Twelve Top Tips For Writing While Distracted

please do not disturbWe’re all quite distracted at the moment: by world events, changes in routine, the needs of family members and friends, and our own emotions. Yet many of us still have writing work to do. And it’s hard. Writing is hard anyway, and in this time of massive uncertainty it’s harder than ever.

I have been thinking about this a lot as I have a whole bunch of writing on my to-do list right now. I’ve also been watching and participating in online conversations about the difficulties people are experiencing when they’re trying to write. And I’ve tried out a few strategies of my own in recent days. So here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Don’t expect to do as much work as you usually would. We are all anxious and, at some level, grieving. Be gentle with yourself, and cherish what you do manage rather than beating yourself up for what you haven’t achieved.
  2. Establish a writing place in your home. It doesn’t need to be solely devoted to writing – it could be one corner of the sofa, or of the dining table – nor does it need to be large.
  3. Plan a swift pre-writing ritual e.g. making a ‘writing drink’ – hot or cold, whatever your preference, but the same one each time. This all helps to reinforce the message that you’re about to write and it’s important.
  4. Get a routine going. Many of us have less structure in our lives than usual, and routine is often helpful for writing. Write at the same time each weekday, or on the days that are best for you. Or, if your routine is irregular, e.g. due to shift work, plan your writing times in advance and stick to them.
  5. Use sound or silence in the way that helps you most. Some people like to write to music, others prefer soothing sounds like waves or rain – there are plenty of options on YouTube. If silence works better for you, use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  6. If you’re writing first draft material, set yourself small daily goals: half an hour of focused writing, or a few hundred words if you respond better to word count goals. If you’re at home alone with children, unless they’re too young, set a timer so they know when they can interrupt you again (barring emergencies of course). If there’s another adult in the house, do a deal with them so you get time to write and in return they get time to do whatever they need to do.
  7. Break down your writing jobs into small chunks. Usually I regard ‘edit book chapter’ as a single task. On Tuesday I scrolled aimlessly around in the text of a chapter I needed to edit, wondering how on earth I could tackle the work in front of me. In the end I wrote myself a list: add bullet points to the end of section 1, check case study on page 3 against citations elsewhere to ensure a smooth flow, write reflective questions – that kind of thing. Then I found I could deal with each small job in turn, albeit more slowly than usual.
  8. Renegotiate deadlines if necessary. Supervisors, editors, and other such people are likely to be sympathetic to the need for extensions. Try to be as realistic as you can about how much extra time you need, and then aim to stick to your new deadline.
  9. Restrict your consumption of news websites and social media. At present, they increase anxiety. I’m now looking at the news, briefly, just a couple of times a day; I have mostly stopped using Tweetdeck with the rolling feed that I usually love, and am using my Twitter notification page instead; and I’m spending less time on Facebook and Instagram. This is helping.
  10. Join and use a virtual ‘shut up and write’ group or book a virtual writing retreat. New ones are springing up all the time at present and you can find them by searching online. Writing with others can help you to focus, even if you’re with them virtually rather than in person. If you don’t fancy a group or a retreat with strangers, maybe you have a colleague/peer/friend or two who you could write with online.
  11. Five minutes of freewriting can help you to get going. Set yourself a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘What I want to say is…’ Then set a timer for five minutes and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping or editing or censoring yourself. If you pause, or get stuck, write the prompt again, as many times as you need until it takes you somewhere else.
  12. Take as good care of yourself as you can in this unprecedented situation. When possible, do things that soothe you and take your mind off your troubles: hot baths, making, exercise, gaming – different things work for different people. Looking after yourself will help you maintain the resources you need to write.

Given a chance, writing itself can become a useful distraction. I wrote this while intensely worried about the health of two people, one family member and one friend, both of whom are very unwell. It took my mind off everything for a little while. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Writing Is A Research Method

writing on keyboardIt has always struck me as odd that people don’t recognise writing as a research method. I doubt there is a single piece of formal research in the Euro-Western world which doesn’t involve writing. Yes, we can make all our reports with video, but those videos need scripting and that requires words. As researchers, writing is one way in which we exercise our power. You may not think of yourself or your writing as powerful, yet writing is an act of power in the world. I was reminded recently by a colleague that my words on this blog are powerful. I’d forgotten. It’s easy to forget, but we need to remember.

Writing, in Euro-Western research, is universal. It’s the one method used regularly by both quantitative and qualitative researchers. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t recognised as a method, because it unites us rather than dividing us. But it is a method, and I would argue that it is a qualitative method. We can’t do research without writing, and how we write affects the ways our work is understood and used by other people.

I’ve been interested in the terminology around the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think provides a useful example. Last week I wrote a post about self-isolation. Following a lot of travelling the previous week I’ve been voluntarily staying at home, seeing only my partner and a couple of delivery people. One friend challenged my use of the term ‘self-isolation’, saying that in their view I was doing social distancing because I wasn’t sleeping separately and staying 2m away from my partner or using separate washing facilities, and I was still taking deliveries in person. I could see their point, though I know others are using the term ‘self-isolation’ in the same way as me. My view of social distancing is that it is more about literally keeping our distance from each other in public places. But these are new terms and we’re all trying to figure this whole thing out while it’s happening.

However, neither of them are particularly lovely terms, and I have appreciated the appearance of alternatives. The first I saw was I think an FB post taken from Instagram (I can’t remember who generated either post now – my apologies; if it was you or you know who it was, please comment below and I’ll edit to credit). The post suggested that we’re not doing social distancing, we’re doing physical distancing for social solidarity. I really liked that concept. Then yesterday Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland (and a doctor), spoke of cocooning, and I heard that Americans were talking of ‘shelter in place’.

While I have no evidence for this beyond my own reactions, I suspect that more positive terms are likely to lead to more acceptance. Asking someone to isolate themselves has connotations of loneliness, sadness, and prison (which also has associations with the term ‘lockdown’ currently in use around the world). Physical distancing sounds easier and more accurate than social distancing, and coupling it with social solidarity makes it feel stronger and more righteous. Cocooning makes me think of cosiness and warmth, plus it rhymes (or almost) with other gentle words like soothing and crooning. Asking someone to shelter in place has connotations of home, familiarity, and safety.

As researchers, we often have new information to impart and we sometimes arrive at new concepts which need to be named. There are a whole bunch of words and phrases for us to choose from in writing each new sentence. The words and phrases we use can make a great deal of difference to how our work is received. This means we need to take care in choosing our words and phrases, and in putting them together to make sentences, and in putting sentences together to make paragraphs. These tiny laborious steps are like the strokes of an artist’s brush or the stitches from a crafter’s needle: the beating heart of the writer’s art.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing An Academic Book Blurb

blurbThe ‘blurb’ is the text on the back of a book’s cover which tells you what the book is about. It’s not simply a description, though; it is also a sales tool. For this reason some people find blurbs difficult, even distasteful to write.

Do you want to know a secret? I love writing blurbs. This is partly because I love writing and I always enjoy a different and interesting wordsmithing job. It’s also because I enjoy a chance to show off. For the same reason, I like being interviewed for contracts, giving keynotes, and running workshops. Generally speaking, showing off is regarded as bad form, but these are situations where you’re supposed to show off. And so is writing a blurb.

I do understand why blurb writing can feel difficult and distasteful for some people, particularly academics who are trained not to over-claim – and so may spend much of their time actually under-claiming in their efforts to follow academic convention. Generally speaking I think that’s a good thing, but when you’re writing a blurb, you need to use a different register. If you’re one of the people who finds blurb-writing difficult – or perhaps you’re coming to this task for the first time – these tips should help you to write an irresistible blurb.

  1. Start by studying some blurbs of books in your field. Take note of what appeals to you, what puts you off, and in particular what might encourage you to open the book and start reading.
  2. Go back to your book’s proposal and manuscript reviews and pull out every complimentary word, phrase and sentence into a new document. Think about which of these you could use in your blurb, and how.
  3. Revisit the proposal you wrote for your book. Look for ideas or wording you can use in your blurb.
  4. Explain as clearly as possible what your book does that no other book does.
  5. Use strong language. I don’t mean swearing (unless you’re in a very particular kind of sub-genre), I mean words like “first”, “brilliant”, “ground-breaking” – especially such words that were used by your reviewers and/or in your proposal. This kind of language inspires curiosity in potential readers.
  6. Specify who your book is for. This could be by category of people (students, teachers, early career researchers) or by interest (e.g. anyone with an interest in urban design and planning).
  7. Work hardest on the first sentence; it’s the most important. Make it as compelling as you can.
  8. Work almost as hard on the last sentence. Fiction blurbs often use a cliff-hanger (“Will Curtis ever recover from his terrible ordeal?” “Can Lila catch the serial killer before more nurses die?”). Academic books can rarely do this but at least we can try to be intriguing.
  9. Make every single word count. Blurbs are usually limited to 100-150 words so there’s no room for waffle.
  10. Expect input from your publisher’s marketing people. They’re good at this kind of thing. For example, the second sentence of the blurb for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners says “Brilliantly attuned to the demands placed on researchers, this book considers how students, academics and professionals alike can save time and stress without compromising the quality of their research or its outcomes.” I have to credit Kathryn King, marketing manager at Policy Press, for most of this sentence, perhaps all, and certainly its opening.
  11. If you don’t get input from your publisher – or even if you do – test out your blurb on a few friends or colleagues who you can trust to give you honest constructive feedback.
  12. Be prepared to revise and revise and polish and polish and revise some more.

One piece of advice often given to blurb writers is to be sure to use your own voice. I only agree with this up to a point, because it’s not like any of us only have one voice. Think how you might talk to a tired two-year-old or to a police officer who has just stopped you in the street. Different voices, right? And so it is with books and blurbs. In the book, you’re talking to your reader; you know they’re there with you. In the blurb, you’re trying to persuade them to join you. Again, think how your voice might differ in equivalent real-life situations: perhaps where you’re chatting to a friend over a table in a coffee shop, versus standing in the street trying to persuade your friend to join you for a coffee when you really want them to say “yes”.

Ultimately, that’s what your blurb needs to do: persuade potential readers to say “yes”, to become actual readers, to take your words and ideas along with them.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Random Acts of Kindness Day: Thanking Anonymous Reviewers

kindness 2Taking to Twitter this morning as usual, I discovered that today is Random Acts of Kindness Day (aka #RandomActsOfKindnessDay). My first thought was bah, just one day? One out of 365 (or even 366 in this leap year)? That’s rubbish; let’s commit random acts of kindness EVERY day!

Then I got an email from one of my editors. She had recently sent me three excellent anonymous manuscript reviews: engaged, thoughtful, really helpful to me in improving the text. It seems so unfair that they have to be anonymous; I wish I could credit them by name. I wrote a short email to each reviewer to thank them which I included in an email to my editor with a request that she forward them on. This morning she replied:

Thanks too for sending your responses to the reviewers, which I will send on.  I’ve never been asked to do this before and think it’s a lovely thing to do, especially when peer review can be quite a fraught process…

My editor has been working in academic publishing for almost 20 years. And she has never been asked to do this before.

I have always written thank-you emails to manuscript reviewers, and where possible to reviewers of journal articles. These are people who have spent hours, perhaps even days, helping me to improve my work for no recognition whatsoever. I know this is how academia works, but it seems to me simple human courtesy to say thank you.

I say ‘always’ and that’s not quite true. There was the time I got a manuscript review which was only half a page long and with nothing I could use. Some journals seem to have no way for people to get in touch other than the automated online submission system. I know some people get destructively critical or even abusive reviews, though luckily for me I haven’t had those. Whenever I can and it’s merited – which in my experience it almost always is – I say thank you.

Why don’t other people do this? If it’s just ‘not done in academia’ then that’s reason no. 48367 why I’m glad I’m an independent researcher. I honestly thought everyone would be doing it. Though if I’d given it proper thought, I’d have realised I’ve never had a ‘thank you’ from an author whose work I’ve reviewed anonymously…

So anyway, it turned out I did a random act of kindness today without even realising. But how about we make it not random? If you’ve recently benefited from anonymous peer review, can you find a way to send a short thank-you note to your reviewer?

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog (a random act of kindness!) if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Collaborative Book Writing – The End Stage

online collaborationRecently I’ve been writing books in collaboration with other authors. I collaborated with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) on Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which was published last December. I have also been collaborating with Professor Richard Phillips (aka @PhillipsSpace) on Creative Writing in Social Research which is due for publication next January. We’ve just finished the draft manuscript and it’s gone for peer review.

The final stages of producing any book – or thesis, or dissertation – are tortuous for a solo writer. There are so many little details to check and re-check. Is each heading in the appropriate style? Does every citation in the text correspond to a reference in the bibliography? Is every reference in the bibliography cited in the text? Are there any typos? Does the text make sense? I have dreamed of having someone to help with all this checking and re-checking, yet to my surprise it seemed even more tortuous when I was working collaboratively. This is no reflection whatsoever on my collaborators; they were both a delight to work with and I would happily work with either of them again. However, it seems to me that collaborating may be easier for strategic and creative tasks than in painstakingly detailed work.

Janet is based in Colorado and when we were finishing our book, the number of emails whizzing back and forth across the Atlantic was enormous. They said things like:

“I’ve restructured chapter 6 and I think it works better now, please could you take a look and see if you agree?”

“I’ve sorted out the figures, they’re all numbered and captioned now.”

“OMG – I’ve just noticed the chapter titles aren’t consistent – how did we miss THAT?!?”

And many, many more such messages. Working with Richard was easier in that he’s based in the UK and, what’s more, works at a university which is only a short journey from me. So at times we could meet up in person to go through comments and make decisions together. At other times we met on Skype, as I also did with Janet. Not that speaking in real time is foolproof – more than once I wrote down something one of my collaborators said, then found later that my notes made no sense.

In my latest meeting with Richard we divided up the final tasks. Here’s the to-do list I scribbled at my desk the next morning:

book finishing to-do list

I rarely write by hand these days, but this task was so complex I felt the need for an old-skool list rather than the digital ones I usually use. Getting through that lot took me about three working days. The deadline was tight, and I had to fit the work around other commitments, so I ended up working till 10 pm two nights in a row. I don’t usually work in the evenings because my brain shuts down around 6-7 pm, but checking references is fairly mindless work so I saved that for the late sessions. Once my tasks were complete, Richard had a list of similar length, and it took him a good few days, too, to get through all his tasks.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that the end stage of a collaborative book is at least as time-consuming for each author as the end stage of a solo-authored book. This is counter-intuitive: you’d think that with two of you, it would take each person half as long as if they were working alone. In some parts of the book writing work that’s (almost) the case – but not at the end stage. So when I next collaborate on a book, I will allocate the same amount of time to the end stage as I would if I was doing it all myself. Then, with luck, I won’t need to work in the evenings.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Too Tired To Blog

PFYDR coverThere’s lots I could write about this week. I could write a post around my new book, out this very week: Publishing From Your Doctoral Research, co-written with Janet Salmons, the first book in the series I’m co-editing with Pat Thomson. I’m proud of this book and happy to see it in print – and it’s currently on special offer through the above link for only £14.39 (paperback). But mid-December is a rubbish time to publish a book because everyone is preoccupied with the holidays.

I could write about the winter lurgy I’ve been suffering from this week, and the importance of rest and recuperation, though that would be a real case of ‘do as I say not as I do’. I could write something creative about the forthcoming festivals – winter solstice, Hanukah, Christmas, Hogmanay, and so on.

tiredThis has been a helluva year workwise. I could focus on that: calculate how many train journeys I’ve taken, how many beds I’ve slept in – it would be a lot. That’s mainly why I’m so tired, I think. I’m not short of material for this blog; I’m short of energy. I need a break. So I’m going to have one. Beginning on Friday, when I won’t have done all the jobs I wanted to do, but I will have done all that I can. I’ll start work again on Monday 30 December, but I’m going to take a slightly longer digital break – I’ve already ducked out of Instagram, and I’ll be weaning myself off Twitter and Facebook over the next few days. I’ll be back online, in the New Year, when I’m ready. This blog, too, will be quiet now until the first full week of January. I wonder what I’ll post about then… I envy my fellow bloggers who can generate several posts in one go; I almost always write mine the same week as I publish them. It’ll be a whole new decade. I wonder if I will feel any different. I doubt it, really – except for, I hope, a little less tired.

Wishing you, too, an enjoyable and restful break. Especially if you’re one of my beloved Patrons.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $45 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $45 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Making Money From Writing Books

coins on handI’ve been writing steadily since 2011, and I’ve just done my accounts for 2018-19. I have published three full-length books (one in 2018) and one second edition (in 2017) for my main publisher. I’m now writing for two other publishers and have received several small advances for those books. When I say ‘small’, I mean between £125 and £500, so nice to have in the bank but not at all representative of the amount of time I spend writing the books.

Publishers can be a bit funny about authors telling people about royalty rates and amounts of advances, so I need to be a bit circumspect in this post. (Bit annoying really – this kind of secrecy benefits corporations not individuals, but still, that’s where we are right now.) My royalties took a dip this year which surprised me. In the previous year I’d made it into four figures; in 2018-19 I was back into three figures (though I’m happy to say I’m back in four figures again for 2019-20).

I have also self-published six solo-authored short books for doctoral students and one co-written book on self-publishing for academics. These would sell more if I did more to promote them; in 2018-19 global profits totalled £175.65.

I got money, too, from the Public Lending Right – every time one of my books is borrowed from a UK library, I am entitled to a payment of a few pence.  The payout is made once a year and this year was my biggest ever: £8.61.

Also the completely wonderful Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society pays out twice a year to UK authors whose work has been photocopied anywhere in the world. They also collect PLR payments from outside the UK. This year, that added up to £414.60 in total which was very nice to receive.

With all of this, my total gross income directly from writing in 2018-19 was £3,671.32. There were some outgoings too: mostly books, and my Society of Authors’ annual subscription, which brought it down to around £3,000 of net income.

While still not a life-changing amount, it is a game-changing sum of money. It means that, after eight years of steady writing, I can now spend several weeks of each year on writing alone, paid for by the income from my writing. This is a lovely position to be in. It’s better than spending several weeks of each year on writing mostly subsidised by my paid work, which is what I have been doing up to now. Also, I expect it to improve year on year: this time next year I should be receiving royalties from three publishers rather than one (assuming I can earn out my little advances quickly enough).

It has taken me the full eight years to get here. My total earnings from writing for the last eight years have been around £7,500. Most of those have been in the last three years: £1,500 in 2016-17 and £1,600 in 2017-18, plus the £3,000 this year. The first five years, 2011-2016, I earned around £1,400 in total. That was partly because I invested in my self-published books, paying an editor to work on the text and paying for cover design. Speaking purely financially, that was a bad move, but I’m not sorry because I know those books have helped people.

I love writing books; I don’t think I could write them otherwise. Also, my books make me money in other ways: I get asked to run workshops in universities, and to work on projects, solely on the strength of my writing. But I think it is worth reflecting on how poorly academic writing pays writers. We’re still dealing with a system which is based on the principle that anyone doing academic writing has a secure and sizeable salary. That is outdated but it’s taking a long time to change.

Since my very first book, I have negotiated as hard as I reasonably could for a good deal, with the support of the excellent contract advisers who help out members of the Society of Authors. If I hadn’t argued my case, my earnings from writing would have been even lower. I’m sure some people think being a published writer means I’m rich. They look at the kind of income achieved by writers like JK Rowling or Jodi Picoult and think the same applies across the board. I’m sure others think knocking out a book or two will make an appreciable difference to their income and/or pension. Not if it’s an academic book it won’t.

Based on my experience, I reckon you could make a decent living as an academic writer if you write lots of books of interest to people across a range of disciplines, and work with several publishers – for about 20 years. If you write single-discipline books your earnings are likely to be very small. I think it’s important to share what we can of this kind of information, depressing as it is, so that people go into the writing business with realistic expectations.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $45 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $45 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Juggling Multiple Writing Projects: Three Top Tips

jugglingThis is a crazy year of writing. A co-written book is about to be published and I’m working on three others (one solo, two co-written) and preparing a fifth, also co-written, for self-publication next spring. I have two co-written journal articles in production, one on submission, two more under construction (one co-written, one solo) and I’ve just agreed to collaborate on another next year. Then there are research reports and, for one client, a book chapter. Not to mention writing a post for this blog most weeks.

I didn’t plan it this way. Of the three books I’m working on, one came as a dream paid project that I couldn’t turn down, and another took two years to come to fruition which it did, from my point of view, at exactly the wrong time. But there are four of us working on it so at least I only have to write three chapters for that one.

So I’m doing a lot of juggling. Part of the key to this is careful timetabling. Here’s my book writing timetable for the next few months:

Dec: work on book 2 manuscript (MS) and book 3 MS

Jan: work on book 2 MS and book 3 MS; book 2 MS to publishers by end Jan; reviews of book 1 MS back to me by end Jan

Feb: work on book 1 final draft (FD) and book 3 MS

Mar: work on book 1 FD and book 3 MS; book 1 FD to publishers by mid-March; book 3 MS to publishers by end March; reviews of book 2 MS back to me by end March

Apr: work on book 2 FD

May: work on book 2 FD; end May reviews of book 3 MS back to me

Jun: work on book 2 FD and book 3 FD; book 2 FD to publishers by end June

Jul: work on book 3 FD; book 3 FD to publishers by end July

Then there are the journal articles, other outputs for clients, teaching and speaking commitments, self-publishing, promotion for existing books and articles, research and evaluation project work for clients… oh and the holidays. I’ve set some time aside for breaks, and some time when I will be working from my home office and not travelling. Otherwise I end up travelling ALL the time – in the first three months of next year I’m already due to work in Brussels (twice), Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Glasgow, Southampton, Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester.

Careful timetabling is only part of the key: the other part is meeting self-imposed deadlines. At the moment I need to write 1,000 words six days a week on book 3. Each 1,000 words takes 2-4 hours, and is often done in the evening and at weekends. If I don’t stick to that schedule I’ll fall behind – if not with book 3 then with one of the others.

On the plus side, there are advantages to working on several books at once. Recently I got some feedback on parts of book 2 from my co-author. Most of it was useful constructive criticism, with occasional suggested deletions where he really didn’t like something. On the whole I accept his amendments – he’s a good writer and I value his input – but there was one paragraph that he’d suggested deleting which I rather liked. I was considering whether to argue for keeping it in, when I realised it would work rather well in book 3. So, ta-da! Co-author happy, me pleased, all well.

I enjoy writing collaboratively. I always learn from co-authors, and the resulting work is usually better than anything I could produce alone. I’m not sure, though, that it takes less time than solo writing. Yes, I don’t have to create as much raw material, but there’s a lot more discussion and negotiation required.

What I do find galling is academics with permanent posts who complain that they don’t get enough sabbaticals or study leave, i.e. paid time off, to write. I don’t begrudge academics these opportunities, but I do think that some awareness of the conditions under which other people do scholarly work – including precariously employed academics as well as independent researchers and others – can go a long way.

I hope I can make it through the next few months unscathed. My aim from then on is to work on one book at a time. I wonder how that will pan out…!!

So my three top tips for juggling multiple writing projects are:

  1. Timetable carefully
  2. Meet your intended deadlines
  3. Practise self-care

If you have any others to suggest, please put them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Mind The Gap In The Literature

cat in literatureIn the course of my work I read a lot of academic articles, chapters, and books. This means I sometimes make surprising discoveries. For example, last weekend I was reading an article by, I’ll call the author McGonagall, who, in the course of developing her argument, claimed that topic X had not been identified as relevant to the development of field Y. I had another article already open on screen by, let’s say Trelawney, published four years before McGonagall’s article, which explicitly identified topic X as relevant to the development of field Y.

McGonagall’s article was published in a top-ranked journal. This means that not only the author, but the editor and some expert reviewers, were unaware of Trelawney’s article. Trelawney’s article was in a less highly ranked journal, but one from a reputable academic publisher and which focuses entirely on field Y.

So McGonagall claimed to have found a gap in the literature, but in fact that gap had been filled four years previously. I wonder how often this happens?

Both Trelawney and McGonagall had written articles that, for me at least, were worth reading and helpful for my work. I ended up citing them both. If McGonagall had found, and cited, Trelawney’s article, that would not have invalidated her own contribution. This made me wonder whether it’s time to rethink the way we mark our territories in scholarly work. For a while now I have been quite careful with these kinds of claims about what exists in the literature. I explicitly take responsibility, and so use formulations such as ‘To the best of my knowledge there is no previous work on…’ or ‘I have been unable to find any discussion of…’ rather than asserting that such work or discussion doesn’t exist. After all, there is far too much literature out there these days for anyone to be confident about what has or hasn’t been covered. And saying something doesn’t exist – at least, saying it in English about literature in English (which is the only language I read) – has imperialist overtones in its refusal to acknowledge the possibility of scholarly work in other languages.

Also, a gap in the literature is not the only thing scholars need to address. Perhaps you want to write on a topic where there is already a sizeable body of literature. If so, then make a rationale for writing from a particular time, or place, or standpoint, or theoretical perspective. And keep it simple. Probably nobody has written a Queer-Framed Bourdieusian Gaze On The Post-Feminist Praxis Of Shed Construction In Huddersfield Using An Extended Baking Metaphor and there’s a good reason for that. Several good reasons, in fact.

Rather than filling a gap, what can we add that has value? Figuring out the contribution your work makes is likely to help motivate you to get the words down. Also, it should help you to convince editors and reviewers that your work is worth publishing. People often don’t like to think of it this way, but it’s a sales pitch. Even when no money changes hands directly, publishing is a commercial exercise; publishers, even non-profit publishers, have to make a surplus to stay in business. And if you’re self-publishing, you want people to read your work, right? So you have to sell it – even if you’re giving it away. I suspect the old ‘gap in the literature’ claim is losing force in today’s market. It’s time to think up other claims, preferably ones we can legitimately make. Have you come up with any good ones? If so, please share them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Publishing From Your Doctoral Research

PFYDR coverNew book klaxon! Publishing From Your Doctoral Research: Create And Use A Publication Strategy is now available for pre-order.

This book is exciting for a number of reasons. First, I wrote it with US colleague Janet Salmons which was a great collaboration. We based it on an online course we developed a few years ago. Janet and I did loads of market research before developing the course; established that there was definitely a demand; did loads of promo when we launched the course; and had hardly any take-up. The students who did work with us were very complimentary about the course and have gone on to publish successfully in a variety of formats. We were sad that the course didn’t really take off, then happy to find we could revise the material we’d prepared into a book for Routledge. It was fun to collaborate with Janet and we have worked hard to make the book accessible and practical.

Second, this is the first in the series Insider Guides to Success in Academia which I am co-editing with the incomparable Pat Thomson. They are short, pocket-sized books, about half the length of a standard book. And they cover topics which are not already covered in the literature; the kinds of things people seem required to learn by osmosis. Two more titles are almost ready to go into production: Making It As A Contract Researcher and Being Well In Academia. Other books following along are on topics such as collaboration, the viva around the world, bidding for grant funding, PhD by publication. This is the first time I’ve worked as a series editor and it’s really interesting to do, as well as highly enjoyable to collaborate with Pat.

Now, as always, it’s the anxious wait for reader feedback. Though I have been considerably more anxious about other books, because the material in this one has been thoroughly tested by our students. Still… we’ll see!