Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Have a Productive Summer: Three Tips that Work

Most academics I talk to this time of year are looking forward to summer, when classes are over meetings are few and far between and we have lots of time to write. We can finally pay attention to that writing project that has been inching along all semester. Now that summer is here, we can jump in and devote ourselves full-time to writing and research productivity.

Journaling at the rasta hideaway in Ghana

The joy with which we start our summers, however, is not always paralleled by a strong sense of satisfaction at the end. Many academics recall summers past when they planned to finish the book, send off the articles, and submit grant proposals where the plans did not materialize. In this post, I explain how you can have a productive summer, and how you can emerge from summer feeling refreshed, accomplished, and ready to take on the new academic year.

Tip #1: Make a Research and Writing Plan

The very first step to a productive summer is to make a plan. And, no, I do not mean that your plan should look like this: “FINISH BOOK!” Instead, a plan must include a lot more detail. Your plan needs to be divided into weeks and broken down into manageable tasks. Most of us have about 12 weeks in the summer. Thus, your plan could look like this:

Week 1:

  • Read three articles on due process
  • Write section on due process for Chapter One
  • Make plan for completion of Chapter One
  • Complete at least two tasks on completion plan for Chapter One

As you can see, you do not have to know exactly what needs to be done to complete chapter one to make your plan. Instead, you can include making a completion plan as part of your plan. Once you finish with week 1, you can do the same for Weeks 2 to 12.

The benefits of making a plan are that 1) you develop a better idea as to what you can reasonably accomplish; 2) you set clear benchmarks for yourself and ensure you are making progress; and 3) at the end of the summer, you have a realistic idea as to what you have and have not accomplished.

Tip #2: Develop a reasonable summertime writing schedule

You will not be working 24-hours a day over the summer, no matter how few external obligations you have. In fact, you likely will not even be working consistent 8-hour days. The reality is that academic work is hard and requires an extraordinary amount of mental energy. Most people are unable to devote 8 hours a day, 7 days a week to academic writing, reading, research, and data analysis. People that try to do this quickly burn out.

Each of us has our own internal limits to how long we can reasonably expect ourselves to work. It is difficult to come to terms with our own limits. However, once we do, it can be remarkably liberating. I am the first to admit that I can write for no more than three hours a day on a consistent basis. Not too long ago, I learned that I can either spend all day at the office trying to get that three hours in, or I can simply spend three hours in front of my computer first thing in the morning and get my three hours of writing in.

Once I have done my three hours of writing, I have done the hard work for the day. At that point, I might collect articles I need to read, respond to emails, pay bills, or do any of the other myriad tasks that occupy my day. If it’s the summertime, I stop early to ensure that I make time to enjoy all of the benefits summer offers.

You too must come to terms with your limits and figure out how long you can expect yourself to write, read, and research each day. If you have no idea, one strategy is to track your time for a week or two to see how much writing, research and reading you actually do. Be careful, however, to note that you have at least two kinds of limits: how much work you can expect yourself to do in a short period of time and how much work you can do on a regular basis that is sustainable. You may be able to write for 8 hours a day for one week, but then find yourself unable to produce a coherent sentence the second week. That indicates that you overspent your limits.

Once you figure out your limits you can develop a reasonable schedule. Keep in mind that many people are very productive over the summer working four hours a day, five days a week.

Tip #3: Write every day

The only way you can ensure that you actually have a productive summer, i.e., that you emerge with real progress on your writing projects is to sit down and write. The best way to ensure that you write a lot is to write every day, five days a week.

Thus, when you make your plans and your schedules, make sure that you plan to write every day of the workweek. If you have never tried daily writing before, this is the perfect time to start!
Have a fantastic, productive, relaxing, and refreshing summer!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How to Give a Fabulous Academic Presentation: Five Tips to Follow

One of the easiest ways to stand out at an academic conference is to give a fantastic presentation. If you have ever been to an academic conference, you should be able to see my point. The majority of presentations at conferences are not very good. This makes it fairly easy for you to be impressive.

In this post, I will discuss a few simple techniques that can make your presentation stand out. It does take time to make a good presentation. However, it is well worth the investment.

Tip #1: Use PowerPoint Judiciously

These days, most good presentations make some use of visuals. The extent to which you should use visuals will vary a lot depending on your field. Nevertheless, there are a few basic things you should know if you will be using PowerPoint or another method of showing visuals.

  • Never use less than 24 point font. If you use smaller font, people will not be able to see your information and you will have too much information on the slide.
  • Use bullet points. PowerPoint slides do not need full sentences, and should never have a paragraph full of information.
  • Use images effectively. You should have as little text as possible on the slide. One way to accomplish this is to have images on each slide, accompanied by a small amount of text.
  • Never put your presentation on the slides and read from the slides.
  • Do not have too many slides. Definitely do not have more than one slide per minute of presentation.

Tip #2: There is a formula to academic presentations. Use it.

Once you have become an expert at giving fabulous presentations, you can deviate from the formula. However, if you are a newbie, you need to follow the formula. Again, this will vary by the field. However, I will give an example from my field – sociology – to give you an idea as to what the format should look like.

  • Introduction/Overview/Hook
  • Theoretical Framework/Research Question
  • Methodology/Case Selection
  • Background/Literature Review
  • Discussion of Data/Results
  • Analysis
  • Conclusion

Tip #3: The audience wants to hear about your research. Tell them.

One of the most common mistakes I see in people giving presentations is that they present only information I already know. This usually happens when they spend nearly all of the presentation going over the existing literature and giving background information on their particular case. You need only to discuss the literature with which you are directly engaging and contributing. Your background information should only include what is absolutely necessary. If you are giving a 15-minute presentation, by the 6th minute, you need to be discussing your data or case study.

Tip #4: Practice. Practice. Practice.

You need to practice your presentation in full before you deliver it. You might feel silly delivering your presentation to your cat or your toddler, but you need to do it and do it again. You need to practice to ensure that your presentation fits within the time parameters. Practicing also makes it flow better. You can’t practice too many times.

Tip #5: Keep To Your Time Limit

If you have ten minutes to present, prepare ten minutes of material. No more. Even if you only have seven minutes, you need to finish within the allotted time. If you will be reading, a general rule of thumb is two minutes per typed, double-spaced page. For a fifteen minute talk, you should have no more than 7 double-spaced pages of material.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Start Writing and Don’t Stop

Do you have a writing project that you can’t seem to get moving on? Is there an article you need to finish, a short essay you need to begin, or page proofs you must attend to?

We all have different relationships with our writing, and most people have at least one kind of writing they find harder than other kinds. In this post, I will discuss one strategy that will help you to finish that very project that seems interminable.

The strategy I suggest is to find 20 to 30 minutes a day each weekday to dedicate to the project. When the time comes to work on it, turn off all distractions. Turn off your phone. Cut off the Internet. Put all of your reading material away. Open the document and work on it for 20 to 30 minutes.

56/365 morning runDo not stop before 20 minutes are up for any reason. Well, anything that is not a real emergency, like a fire alarm. If, while writing, you realize you need a reference, or need to double-check a piece of information, or need to go back to your data, do not stop to check anything. Instead, make a note to yourself about that and find something else to do in the document that does not require fact-checking.

If you get stuck on a word choice, put down both words. You can make stylistic and grammatical changes later. There is no need to stop to check the thesaurus.

Don’t stop to check your data or to fix your tables. Just keep going and make a note to yourself.

Don’t stop for anything. It is only 20 to 30 minutes, and nearly all phone calls, emails, visitors, and even bathroom breaks can wait.

If you dedicate just 20 to 30 minutes to your writing project, you will be surprised to see how quickly you are able to move it along.

When you are nearly done, or when you find yourself with more time and less resistance, you may be able to take a longer writing session to tie things up. You can also use longer writing sessions to go back and check your references, make word choice changes, and fix your tables.

Concentrated, short writing sessions are often the best time to produce new prose, as this process takes lots of mental energy. By working on your project every day, with whatever time you have available, the ideas around the project will percolate in the back of your mind throughout the day, making it easier to get back in the saddle and begin to write again when the time comes.

Ready, Set, Write!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Forced Creativity? Why Daily Writing Works

Are you waiting for that strike of inspiration for you to write? Do you keep reading and thinking, hoping that the muse will visit you, and when she does, that you will produce pages and pages of prose? Or, do you wait until the weekend to write, with the idea that you will have long blocks of uninterrupted time? If any of those questions resonate with you, you are not alone. Many writers think that they write best when they are inspired.

The truth is that inspiration is most likely to come when you sit down and begin to write.


A study by Robert Boice, reported in his book, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, provides concrete evidence for two concepts: 1) writing daily produces more writing and more ideas and 2) writing accountability works.

The Test: Does Writing Accountability Work?

To find out if daily writing and accountability can be effective, Robert Boice conducted a test with 27 faculty members who desired help with improving their writing productivity. He put the 27 faculty into three groups and examined their writing productivity for ten weeks.

The first group was instructed to write only if they had to write, but asked to keep a log of creative ideas for writing. The idea behind this group was that planned abstinence would lead to the production of creative ideas for writing when the time came.

The second group scheduled writing sessions five days a week for ten weeks, but was encouraged to write only when they were in the mood. They also were asked to take the time they had scheduled for writing to log a new creative idea for writing each day. The idea behind this group was that writing only when they were in the mood would be favorable for creativity.

The third group agreed to a strict accountability plan. They scheduled five writing sessions a week for ten weeks, and kept a log of creative ideas for writing. To ensure that they would write every day, the members of this group gave Boice a pre-paid check for $25, made out to a hated organization. If they failed to write in any of their planned sessions, Boice would mail the check. The idea behind this group was that forced writing would require the group to come up with creative ideas for writing.

The Results: Daily Writing and Accountability Work

Boice’s study revealed:

  • Abstinent writers produced an average of 0.2 pages per day, and only one idea per week.
  • Spontaneous writers produced an average of 0.9 pages per day, and one creative idea every two days.
  • Forced writers produced an average of 3.2 pages and one creative idea each day.

These results show that, contrary to what one might think, creativity can be forced. Sitting down and making yourself write every day is a great way to make those creative juices flow.

How to Write Every Day

The lesson here for writers is to not wait until you feel like writing to write – as that might not happen very often – but to schedule your writing every day, and to show up to your writing session.

If you have already tried scheduling your writing and it has not worked, then it is time to think about what accountability mechanisms might work for you.

Here is a list of ideas for accountability:

Free options:

  • Find a writing buddy with whom you meet to write. Agree with each other that when you meet, you will share your goal for the day, but then get down to business and write.
  • Find a phone buddy and agree to call one another at the beginning and end of your writing times.
  • Post your writing goals – for the day and/or the week on Daily Writing Updates – my Facebook group.
  • Create an accountability group where four colleagues get together at the beginning or end of the week for an hour. Each person has fifteen minutes to say: What their goals were for the past week, whether or not they accomplished them, and what their goals are for the next week. Most people will not show up week after week to report that they did not write.

Paid Options:

  • Gina Hiatt’s Academic Writing Club: The Academic Writing Club is an easily-accessible, interactive and supportive online community of experts and colleagues that provides much that is traditionally missing in the typical academic environment.
  • Become a Community Member at Kerry Ann Roquemore's National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. Community Members receive the weekly Monday Motivator, access to 10 live tele-workshops (one per month) in 2011, access to our private moderated discussion forum, and access to our monthly writing challenges. The annual membership dues for a Community Membership are $120 for graduate students and post-docs, and $240 for faculty members.

I hope that you find the accountability mechanisms that work best for you!