A hadn’t been publishing. He wrote regularly despite a full teaching load. But he wasn’t getting things finished. And he wasn’t submitting them.
Writing was an intellectually satisfying process for A. In thinking about why he didn’t finish he realized that he wasn’t motivated by the product — an article or a book — but by the benefits of the process itself. It was A who motivated me to write a post about whether anyone reads your academic articles.
Nevertheless he wanted to shift this pattern of writing without finishing anything.
How we work together
The main thing I do for A is provide accountability. He checks in with me every few weeks to talk about the writing. I help connect the practice of writing with the objective of producing a paper. Actually several papers.
I also helped A with a work plan that has 3 papers in various stages of preparation in rotation. We talk about when to keep with one paper and when making another paper the primary focus for a while might be a good idea.
The writing cycle
One of the things about writing is that is has a natural cycle. There are pre-writing phases where you are making notes, clarifying your thoughts, writing outlines, freewriting sections … generally trying to work out what the paper is about.
Then there are phases when you are writing. Really writing. You have all this material and you know where it is going and you are writing full sentences and paragraphs and there is a structure and it is really coming together.
Then, inevitably, you get stuck. You start to wonder whether you have enough detail in various sections. Whether this part is clear. Do you really need this bit?
Sometimes the best thing to do at that point is to leave it for a while. Coming back to it fresh often clarifies those niggling questions. But if your goal is to finish, stepping back can be pretty hard.
This is where the rotation comes in. Paper B can jump into the primary slot while Paper A is in time out.
Sometimes you need to push through
There is also a point when you really are near the end. Unfortunately that point often feels really uncomfortable.
You question whether the whole argument is worthwhile. And that makes you either want to abandon the whole enterprise or completely revise the whole paper.
This is where “not finishing” becomes a real possibility. That paper can easily just morph into another paper and another. You are never finished.
This is where I step in with “Push. You’re almost there.” Heck, I sound like a midwife but it’s true. You have to get this thing out into the world.
All those other things you now want to say? They belong in another article. This one needs to be out there in the world.
Why can’t you do this yourself?
When I look at my session notes and think about the detail of what I do, it doesn’t seem like anything special.
I make suggestions.
I provide alternative interpretations.
S takes some of my advice and rejects other suggestions.
And yet, having someone to listen, make suggestions, and discuss the options is important.
The alternative is too often having gremlins in this role.
You can’t stop now. You’ll never come back to it.
OMG, you aren’t thinking of submitting that?!
Instead of stopping when a break and fresh eyes are what’s really needed, you push through doing unproductive work and getting more and more frustrated. And then at the point when pushing through and sending it off is the right thing to do, you start making major changes, rewriting the whole thing, or just abandoning it.
Neither leads to finished work.
Like having a personal trainer
Once, when A and I were reviewing his needs and whether I continued to meet them (yes, I do that regularly; I don’t want your money if you don’t need me) he said “I’ve hired a personal trainer. This is basically the same thing.”
He’s right. Some people can start and maintain an exercise routine on their own. Many people need a class or a personal trainer.
A personal trainer isn’t something you need forever, though how long you will work with one depends on who you are and what you need. At a basic level a personal trainer assesses your needs, sets up a program, and helps you with it until it is well established. Then you find it easier to keep going on your own for a while.
Maybe after a (long) period of working on your own, you realize you are slipping, or your needs have changed, or you just want to check that this program is still the best one for you. You book another appointment. Maybe you work together for a while and then you are off again.
This is where A and I are. He’s got a program. He’s had a few hurdles and I’ve helped him get back on track. And he’s really close to getting that first paper out the door. He has another paper well advanced behind in. And a third, one he was a bit scared to start because it is more intellectually risky, well started.
He’s now feeling confident enough to move to the riskier paper next. It’s more interesting. And it’s more likely to make a difference to how he is perceived. Moving beyond the safe is a hard step. I’m pleased to have helped in whatever way I did.
How about you?
Do you have similar issues with writing? Could having a “personal trainer” help?
I charge $150 for a 1-hour session or $510 for 4. With S, we decided that a 30-minute session was more appropriate. You can have 6 30-minute session for $510, instead. Your first session should still be an hour so we can determine your needs and start working to meet them right away.