe and try to think of something small. You might shy away from anything that would require funding. Or you might be telling yourself a story about how you aren’t trying to make big contributions to your field. There are lots of reasons you might do this. Many of them are perfectly valid.
In my experience of working with academics for the past 15 years or so, I can also say that trying to define outputs too early can create other problems. You need to allow yourself time to explore and dream.
If you struggle to find time to write and to prioritize your writing, playing small is going to make it harder.
You need a project that feels exciting or important enough to be worth doing what you have to do to protect that time. It needs to feel exciting or important enough that you [italic]want to work on it. Intrinsic motivation is important even when you also have external drivers.
It can be hard to imagine possibilities that seem impossible to achieve. I encourage you to dream big as a way of identifying a guiding star.
Allowing yourself to dream of an ambitious project will help you identify achievable goals that are interesting or meaningful enough to motivate you. That guiding star may help you take some smaller risks. That guiding star will mean that the achievable goals and small risks may make some of the bigger dreams more possible.
Writing to think
You can use writing to explore possibilities. As I explained in The Scholarly Writing Process (A Short Guide), the early part of the process is for you. You don’t need to know what kind of output you’ll end up with to start writing. Your goal is to figure out what you could say, what you want to say, and who might want to hear what you have to say.
Some of your writing might be more like research journaling. There is definitely a role for this.
If you are doing a lot of reading related to ideas you have, you might write about what you are reading. While there is a place for good summary notes of what you’ve read, you also want to go beyond that. Write to engage with what you’ve read. Explore the sparks that reading is generating:
- Write about how this thing you are reading relates to something else you’ve read.
- Write about how something you are reading makes you think differently about research you’ve done in the past.
- Write about research questions that come to you and ideas for exploring them.
- Write about what else this is making you want to read, and why
If you are the kind of scholar who works with archives, and you have some resources to access an archive, write about what you are finding and the ideas that sparks.
- What questions do you have?
- What else do you need to know before you explore this in more detail?
- What have you read that seems relevant?
- Who have you met that you could talk to about this?
If you do interview research, what do you need to know to decide who to interview and what questions you might ask?
Is there some kind of preliminary activity you might engage in (ethically!) to help you broaden your initial understanding and provide a solid basis for an ethics application to do a small pilot study? That might be a literature review of similar work. It might be reading publicly available materials like newspapers or blogs. It might be physically visiting a community to observe the context. It might be having conversations with other researchers.
What kind of preliminary exploration could you do that might help you clarify ideas for the kind of research you do?
You can start small
Although I’ve encouraged you to think big, you don’t have to have an idea for a book, or a big funded research project, to get started.
Your exploratory writing and research may generate enough for one small publication. Or at least a conference paper where you could get some feedback. Or it might help you format a research proposal for a preliminary study and get ethics approval to take a next small step.
Sometimes starting to write chapters for a vaguely defined book helps you clarify what the book is about. You might have something publishable as a journal article or a chapter for a collection someone else is editing.
Yes, you have to consider whether the book will be publishable if you publish too many short pieces from the project beforehand. However, I’ve also worked with clients who discovered that the book they really want to write does something very different with the material and they didn’t have as much already written as they thought they did.
This is one place you can take some risks. Risking the book you can sort of imagine now by publishing a chapter, may actually help you discover a book you’d be much more excited about writing.
Working with others
One thing that came up in our Office Hours discussion was the value of working collaboratively.
Yes, even in humanities disciplines that value sole authorship. Exploring ideas with others can be a good way to move out of your comfort zone. Getting together for coffee (even virtual coffee) with people who’ve written things you really liked, or gave interesting conference papers, can be interesting.
You don’t have to commit to much beyond that first coffee. You might identify one small thing you could work on together to test the waters and see how well you collaborate. Or you might develop a working relationship in which you support each other on related projects but never coauthor anything. Perhaps you read each other’s early drafts, or help each other refine ideas.
Making time for this kind of research & writing
The kind of thinking and dreaming involved here is very hard to do when you are also busy with teaching and other tasks. Making time for some of this during the long summer break is a good idea. You can probably do some of this alongside other kinds of writing and research work.
It’s also a great thing to prioritize during a sabbatical. You might have to fudge things a bit in your sabbatical application. The application can focus on projects almost complete so you will definitely have some outputs to show if necessary. There is often a delay of about a year between applying for sabbatical and actually going, so err on the side of including things you might actually finish before your sabbatical officially starts.
Also include the need to do exploratory work that will lay a foundation for outputs in the year or so after the sabbatical. This work needs to be visible to those making decisions.
You might include things like a draft of a book proposal or a detailed plan for a grant application as an output from a 1 year research leave. Or say something like “substantial progress on” with a commitment to submit something like that 6 months to a year after the sabbatical ends. In the annual review a year after you are back, you can make sure to acknowledge how the work you did was made possible by the work you did on sabbatical.
If you have funding for work in an archive for your current project, it is acceptable to use some of that time for “fishing expeditions” to seed future projects. When applying for that kind of funding allow yourself enough time to also do that, even if you don’t talk about it explicitly. No one expects you to ask for the bare minimum amount of time in the archive. There is a lot of room between greedy and stingy.
You also may be surprised how a short amount of dreaming and thinking time can generate ideas that can be pursued in shorter chunks of time during the busy term. Using A Meeting With Your Writing (or similar 1 to 2 hour session) to do some writing about one or two things you’ve read without a clear idea of what kind of publishable output might come of it is a good use of your writing time.
Spending 15 to 30 minutes making a list of things you’d like to read, organizing your notes, or skimming some notes and deciding on a next step, is a good use of your time.
Being less fussy
I was listening to an interview with Catherine Prendergast on the How Do You Write? podcast [ep 304]. She mentioned a time when her husband was very ill and she learned how to write in the waiting room of the hospital. The conclusion she drew from this experience is that sometimes you need to learn how to be less fussy about when and where you write.
I will fully support you if you renegotiate your book deadline when someone close to you is very ill. However, I think she makes a very good point.
The conditions for the kind of writing and thinking that help you start new projects, and dream big, are difficult to find and protect. The tension between using that kind of writing time for this kind of work and using it to produce more outputs is real. Taking risks is hard, and your risk tolerance is affected by a lot of different factors.
Being less fussy about the conditions in which you can do this work, or perhaps the conditions in which you can do the kinds of work that are competing for this time, will help.
It is certainly worth experimenting to see what’s possible. What kind of risks are you taking to experiment with what you can do in the time you have?