Saturday, August 27, 2011

Make Time for Writing Every Day

One of the best ways to become a prolific writer is to write every day.

If you write every day, you will make progress on your manuscripts, you will become a better writer, and it will become easier for you to write. Scheduling your writing into your calendar will ensure you make time for writing every day.

Yes, I mean, literally, take out your calendar for next week and set aside a specific time for writing every day. I am sure you are a very busy person with many responsibilities. However, if you are reading this blog, then you likely are looking for ways to be more productive. And, one of the best ways to become more productive is to schedule your writing time and treat it just like any other appointment. Here is how.

Schedule writing every day.

Take a look at your schedule for next week and figure out when you might have between 15 minutes and two hours to write every day for five days a week. Spending at least 15 minutes a day with your manuscript means that it will always be fresh in your mind. Deciding now exactly when you will write will ensure that you actually make the time to do it.

Schedule at least 15 minutes a day.

If you think that there is absolutely no way you could make any progress in 15 minutes, I encourage you to try to think of something you could do in 15 minutes. For example, I imagine you could proofread your introduction, free write, update your references, or revise a footnote in 15 minutes. On a previous blog I listed “Seven Ways You Can Write Every Day.”

Don't schedule more than two hours at a time.

I also suggest that you do not schedule your writing for more than two hours at a time. If you do have a day with no other obligations, it is likely more productive to schedule two hours of writing, followed by two hours of reading than to try to schedule four hours of writing. After reading and writing for four hours, schedule in a long break that involves food and exercise and try to go in for another round. Alternatively, you can take the afternoon off, knowing that you have just had a very productive morning!

Treat writing like any other appointment.

Treating writing like any other appointment means that, if you have scheduled writing from 8am to 9am on Monday, and someone asks you to meet at that time, that you have to say, “No, I can’t meet at 8am, how about we meet at 9am?” You, after all, will be very busy from 8am to 9am, working on your manuscript. If you are nervous about claiming you are busy when you are “just” writing, keep two things in mind: 1) If you are at a research university, writing is part of your job; and 2) It is quite unlikely that any of your colleagues will actually ask you what you are doing when you tell them that you cannot meet at a particular time.

So, go ahead, take out your calendars, and schedule between 15 minutes and two hours of writing into your week next week. I have!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Five Steps to Making a Semester Plan for Academics

There is no denying it: the Fall Semester is here. This means it is time to make a Fall semester plan.

The beginning of the semester is always a hectic time for academics. We often are anxious about all we have to do now – finalize syllabi, set up appointments, prepare for classes, and re-arrange our schedules – as well as all we have to do over the next few months - teach, grade, publish, etc. For this reason, I would like to share with you a strategy I learned from Kerry Ann Rockquemore that has brought order to my semester.

Preparado... listo... / Ready... set... "Just Do it"

Although you probably are in a frenzy to get ready for the upcoming semester, I am going to suggest that you add one more task to your immediate to-do list: Make a plan for the Fall Semester.

Academic life revolves around semesters which start and end several times over the year. The beginning of a new semester, then, is something that academics experience over and over again. However, even for those of us who have been teaching for many years, new semesters continue to be times of high anxiety and insecurity. We may have taught our classes several times before, but we never know how this batch of students will be. We may have been in our department for years, but it is often unclear what issues or challenges our department will face this year. For new professors and graduate students, the horizons are even less clear. The unknown, logically, leads to anxiety.

Setting goals for the fall semester will allow you to see a bit more lucidly what lies ahead and will relieve some of your anxiety by permitting you to come to terms with what you can and cannot accomplish.

Thus, even though it is one more task in addition to all you have to do, I highly recommend you take an hour out of your busy schedule and sit down and write out your goals for the Fall Semester. Here is how you do it.

Step One: List all of the tasks that you would like to accomplish this semester

Look over your calendar and through your emails to make sure that you do not forget any important tasks. Things you might put on the list include: submit book proposal, send off article, complete a revise and resubmit, or prepare paper assignment for undergraduate class.

Step Two: Separate tasks into categories

The categories I use are: Research, Teaching, Service, and Personal. Writing goes under the "Research" category, and "Write two paper assignments" goes under "Teaching." Dividing these tasks into categories will help you to prioritize your tasks according to your professional trajectory. For example, if you are at a Research I institution, and your Teaching and Service lists are much longer than your Research list, you may need to figure out how to move things around.

Step Three: Arrange your tasks by month.

It’s almost the end of August, but go ahead and put in August anything that needs your immediate attention. Anything with a September deadline goes in September, and anything with an October deadline goes in October. Once you have dealt with the tasks that have deadlines, you can decide where to put the remaining tasks that do not have firm deadlines.

Step Four: Arrange your tasks by weeks.

If you have four writing goals for September, then you can place one in each week of the month. If you have two, then give yourself two weeks for each. The point is to decide NOW when you will turn your attention to each task. This will help you to keep on track and to feel less guilty about not dealing with everything at once.

Step Five: Figure out what will not get done this semester.

If you have tasks that do not fit into your semester plan, now is the best time to decide that you will either put them off for another semester, remove these tasks from your list of goals, or delegate them to someone else. Believe me, it is much better to make this decision now than to have these tasks weigh on your shoulders for the rest of the semester. If the project is something you really would like to do, make it a priority for the Spring semester. If it is something you wish you could get out of, find a way to do that diplomatically. For example, if you have agreed to do something by November and now realize you will not be able to, you can tell the person with whom you made the agreement: “I just made a detailed plan for my semester, and have come to realize that I simply do not have the time to complete this work this semester.”

I wish you the best as you plan for the Fall Semester.

Friday, August 19, 2011

How to have a super-productive semester!

Would you like to have this be your best semester yet as a faculty member or graduate student? I sure would like for you too. That is why I have planned out the blog posts this semester to take you through the steps for a fantastic, productive semester.


All you have to do is subscribe to Get a Life, PhD by Email and you will have a useful tip delivered to your inbox every week this semester.

You also can subscribe via Google reader or another reader. Or, you can just come back and check this blog out once a week for your weekly writing tip.

I look forward to seeing and hearing from you throughout this semester.

Get a Life, PhD

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Five Steps towards Creating a Five-Year Plan to Achieve Tenure

One of the best things you can do as a new Assistant Professor is to create a five-year plan, also known as a research trajectory. This plan will serve as a roadmap towards tenure. Knowing exactly what you need to achieve tenure and making a plan to get there can take a lot of the anxiety out of this nerve-wracking process. This post explains how to create a five-year plan that will enhance the likelihood that you will achieve tenure.

Katie Kieffer

I will focus on the research side of the equation, as this is most often the most important part. However, tenure expectations vary by institution, and you need to figure out what is most important where you work.

Step One: Realize that you only have five years to put together a tenure portfolio.

The time between your first day as an Assistant Professor and the day you have to submit your tenure file flies by. Colleges and universities vary on the procedures and dates, but in general, you have five years to put your tenure file together.

I know you are supposed to have six years, but it is actually five. Let me explain. Suppose you began a tenure track position in August 2010. By August 2011, you will have completed your first academic year, and by August 2015, you likely will have to submit some parts of your tenure file – such as the names of external reviewers. The review of your tenure case will be complete at the end of your sixth year. This usually means you have to start the review process about a year beforehand.

Step Two: Set your goals.

The first step to creating a five year publication plan is to figure out what you need to accomplish to have a successful tenure review. How would you like for your CV to look in five years?

You can find out about departmental expectations by asking your mentors and colleagues. You also should look at the CVs of people who recently have been awarded tenure both in your department and at other institutions. If you think that it is possible that you might leave your current place of employment before going up for tenure, you need to be aware of standards at other institutions. Remember, publications are a form of "portable wealth" that you can take with you to other jobs. And, even if you don’t plan to leave, you still need to be aware, as things might not work out for you at your current institution, and it is important to be marketable. Once you figure out the departmental and disciplinary expectations, you can set your own publication goals.

Step Three: Make a plan for achieving your goals

Let’s say, for the sake of this blog post, that your goal is to have one book and three articles in print by the time your tenure file is reviewed. You must now figure out how long that will take to accomplish, starting from the ideal publication date. It takes a long time to publish, so you need to plan far in advance.

If you would like for your book to be in print by August 2015, for example, you need to work backwards from that date. For your book to be published in August 2015, you need to submit the final version to the publisher by August 2014. For that to happen, you likely need to submit the original version by August 2013, which means you should submit the book proposal no later than February 2013. There you have your first concrete goal: Submit your book proposal to potential publishers no later than February 1, 2013.

You can then do the same thing with the articles, based on the time it takes for articles in your field to be accepted and published, and the number of articles you reasonably can submit in a year or a semester. Keep in mind that articles are almost never accepted upon first submission, so allow time for revision and re-submission.

Step Four: Map your plan out onto a calendar
Once you have decided, for example, that you will submit your book proposal by February 2013, your first article by February 2012, your second article in August 2012, and your third article by February 2013, then you can begin to map out the steps required onto a calendar.

For example, if your first goal is to submit an article by February 2012, then you can use the time between now and February 2012 to ensure that your article is ready for submission. You might use August 2011 to make a plan for the revision of one of your dissertation chapters, September 2011 to do the literature review, October 2011 to re-analyze the data, November 2011 to write the first draft, and December to get peer feedback and and January to finish the revisions.

You will need to do this for each of the goals you have set. However, if you have never mapped your goals onto a calendar before, it might work best for you to focus on one goal at a time. For example, once you have revised one chapter of your dissertation into an article, you will have a better idea as to how long it will take to do the others. Then, you can develop a feasible plan for the remaining articles.

Step Five: Execute the plan

The best way to meet your publication goals is to work on them consistently. If you spend at least one hour every day from Monday to Friday working on one of your publication goals, you are much more likely to meet them than if you only work on them on the weekends or only work on them over break. If getting tenure is important to you, and getting tenure requires publishing, it behooves you to do something that gets you towards publishing each and every day. Usually that “something” is writing. It also includes data analysis, reading background literature, and letting ideas percolate. However, most academics find it fairly easy to spend hours and hours reading and running data, yet find it harder to spend time actually writing. For this reason, it is important to write every day to ensure you achieve your goals.

If you have already started your faculty position and did not make a five year plan, it is not too late. You can make a plan based on what you would like to have accomplished by the time you go up for tenure or promotion, no matter how much time you have left.

The planning process can be stressful as you think of all you have to do. At the same time, it can be calming, as you come to terms with what you will and will not be able to accomplish over the next five years.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Seven Reasons Academics Should Facebook

Why would an untenured professor open up and actively use a Facebook account? There seems to be a lot of buzz going around about the pitfalls of Facebook for faculty. So, I will dedicate this blog entry the benefits of academics joining the ranks of the Facebook users.

Reason #1: Staying Connected

One of my main reasons for using Facebook is that, like many college professors, I live in the middle of nowhere, far from most people who are important to me. Lawrence, Kansas does have its charm as a college town. Nevertheless, I am a city girl at heart. And, if I can’t be in my hometown, Washington, DC, at least I can vicariously experience urban life through the status updates of my friends and family who still live there. Through this virtual portal, I feel a sense of connection to the city I am from. For me, feeling rooted in DC is important, even though I haven’t lived there for nearly a decade.

Reason #2: Writing Accountability

I also can use Facebook to get through the somewhat isolating work of academics. One way I do this is through online writing challenges. I post as my status update: “I am about to shoot for two hours of writing today… Anyone care to join me?” Within minutes, I might have a colleague from Texas, another from Kansas, and yet another from Chicago or DC join me. Later in the day, we can compare our accomplishments. Accountability is one of the best ways to get writing done, so this is a great strategy for me.

Reason #3: Sharing Pictures with Family and Friends

Although Facebook has its merits as a procrastination tool, I also can use it to save time. For example, when I wish to share a picture of my family, I don’t have to go through my email contact list and make a decision about who wants to see yet another picture of me and the kids. Instead, I post the pics on Facebook and whoever wishes to see them is free to do so, or not. I also don’t feel the need to email my Facebook “friends” to tell them I am still alive, as they are quite aware of that via my status updates.

Reason #4: Access to Expertise

Facebook also gives me constant access to a world of expertise. If I want to know which technological device can save me time, I post a request to Facebook. Within hours, I will have a slew of suggestions. If I am looking for a movie to show to my class on hip-hop and sexuality, I can post a request for advice, and, shortly, I will have a laundry list of suggestions. If I want to know if I need an iphone or a Blackberry, I post the question to my status and soon will have a variety of suggestions.

Reason #5: News Filter

Facebook also works as a news filter. Why sift through the news about the debt ceiling crisis, when my Facebook friends who are area experts post links to news articles with the heading: “A must-read about the debt ceiling.” Others might post links with the heading: “Best article I have read on ICE's latest decision.” There’s the article to read on that one! And, I can return the favor when I come across articles in my areas of expertise.

Reason #6: Networking

Facebook is also a networking tool, particularly for taking advantage of “weak ties.” Recently, I wanted to meet the author of a successful book to ask her some questions about publishing. I looked her up on Facebook and discovered that we had two friends in common. I emailed one of them and asked for an introduction. Two days later, we were in direct email contact. As another example, in the past year, I have several received lecture invitations from Facebook friends. My constant virtual presence in their lives likely increased the likelihood they would invite me to speak.

Reason #7: Self-promotion

Last, but not least, Facebook can be a useful tool for self-promotion, academic-style. If I have an article published in a scholarly journal or a political blog, I can post a link to it, and the 200-plus academics who I count among my “friends” have access to my latest work. I also advertise this blog on Facebook. Many of the people who access this website access it through Facebook. You also can create Facebook pages for your book and promote it in that fashion.

Of course, if you, like me, use Facebook for professional as well as personal purposes, it is wise to be judicious about what you post. So, I have a few rules I abide by.

  1. No disparaging students on Facebook.
  2. No allusions to illegal or unethical activity, even as a joke.
  3. No direct attacks on my place of employment or those people who employ me.
  4. No personal attacks.
  5. No posting anything I wouldn’t be comfortable with the whole world seeing.
  6. Delete comments from “friends” that I find distasteful.

Overall, I find Facebook to be a useful tool to keep me connected to my friends and family, whether I am in Lawrence, Kansas, Kingston, Jamaica, or Washington, DC.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Easy Way to Complete a Major Revision: The After-the-Fact Outline

Today, I will send off a thoroughly revised 25,000 word book that I just spent the past two weeks restructuring. This revision was greatly facilitated by a valuable strategy: the after-the-fact outline, also called a reverse outline.

I first heard of this strategy a few years ago, but it seemed too overwhelming to implement. So, I never did. However, a couple of weeks ago I received feedback on my short book manuscript (Due Process Denied), telling me it needed to be reorganized and streamlined. As I thought about how to reorganize the piece, I realized that the after-the-fact outline might be the way to go.


Reducing my paper from 50 single spaced pages to eight pages by creating such an outline would make it a lot easier to see where I was being repetitive and what I could cut. So, I went for it.

I have to say I was long loath to try this strategy because it seemed way too cumbersome. Creating an after-the-fact outline involves finding the key sentence in each paragraph in your article, listing them, and then using the outline to restructure the piece.

When people ask me for advice about writing and give me a skeptical look when I offer it, I usually gently ask them to consider trying the advice before deciding whether or not it works. I try to live by that idea as well.

The strategy comes from Tara Gray, author of the cleverly titled book, Publish & Flourish, and is sometimes referred to as a reverse outline. I have tried most of the advice in her book, and now that I have tried this piece of advice, I had to ask myself: “Why did I wait so long?”

In this blog post, I will explain the strategy and then tell you why I liked it so much. The first thing to point out is that this strategy is not a writing strategy, but a revising strategy. This strategy works best when you have a draft of your article (or a portion of your article) and are ready to rewrite it. It is best if your draft is rough, as you need to feel comfortable with the idea of deleting and/or rearranging large portions of it.

Creating an After-the-Fact Outline

Here is a summary the strategy, found here:

Step One: Organize paragraphs around key sentences. Readers expect nonfiction to have one point per paragraph. The point of the paragraph should be contained in a key sentence, supported by the rest of the paragraph. It must be broad enough to "cover" everything in the paragraph but not so broad that it raises issues that are not addressed in the paragraph. To test this idea, ask yourself the (key) question: "Is the rest of the paragraph about the idea in the key sentence?" If there are sentences in the paragraph that do not support the key sentence, move them or delete them. (The exceptions are transitions, which can remain.)

Step Two: Use key sentences as an after-the-fact outline. Extract each of the key sentences from your document and create an after-the-fact outline. This new document will contain only the key sentences.

Step Three: Use the after-the-fact outline to restructure your paper. Read the list and question yourself about the purpose and organization of the writing:

* How could the key sentences better communicate the purpose (thesis) of the paper to the intended audience?

* How could the key sentences be better organized? More logical? More coherent?

Once you have viewed your key sentences as an after-the-fact outline a few times you will discover how valuable it is to see your prose through this new lens. You will also discover there is no point in waiting to view your paper this way until you have a full draft of a writing project. Instead, you will find it useful to begin each writing session by viewing only the headings and key sentences of the section you worked on the previous day.

I found this strategy to be useful because it first allowed me to go through my book and make sure that the paragraphs were well-organized and then I was able to gain a bird’s eye view of the book and to see where I was being repetitive and what needed further explanation.

I will be sure to add this strategy to my toolkit.