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Writing a book – when life gets in the way by Astrid Bracke

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is her final post for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_4_edits-laptopSo far in this series I’ve written about the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book, about planning the book and about the actual writing. In this final post I want to talk about two things: when things don’t go as planned and, related to that, communicating with your editor(s) throughout the process.

Although I loved working on the book, around seven months into the process my work life outside of the book became increasingly difficult. Looking back things hadn’t been going well for months: I had struggled with boredom – even though I kept busy – and disinterest in teaching, my colleagues, basically everything. And I just couldn’t stop talking about it: about the things that went wrong, about the things that annoyed me, about the issues that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Sunday evenings became horrible: I’d sit at home stressed and worried about the week ahead. I suffered headaches and a lingering sense of nausea, had nightmares about work, felt tension in my legs and neck, and became much more emotional than I usually am. The turning point came when one day I spent all of a lazy Saturday breakfast with my boyfriend complaining about work, did the same over lunch with a friend, and then over drinks with another friend. By the evening I realized that something was wrong.  

This story perhaps really isn’t part of a series on ‘how to write a book’. But at the same time it is. It’s important to me, though difficult, to tell this part of the story. Yes, I enjoyed writing the book, it went well and I am pleased with the result. But at the same time I also ended up having to take a break from writing and suffered from burnout. I know – and I’ve learnt since – that many, if not most, people working in higher education and academia experience extreme stress or burnout at some point. It seems to happen especially to people early in their career. Particularly people in their (late) twenties and thirties experience high levels of work-related stress. What weighs on many of us is the stress of trying to live up to high standards – usually our own.

By early May I was off work sick. Even though my burnout was not related to my book, I ended up taking off time from writing as well. Originally I had agreed to submit the finished manuscript to the publisher by the end of July. I was on schedule when I became ill, but had to ask for an extension. Many authors end up needing an extension on their book – either because of illness, because of work obligations or simply because of not being able to finish on time.

It’s important to be realistic when you draw up a plan – either at the beginning of the project or when asking for an extension. No one is served with you making a plan that is too optimistic. If you’ll only be able to submit the book on time if you work faster than you usually do it’s not a good plan. And even when you’ve been realistic in the beginning, things might happen that keep you from finishing on time. Sometimes people don’t communicate, or communicate too late with the publisher. They are ashamed or try to persuade themselves that they could still finish as agreed. This strategy really helps no one and will put you under (even) more pressure. Also, publishers depend on authors delivering their work on time: they draw up publication schedules in advance, and when an author is very late in asking for an extension this can affect the schedule.

Once I realized I had to take a break from writing the book I contacted the publisher and the series editors. I told them I was ill and that I would be unable to deliver the manuscript on time. But I also, importantly, gave them a date on which I thought I’d be done (three months after the agreed date). This was a bit of a gamble: in early May I honestly didn’t know for sure that I’d be feeling better, but with being off work and the summer coming up I assumed that I’d finish the book by the new deadline, September 30th.

It’s been two months now since I submitted the manuscript. It’s currently at the reviewers, with publication set for 2017. The process has been good overall: I enjoyed writing the book, and am generally pleased with how it turned out. At the same time I also had to deal with things not going as planned. What saved me in the end was drawing up a new plan and being clear with the publisher about the delay. And now, all I have to do is be patient for the reviewers’ comments and the published book!

Writing a book, from start to finish II by Astrid Bracke

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the third of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_3_2_chapter-revisionSo you’ve drawn up a plan for the book – now it’s time to write!

When I started I thought I knew really well what I was going to write. After all, I’d written a detailed book proposal. But while I was writing I decided differently on a few things – and, to my surprise, discovered connections between chapters that I hadn’t seen before. I’ll discuss that in this post, and share my revision checklist for making the manuscript ready for submission.  

It’s fine and totally normal to divert from the proposal you submitted. Even though the publisher offered you a contract based on it, it’s really not set in stone. I had planned to write four chapters, each on what I call a narrative of nature. Beforehand I had decided that the chapters would form companion chapters: pastoral and urban were a pair, and so were environmental collapse and polar. But I discovered another connection between the chapters: in both pastoral and environmental collapse narratives, time plays an important role. Urban and polar narratives share an emphasis on space.

A bigger change was that I decided to take out two novels and replace them by two others. I doubted for a while whether I would run this change past my editors. The novels discussed in a book also partly determine the audience so taking out an important author like Ian McEwan might make an impact. I ended up discussing it with a colleague who has experience in publishing and decided not to tell my editors. If I’d wanted to make a bigger change, though, like taking out or adding a chapter, I would certainly have told them.

When I started I believed my focus would be on four narratives of nature that show how climate crisis is imagined is twenty-first-century British fiction. As the project progressed it slowly became clear to me that the real argument of my book is slightly different. It’s not, as I thought, just that these books depict certain narratives, but rather that they participate in and reflect a wider cultural awareness of climate crisis. In practice this meant that at the beginning of every chapter I explicitly referred to a film or other non-literary example to show this cultural awareness, and that I did that even more in the introduction. My book now starts with a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 Oscar-speech.

When I drew up my plan I made sure to include plenty of time for revision. In general I don’t edit as I write – I very much believe in the principle of shitty first drafts and try to keep my internal editor at bay while I’m writing.


I’m a list-maker so naturally I made a revision-checklist for myself:


  • Make back-ups in more than one place!
  • First read-through and edit, paying attention especially to structure;
  • Second read-through and edit, with special emphasis on the argument on section and sentence level;
  • Revision based on first reader’s comments;
  • Revision based on feedback of other scholars in the field (this revision includes the next steps);
  • Is the argument of the chapter clear?
  • Do all sections contribute to the chapter’s overall argument?
  • Does every chapter have a strong conclusion?
  • Do the chapters contribute to the argument set out in the introduction?
  • Does the conclusion follow logically from the chapters?
  • Do the parts of the book taken together feel like a whole? Have I signalled shared themes and other connections between the chapters? Is the overarching argument reflected in each of the chapters?
  • Final revision: publishers’ stylesheet (spelling and punctuation preferences; reference style); final spell-check.
  • Manuscript ready for submission, including all the preliminaries requested by the publisher.

I left writing the introduction and the conclusion until the very end. First I read all four chapters again and revised based on the feedback I had received. This helped me immensely to get the distance and perspective I needed for the introduction and conclusion. More than once I complained that I thought the introduction was the most difficult part of the book to write (that is until I started on the conclusion and I complained about that…).

The introduction is where you probably make – and write about – most of your choices. This is where you concisely set out your argument, but also where you decide how much you want to write about the wider field, how your book fits in with other work. My book ties in with two fields of literary criticism. Choosing to focus on four ‘narratives of nature’ means explaining why these four are important. Focusing on twenty-first-century British fiction means explaining why British literature and why twenty-first-century fiction.

The conclusion is really about finding that sweet spot where you don’t summarize too much, but still bring together the main points, and showing the wider relevance of your book without going off at a tangent about other directions.

And then, much faster really than I had anticipated, most of the work was done. I put all the chapters in one document and set out to check whether it followed the publisher’s stylesheet. Although they recommended using it from the beginning, I hadn’t. I ended up writing the four chapters according to the stylesheet I used most often, and had to make the changes at the end. It wasn’t too bad though: I was going through the individual chapters again anyway and had made a list for each chapter of the things I had to change.

The publisher’s stylesheet also specifies what you should include when you submit the manuscript – not only the text of your book, but also preliminaries (or prelims). Depending on the publisher, preliminaries consist of one or more title pages, a series page, acknowledgements and the table of contents. At this stage you don’t yet have to provide the index: your contract will specify if and when you’ll need to provide it, generally a few weeks after receiving the final proofs.

Once you’ve submitted the manuscript it’s time to congratulate yourself for pulling this project off. And that’s when the wait starts to hear back from the publishers and the reviewers. In my next post I’ll write about the final element of writing a book: communicating with the editor(s) and publisher.

Writing a book, from start to finish I by Astrid Bracke

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the second of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_2In the previous post I explored the differences between writing a dissertation and writing a book. In this post and the next I’ll write about the process of writing the book, both in terms of practical matters and in terms of deciding on the kind of book you’ll write.

There are two ways of going about writing a book: either you write a book proposal first, submit that to a publisher and wait for them to accept it (fingers crossed!), or you write the entire book first, and then submit that to the publisher. While some people go for the second option, most academic publishers don’t want you to send them an entire book immediately. If you do want to write the book first, or you want to publish your dissertation, you could write a proposal based on the finished manuscript and submit that. All academic publishers have a section on their website with details, so make sure to check that out first.

There’s a few risks involved with writing a book without having secured a contract from a publisher. The publisher might not accept it, or will require changes to be made to fit the book in with a series. Most importantly, though, having a contract in hand can be stimulating: having a deadline adds a sense of accountability to a project that can be quite lonely at times. Also, even though you haven’t yet written the book, having the contract gives you something to be proud of (and it looks much better on job and funding applications to have a book ‘under contract’, then just to be working on it as anyone can say that).

At the same time, I know of a few publishers who will express interest based on a proposal but won’t offer a contract until they’ve read a substantial part (i.e. a few chapters), or all of the manuscript. In that case it’s really up to you to if you want to proceed: if the publisher is renowned, if your book fits their list well and/or if you feel secure enough to go through with the book without the contract, you should.

I spent a few months researching and planning the book and then submitted a proposal with detailed chapter descriptions to a publisher. I was lucky to immediately be offered a contract. In my final post of this series I’ll write a bit more about this process and communicating with the publisher in general.

By the time I was offered the contract the timeframe that I had sketched in my proposal didn’t fit anymore. Hearing back from the publisher had taken longer than I had anticipated and I had decided not to start on the book until they had accepted it. Before I could start on the project I also had to write two articles I had committed to. With this in mind I asked for the delivery date of the manuscript to be pushed back a few months, which wasn’t a problem.

The process of writing a book has a practical dimension and a more content-focused dimension. You’ll have to figure out when you’re actually going to write it and, even though you’ve already written a proposal, you’ll have to figure out what kind of book you’ll write. Although I thought I had a pretty good idea about this going into the project, it did take quite a lot of work clarifying what I wanted to write, and what my emphasis would be on. I’ll discuss that process more in the next post.

First, though, the practical side. Once I actually started on the book I had about ten months in which to write it. In the beginning that felt like forever – I had all the time in the world to write this book! It would be fine! By nature I’m a very disciplined and organized person so despite feeling like I had plenty of time I drew up a detailed plan first.

My book consists of four chapters (13,000 words long each), an introduction (10,500 words) and a conclusion (5,000 words). I also needed time for revision at the end, as well as after every chapter, and wanted to schedule enough time so that I could ask other scholars for feedback.

My preferred method of making a plan for any kind of project is to use both a paper calendar – I currently use this one by Moleskine for my research projects – and an app, OmniFocus. I need to see on paper how much time I have available, so I began sketching out my plan using my paper calendar. I started off by planning in big chunks: around average 2½ to 3 months per chapter. When I began work on a chapter I drew up a more detailed plan, which I added to both my paper calendar and OmniFocus.

The benefit of my paper calendar for me is that I get a month at a glance – and I find it easier to plan on paper. OmniFocus, on the other hand, syncs with the app on my phone and iPad, so I always have it with me, and allows me to create projects. My book was one of those projects, and I could add to it even tasks that I didn’t need to schedule immediately but that I didn’t want to forget. Using the review-function, I was able to go back to these tasks and assign a date to them when they became important.

While planning, try to be realistic. The first chapter I wrote was the sample chapter I had submitted with the proposal, so I was rewriting more than writing from scratch. Consequently, this took me about two months at most. The next chapter’s subject matter was already very familiar to me from my PhD, so I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be needing that much time for it either. Chapters three and four, on the other hand, were on new material, so I needed about three months for each.

Using my calendar helped me to keep other commitments in mind. I knew that by the time I had to write my introduction and conclusion I wouldn’t be teaching so I planned one month in which I wrote both. In practice, though, I wrote the book on one day a week.

While I wrote the book I used the proposal as the basis, but as I went along I ended up making changes and had to figure out in more detail what kind of book I was actually writing. I’ll discuss this process in my next post, as well my revision process.

Writing a book, not a dissertation by Astrid Bracke

astridAstrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the first of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

So you want to write a book. Perhaps there’s an idea that you want to explore and didn’t get round to in your dissertation, or you’re ready to go into a wholly different direction. Or you feel you have to write a book to get the right job, or have a better chance at funding money. A few years ago I wrote on writing a book proposal. This series is about writing the book, from start to finish.

In this first post, I discuss how writing a book is different from writing a dissertation.

Most importantly, writing a book is a much more solitary endeavour. While getting your PhD you wrote under supervision. The meetings with my supervisor were a way for me to check whether I was on the right path and to discuss my ideas. Not working in such a framework can be a real relief to many. Perhaps you fundamentally disagreed with your supervisor, or felt tied to departmental themes. Writing a book frees you from all that: it’s your book and your choices. This can be paralyzing at times, and even lonely.

It also means that getting feedback on your work requires more initiative. And where first you might have gotten the feeling that at least you were accountable to someone (your supervisor), now you’re not really accountable to anyone but yourself. If your book is under contract with a publisher you’ve got a deadline, but that’s not quite the same thing. They might check in with you, but a supervisory relationship, for good or for bad, doesn’t exist.

There’s a few ways in which you can create a supportive environment for yourself while writing a book. The first is to use your network to get feedback – or to expand your network. I drew up a list of scholars who were working on themes related to my book and asked them for feedback on individual chapters. I already knew these people: I’d talked to them about my project at conferences, had provided feedback on their work or published in special issues they edited.

Yet even if you don’t already personally know them, scholars are generally happy to help. There might be someone whose work you use a lot, or who gave an interesting paper at a conference that ties in with your research. Indeed conferences are great places to ask people whether they’d be willing to read your work. Whether you know them or not, it’s important to be clear on your expectations: with the exception of one scholar whom I know well, I never requested feedback on more than one chapter, asked people to reply by a certain date and offered to repay the favour (and of course thanked them again in my acknowledgements).

Conferences are also a great way to create the accountability that is lacking when you’re no longer a PhD student. Use conference papers not only to try out your ideas, but also to make sure that you finish certain chapters by a certain date. The added benefit is that you’re likely to get useful feedback.

Another way of creating accountability and alleviating the possible loneliness of writing a book is by looking for writing buddies. For a while a friend and I would agree to send each other (parts of) chapters and articles. We’d set a clear deadline and meet for coffee that day. We wouldn’t necessarily read each other’s work, but making the promise to be done with something by a certain date did stimulate us. And discussing our work over coffee was often inspiring. You may even get together with a group of colleagues, or join a MeetUp group of academics. Sharing your deadlines with others and having the chance to talk about the writing process provides some of the structures that being a PhD student, often surrounded by other PhD students, offered.

I was really surprised about the time it took me to write the book, compared to writing the dissertation. Writing the book took me about a year, working on average one day a week, versus around three years nearly full time for the dissertation. The reason why it took so much less time is, I think, because writing a dissertation is much more about the process and about learning the ropes.

This is also the final difference between a dissertation and a book. A dissertation is what in the traditional guild-system would be the product of an apprenticeship. In the dissertation you demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about the area you’re working in and that you’ve read (almost) everything. In a book, many of these concerns do not apply. If in writing the dissertation you have to prove that you’re worthy of being part of a scholarly community, in writing the book you show that you are.

In my next posts I’ll write more about the process of writing a book from start to finish, from planning the work to communicating with the publisher.

Writing the Second Book—Week 4 by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing habits and systems.

During AcWriMo 2015 I have been sharing some of my observations on managing large-scale writing projects such as books, observations which have grown largely out of the initially difficult transition I faced between finishing my first book and then moving on to the second.  In previous weeks I have written about managing the different forms of energy required in a large-scale project and measuring and evaluating progress.  This week I will be rounding things off with a summary of my weekly review process, which ties together each of the elements I use in project management and helps keep the whole system running smoothly.

My own weekly review is based partially on David Allen’s GTD Weekly Review, but has been adapted heavily and transformed as I began to explore the specific requirements of advanced long-form academic writing.  I have set up each of the following tasks as scheduled tasks in Things, where they appear each Friday to make sure that I keep on track.  Although there are several other steps in my weekly review related specifically to teaching and administration, below are the elements related directly to my research, which, anyway, forms the bulk of my weekly review.

Process Evernote Inbox: I have been a committed Evernote user for years (and am, indeed, the Evernote Higher Education Ambassador), so all of my devices, browsers, and RSS readers have been set up to easily send notes to Evernote.  By the end of the week, my Evernote Inbox will have a number of articles, websites, book reviews, or blog postings that may or may not be related to my research at hand.  I first scan through my Evernote Inbox and assign relevant tags as necessary and if any particular note will need further attention for my research project, I create a task in Things to remind me to do that next week.

Review Projects and Yearly Planning Calendar: After processing my Evernote Inbox, I move to my projects currently underway and my yearly planning calendar which organises all writing tasks for the year.  By measuring and evaluating progress of my work during the week I am able to assess if I am still up to date with my plans for the year and can make changes as necessary.

Review Upcoming Tasks: I make a great effort to update iCal throughout the week so that I have a good record of precisely how much time I spent on various tasks, rather than just a reminder of how much time I had planned to spend.  Reviewing the past week can provide good insight into the rise and fall of energy levels, and may suggest the need for reassessing writing and research plans for the coming week.  This might create additional tasks to add to Things such as a trip to the library on Monday morning for secondary sources, or requesting a particular article not available through my library’s databases.

Process Things Inbox: By this point in my weekly review, my Things inbox has accumulated quite a few new tasks.  Many of these might not be ‘tasks’ at all, but really events that can be scheduled in iCal (for example, a library visit is an event rather than a task because it can be scheduled for a specific time).  Once I have scheduled all events in iCal, I then move to the remaining tasks, which I tag as necessary and advance through Things in a typical GTD task-management process.

Review Upcoming Week: My calendar for the coming week will by this point be quickly filling up with repeating events (e.g. classes, department meetings) and newly scheduled events.  Now is the time that I can move around and adjust sessions for drafting and rewriting—I have already set this week as weekly repeating events, so now it is just a matter of moving them to where they best fit in my schedule.

Review Future Objectives: I always like to end my weekly review (and, thus, my Friday afternoon) with a brief review of my future goals and objectives, such as plans for a new article or ideas for a conference presentation.  I keep these as tasks in the Someday folder in Things, and it is always useful to review my new steps and to keep these in mind as I move forward into the following week.

Writing the Second Book—Week 3 by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson 
is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing habits and systems.

Over the past two weeks I have been writing about some of the difference between finishing my first book and my second book.  My first book began life as my doctoral thesis, and thus much of the writing process was comfortably braced by my supervisor and my fellow PhD candidates, all of whom, even if their topics were completely different to mine, contributed to the sense of camaraderie and research community.  Once I began drafting my second book, however, I discovered that not only did I need to begin to think more about project management, but that I needed to think about project management in different ways that I had before.  After a year of false starts and failures on the second book, I began to reconsider the management of energy levels in academic writing, and develop some habits and systems to make the best use of my energy rather than just my time.

As I described last week, the differing types of energy required during the drafting and rewriting stages means that I measure progress in these areas in different ways: while drafting I measure progress by words written each week and while rewriting I measure progress by time completed each day.  But, of course, assessing progress is only one part of the problem.  There is still the matter of scheduling the time that is needed in order to achieve this progress, and over the past three years I have developed several habits and systems that have helped:

  1. Set goals for number of drafting and/or rewriting sessions you plan to do each week. For the past three years, my stretch goal has always been to spend three hours drafting and three hours rewriting each day, for a total of 30 research hours per week.  I have always considered this ideal as something to aspire toward, and rarely have I achieved it.  My actual goal is 20 research hours per week, with a mixture of time for drafting and rewriting.
  1. Set up repeating calendar events for periods of drafting and rewriting, even if these will rescheduled at a later point. When I look at next week’s schedule in iCal during my Weekly Review (more on that in my next post), I will already have two three-hour sessions each day scheduled for drafting and rewriting.  Many of these sessions will be moved, shortened, or, sometimes, deleted, but because I have already set these up as repeating calendar events, I receive a constant reminder to keep pushing forward and the amount of work that I should, ideally, be committing to the project.  Using repeating calendar events also means that I don’t have to manually add events to my schedule—it becomes just a simple matter of dragging and dropping to where they best fit.
  1. Front-load the week. Every week is different, with different amounts of time spent in meetings or required for teaching preparation, administrative roles, and other surprise tasks and urgent deadlines.  While some things like one’s teaching schedule or a regular weekly committee meeting don’t more around a lot, there is still a great deal of flexibility needed throughout the week.  For this reason, I try to schedule as many of my drafting and rewriting sessions early in the week so that if things do come up, these can be pushed back to a later date.  Beginning each week with a sprint also means that occasionally I get a free Friday afternoon!
  1. Use the Note field in a digital calendar to make a note on where to begin tomorrow. Both creative writers and academic writers agree that it is important to end each day of work by making a note of where you left off and what to begin with tomorrow.  Turning this into a ritual at the end of the working day can provide a sense of finality to what one has achieved that day, and set up tangible goals for the next day in order to hit the ground running.  Rather than making these notes in the document itself, I add it to the Note field in iCal: this gives me access to a snapshot of my progress on any of my devices, and gives me a record of what I managed to accomplish each day.
  1. Complete a Weekly Review on Friday afternoons and a Monthly review at the end of each month (more on these reviews next week).

Writing the Second Book—Week 2: Measuring Time and Energy Through the Writing Process by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing process.

Last week I wrote about managing creative energy by dovetailing the drafting and rewriting phases so that one chapter or portion of work can be in the drafting stage while another is being rewritten and revised.  The primary reason for doing this is that these two stages of the writing process rely on very different forms
of thinking and commitment.  Spending a full day on just drafting or just rewriting is an easy road to burnout, but spending a little bit of time each day on both of these activities becomes much more manageable and keeps the project moving steadily ahead.

On an ideal day I would spend three hours on writing, three hours on rewriting, and three hours on teaching and administration, but, of course, that ideal day almost never happens.  Since the academic life is filled with commitments and interruptions that can easily whisk one away from research, I began to think about how best to manage my writing progress alongside these other responsibilities and while keeping the project on track.  While I still use the Pomodoro Technique during some parts of a project, I soon discovered that it perhaps wasn’t the most useful way to organise all aspects of the writing process.


Because the drafting phase of any writing project is about creative exuberance, about finding the connections between ideas, and, ultimately, about using writing to think through the argument, focusing exclusively on the amount of time spent in the process may not be the most useful indicator of accomplishment.  When drafting a new chapter, I might be reading key sources, writing short summaries and observations, or developing my own lines of thinking and interpretation.  After the first or second week of drafting a chapter, I might not have written many words, but at the end of the three months I usually spend on drafting, I had better had something in the region of 10,000-15,000 words that can be further refined and developed during rewriting.

For this reason, I set incremental word count goals during drafting, based on weekly word count rather than time spent writing or daily word counts. By the end of the first month I aim to have at least 2000 words written (most of this time, of course, will have been spent in secondary research) and then in each subsequent week my goal is to complete an additional 1000-1500 words. Thinking holistically about words-per-week allows for the periods of additional research necessary for ideas to formulate while still keeping me on task.  And, as I try to integrate digital and analogue tools in my research for their best-intended purposes, I keep track of the growing word count in a rather old-fashioned sort of way: a blank monthly calendar pasted into my Moleskine.

But because the rewriting phase is much more connected to analytical precision, focusing on details, and, ideally, shaping the earlier draft into something accessible to others, I needed to set a much more regimented daily practice for myself in which could maintain focus and built forward momentum.  For this reason, I continue to use Pomodoro during the rewriting phrase.  I use Pomodoro Pro which not only provides all the necessary timer features, but keeps track of time spent on projects (very useful data for my monthly self-review, which I’ll explain in a future post).

Because drafting and rewriting rely on such different forms of the thinking and energy, it is important to track and evaluate progress using a method best suited for each stage.  While drafting, I use a pleasingly old-school method of noting my weekly word count in a notebook to allow for the rise and fall of creative energy through the week while still keeping my work focused.  And when rewriting, I use a rather more contemporary time management technique to keep forward momentum through the analytical precision required of rewriting.

Writing the Second Book—Week 1 by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing process.

I was fairly certain that my second book would be rather a lot more straightforward than my first.  My first book, based largely on my doctoral thesis, began life during three chaotic postgraduate years throughout which I seemed to be writing every moment of the day, was next completely reshaped once I began my first academic job, and then finally went through several more revisions while working with editors and readers at Palgrave Macmillian.  It was nearly six years of false starts, abandoned topics, and the sort of writerly malaise that frequently besets persons of the tweed.

Surely the second book was going to be an easier undertaking…

For AcWriMo 2015 I have committed to finishing my second book, which, after nearly two years of flat-out work, is now nearly complete.  I began the project certain that I had learned from my previous mistakes and knew how to independently manage a book project.  When I was writing my first book I became obsessed with time management strategies, and read nearly every book on the topic (David Allen’s Getting Things Done is still a classic, and should probably be required reading for every new postgraduate student).  I learned how to manage goals, track progress, and plan my time, and with the constant, supportive motivation from my supervisor and the rest of my PhD cohort I was able to achieve what I had set out to do.  But when it came time to begin my second book, I realised that the core support network surrounding research student was no longer there, that no one would be pushing me to finish, and that suddenly I had to apply a very different type of energy to the project.

After several months of settling into a new city and trying somewhat unsuccessful to get to work on my second book, I began to read about the difference between time management and energy management, a theory developed by business writer Tony Schwartz.  If my second book was ever going to see the light of day, I needed to understand how to manage the energy required for the project, and, indeed, figure out what that energy even was.

Wisdom abounds about the difference between the drafting and rewriting stages of the writing process—it’s one of first things that composition students learn about—but to my mind, and especially when considered in the context of long-form writing, the vital difference between drafting and rewriting is the nature of energy involved.  Each stage relies on radically different forms of thinking, focus, and commitment, and taxes your intellectual and emotional reserves in rather distinctive ways.

Drafting Rewriting
Creative exuberance Analytical precision
‘Right-brain’ invention ‘Left-brain’ evaluation
Finding the connections Shaping the argument
Imagining the big picture Focusing on the details
Writing to think Writing to be understood


It’s a rare, perhaps completely imaginary, academic who can spend six uninterrupted hours committing words to the page in a first draft; equally as rare is someone willing to spend the same length of time revising and editing an early draft.  We’ve all managed to do that a few times with a looming deadline or a conference presentation the next morning, but ultimately it is not sustainable.

What is sustainable, however, is managing energy in a way which allows for these two processes to be interwoven.  With a bit of focus, it’s not too difficult to spend three hours drafting in the morning and then three hours rewriting something else later in the afternoon.  The schedule that I set for myself took this into account, and tried to make best use of my energy resources by dovetailing these two distinct aspects of the process.

Dovetailing the Writing Process (The Plan)



The schedule I set for myself broke down the year into quarters, and aimed to allow time for the creative exuberance of drafting alongside the analytical precision required of rewriting without burning out.  Managing my energy by dividing my attention between these two unique taxing stages of writing meant that I could produce three chapters each year, and, ideally, a full manuscript in two years.  In practice the process was a bit less orderly.

Dovetailing the Writing Process (The Reality)



I have kept an Evernote note to organise and record progress on my research since I began my job at City University of Hong Kong.  For three years I have reviewed and updated the table at the end of each month.  While the table reminds me that I am very close to finishing the second book, it also doesn’t allow me to forget that my writing in 2013 moved around chaotically between several different projects.  There was no clear strategy.   Two of the articles in which I invested some considerable time (referred to here vaguely as ‘Gatiss’ and ‘Joyce’, and about which no more shall ever be said) ultimately had to be abandoned.  I became quickly dazed during drafting and, with no clear sense of how to proceed with the work, left them behind.

But in January 2014 I began my first attempt at dovetailing the writing process in order to better manage my energy and avoid sacrificing any more writing.  Although my final record of work isn’t quite as orderly as my initial plans, I did manage to largely achieve what I had set out to do, and (if my AcWriMo goal is achieved) do it with one month to spare. By managing my energy rather than my time, I was able to produce considerably more work of publishable quality than I did during the wholly discouraging year before I began the second book.


Storify for June 11 #acwri chat
Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter K

BoxesKeywords. Every discipline has its jargon, as well as its most significant keywords that are used frequently by scholars and others. Yet meanings shift over time, and certainly change from one discipline to another. Your use of these keywords includes all of the possibly connotations and interpretations by scholars who come before you. It is up to you to define your keywords specific to your usage and context. Those definitions can offer clarity, and can also indicate new directions in your research and findings.


Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter J

BoxesMake a junk drawer. In a recent class discussion, a student mentioned the junk drawer in her kitchen, and most of us nodded enthusiastically as she explained it’s not really “junk” but objects that have no place or category. Ticket stubs from favorite concerts or train trips, a doodle on a napkin, the paper umbrella toothpick from a party drink…the junk drawer contains a good number of objects that have emotional resonance. Objects we can’t seem to throw away.

Do you have a writer’s junk drawer? Your digital junk drawer might include paragraphs you deleted from an essay, quotes you planned to include but discarded, notes on project ideas, or even inspirational tidbits. You may retrieve items from your junk drawer, especially in the revision process or when working on a new piece that revisits some of the scholarship you cite often in your areas of research expertise. The junk drawer can also be a good place to visit when you’re looking for a new idea or a way to get your ideas flowing when you begin writing.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter I

BoxesBe inspired. This may seem like an impossible request for those of us who struggle to come to the page and begin writing. However, where inspiration appears difficult, it can be made simple. Imagine your positive outcomes. Imagine your success. Imagine yourself deeply engaged in the flow of writing and thinking, and how satisfying that feeling can be. Some of us are inspired by process, others by product. Figure out what works for you and imagine yourself in a space where your goals are easily achieved. It may seem far-fetched, but it can also be inspiring.

Weekly Wishdom: Brought to you by the Letter H

BoxesIt’s going to be hard. If writing and research were easy, would we value our publishing successes so much? There is quite a lot of advice across the Internet (and certainly plenty here at PhD2Published) about how we might make these processes easier. But the work might begin best by acknowledging that it is hard. Perhaps that can minimize the frustrations that arise when what feels like it should flow ends up stalling, and when it is hard to find the place to start.


Storify of March #acwri Twitter chat
Weekly Wisdom: Brought you by the Letter F

BoxesFinish. Consider finish as both a verb and a noun. Many Western cultures lack good means for coming to closure, whether in telephone conversations or in wrapping up a writing project. The old adage “nothing inspires like deadlines” is as much about creating a terminus as it is about expediting one’s work on the page. Set a date to finish your writing project, and stick to it. When you meet your deadline, celebrate it.

Looking at finish as a noun is also to look at final, as in final chapters. A wise scholar once suggested that beginning your reading with the final chapter of a scholarly book will demonstrate whether the book is useful for your research. The finish line of a good monograph reviews all of the arguments, the conclusions, and the shortcomings of the preceding text. Start at the finish and save yourself some research and reading time.