When I first speak with academics who want to do 1:1 coaching with me, they often come to our consultation call with two things: a deadline and a calendar. They ask me a question that sounds something like this: “if I have 8 hours a week for the next 6 months, save two weeks when I’ll be on vacation, can I finish 4 chapters of my book?” My response is always, without fail, that it depends.
What I’ve discovered in over five years of working with clients is that a writing project takes the time you give it.
Most people don’t like this answer. I certainly didn’t like it when my dissertation advisor told me in graduate school. While I never wanted to believe it, scrambling alongside my peers to successfully finish manuscripts to meet conference paper deadlines always reinforced his point. Completing a dissertation before my funding ran out also proved his point. Putting my head down and finishing a revise and resubmit while teaching three courses, at threat of having my article pulled entirely if I didn’t finish, was the final convincing I needed.
Similarly, we all know scholars who have written their book under deadline in a short amount of time. You might even be one of those scholars. The tenure clock was ticking, a sabbatical was about to end, or you’re trying to finish before you give birth, for instance. In all these situations, writers make it work and produce texts that are successfully peer-reviewed and published.
Yet, scholars want to believe that they can “never” finish their book in the time they have. They act on this belief by stalling. I encounter writers who have been ghosting their editors for months. These scholars are anxious that if their editor discovers they’re behind on their writing, there will be severe repercussions. Maybe their editor will yell at them or worse, drop them (newsflash: your silence is already speaking volumes).
This dread is understandable. Nobody wants to write a book under draconian deadlines. You want to have more ease. That’s what I try to help my clients with. To start, I encourage them to reframe their question: How can I make the most of the time I actually have to write this book?
I’ve worked with clients who have come to me with 6 months left to write their book and clients who are just starting books. They’ve both had great results. Below are two different scenarios I’ve coached clients through and why my approach worked.
Scenario #1: A tenure-track scholar at the tail end of their sabbatical who realizes they’re running out of time (this is why I tell everyone: contact me at the beginning of your sabbatical!). There’s a hard deadline for the manuscript to be presented at a book workshop. Their goal was to write six of eight chapters in six months.
What we did: Created a writing schedule where at least 90% of writing time was devoted to the book over a period of 6 months. This meant working on the book every weekday for about four hours and scheduling several weekend long writing retreats. There was limited evening and weekend writing otherwise because of parenting duties.
Why it worked: This writer was already in integrity with their writing. They had a regular writing routine, they’d just been focusing their energy in other places (articles and conference presentations – sound familiar?). They also refused to disappoint their colleagues and mentors who had agreed to participate in the workshop. It was certainly tough to write this much in such a short time, but they did it!
Scenario #2: A scholar in her first few years on the tenure track who is balancing her book with other writing commitments. The goal is to have a full but imperfect draft in twelve months or sooner.
What we’re doing: During the semester, she’s working on a 500 word/day target to generate 10,000 – 12,000 word rough drafts of 2-3 chapters. Once the semester ends, we’ll decide whether the next step is to generate more new prose or to start revising those drafts.
Why it works: It’s realistic and fits into a schedule busy with teaching and other writing commitments. Second, it helps maintain momentum on the book writing so that she’ll be able to jump right into the longer writing sessions that summer break will bring.
Factors to consider when deciding how to write an academic book in the time you have.
How long will each chapter take? We think every chapter will take the same amount of time. They never do. Even if you can’t estimate the exact time you’ll need, you can start with the vague but still helpful parameters of “least time, most time” and place your chapters accordingly.
Do you really have as much time as you think you do? We don’t anticipate distractions – good or bad. For instance, that revise and resubmit might come back with a tight turnaround time just as we’re making headway on a complicated argument in a chapter. You’ll have a good reason to take time away from your book, but it’s still time away from your book! Incorporate some wiggle room into your schedule at the beginning.
Do you have a stable relationship with your writing? My clients in both scenarios discussed above were successful because they were already writing regularly and fully committed to the schedule. I’ve seen similar situations where writers didn’t have a regular writing habit and/or were resistant to following a schedule. You can probably guess what happened.
Making the most of the time you have to write an academic book requires a combination of good strategy and the right mindset. You can have the best plan in the world, but unless you believe in the plan and get your butt in the chair, it won’t work. Conversely, you can be the most enthusiastic writer, but if you have no idea of how long you need when you can write, or what to write, you won’t make much progress.
Finally, remember this: everyone’s process is different. Don’t judge yourself based on what your friend from grad school, mentor, or enemy down the hall did. Everyone has different resources and circumstances. What we share, however, is the ability to plan and manage our perspective about our work.