May 19, 2012

How to Make Peace With Your Internal Editor (And Whether or Not You Should)

At Academic Ladder, we emphasize the importance of identifying negative self-talk when it arises during a writing session and silencing overly critical inner voices.  We talk about replacing the negative self-statements with positive ones, and re-framing what our internal editors are saying.  This is especially important to do when writing a first draft, or when freewriting, because stopping every few words to edit is neither efficient nor effective.

But what if it's hard to speak back to those negative voices because deep down in your gut you really believe they're right?  What if there's some truth to what your inner critic is saying?  This is a hard one, because sometimes it's difficult to separate the negativity and criticism that comes from fear or pain from the more protective voices of caution.  There are times when it may be necessary to listen to those cautionary voices rather than shut them out entirely.

For instance, when I sat down to write this blog post, I began questioning everything from the use of the parenthetical phrase in the title to my choice of the word "emphasize."  I was also thinking about whether or not this topic would be too heavy for a blog post, and whether or not I even wanted to suggest writers should make peace with their internal editors, especially while writing.  In the end, I decided  that there is a strange balance between silencing and acknowledging our internal editors, and that finding that balance is really key in order to make progress.

There are ways to tell the difference between a critical voice that's helpful and one that's callously destructive.  First, ask yourself where and maybe even whom the voice is coming from.  If the statement is harsh and general, chances are the words may not even be your own.  Maybe you've internalized the opinions of an overly critical parent or teacher, or maybe the statement is emblematic of the toxic nature of your academic environment.  Statements like "This is never going to work," or "You are lazy," or "You are not good enough/smart enough to do this" are most likely not coming from you, but from someone else.  Sometimes it's good to figure out from whom.

Another question to ask yourself is "what will listening to this statement serve?"  If the answer is "nothing," then that's definitely a voice not worth listening to.  On the other hand, if listening to the statement will be productive, that might be a voice worth considering, just not right then.   You can make a note in the draft to come back to that point and and think about it later, after you've gotten the day's writing done.

Finally, there are some voices we must not ignore.  These are the voices that say things like "I can't keep going on like this," or "I am burning out," or "I am pushing myself beyond my limits."  Pushing yourself can be good, but at a certain point, especially if you've been at the writing for awhile during a given session, this may be your internal protective voice kicking in and saying "Listen, you've had enough.  It's time for a break."

The more self-aware you are during this process, the more you'll be able to tell the difference between the internal editor you need to listen to and the ones you need to edit out.  Not all negative voices are harmful, just as not all positive voices are helpful.  As you practice daily or near-daily writing habits, you'll start to learn how to tell the difference, and how and when to listen to the voices that have your back.

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May 16, 2012

3 Secrets to Doing Well this Summer, Even if You’re an Academic

Untitled DocumentAh, Summer! At last, many of us academics have the promise of unstructured time……… and the peril of unmet goals.

Yes, we were often the children who loved school. After all, we kept on going for years! Yet we treasured summer vacation for its slower pace, tempting activities, exciting adventures, idle laziness.

Summer in an academic life holds such promise! Many of us have put off all of our writing goals until this magic season. We anticipate:
  • Fewer external commitments!
  • The chance to structure the days as you wish!
  • Extended time in library or lab!
  • You can finally get that project fully under way!
  • Opportunities for projects!
  • Time with friends and family!
  • Vacation! Travel to family or exotic locales!
But summer brings perils as well. Summer break for an academic writer is not the same today as those glorious memories of childhood summer vacations.

The promise of limitless time to accomplish our greatest dreams often is not fulfilled.

What happens? And what can you do about it?

The following simple tips will help you enjoy your summer while remaining productive. You’ll thank yourself in September for giving some thought to summer writing.
  • Family responsibilities. They don’t vanish, and they may become more challenging during school vacation.
  • Backlog of chores. Clean your office, clean your house, finish that report…. Your own list is even longer.
  • Impossible ambition. Your writing goals, unfettered by teaching or administrative responsibilities, grow huge.
  • Isolation from colleagues and even your advisor. Yes, the quiet is great, but it can be hard to keep moving forward without familiar cues. When you are stuck, there may be no one next door to bounce an idea off.
  • Time slips away. The most terrifying peril of summer. What stretches endlessly in May can become panic in July.
But you can achieve the promise of summer! You can avoid its perils! You can make this summer the very best ever. Here are the “Three Secrets for Doing Well This Summer, Even if You are an Academic”, which summarize much of what we’ve written about in the Academic Ladder Newsletter for the past seven years.

Secret #1:  Write Well (Write the right way, not “write beautifully”)
  • Write every weekday. This is a basic tenet of The Academic Writing Club. Why?
    • Daily writing is successful. Professional writers write every day. Research on successful academic writers finds that they write every day.
    • Daily writing keeps your project fresh in your mind. You start where you left off, mid sentence or with a note about your next step.
    • Daily writing adds up.
  • Write in brief sessions. Finally, you do not have to squeeze writing sessions into those bits of time between responsibilities. But brief is better.
    • Often find 25-minute sessions, with 5-minute breaks, work well. You may prefer to work in 15-minute sessions, or you may be able to focus for 45.
    • Have more time? Write in more sessions! But keep each session brief.
  • Take a break every week. And remember, a planned day off is MUCH more effective respite than a day where you planned to write but just procrastinated for 8 hours. Whether it is a mini-vacation or a routine weekend, days off are refreshing and rejuvenating.
  • Record time and progress.
    • Log how many minutes spent writing and reading/researching.
    • It’s fun sometimes to graph your progress and see those hours add up!
  • Include at least 2 types of academic work and one non-writing activity each day.
    • Your writing goals include both focused, intense, concentrated work and tasks that are more routine. Keep them both moving forward, for better variety and choices.
    • Apply the principle of “brief, regular sessions” to those non-writing tasks that have accumulated. Devote one session each day to cleaning your work environment, or learning new software, or exploring scholarly resources. 
    • Not everyone can work on multiple projects at once. You may need to work on two projects on alternate days. An important key.
Secret #2: Plan Well
  • Plan your writing success. Start with the end of the summer and chart realistic goals backwards to your official beginning date.
  • Try a planning tool, like a workbook with weekly assignments. Ones we like include
    • Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher
    • Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text by Peg Boyle Single
  • Plan for Fall. Yes, it is only May. But the time does creep up. Something will face you at the end of the summer: course preparation, a big file, job search materials.
    • Designate time for fall preparation. Plan it the way that is best for you: do a bit each day, or get it over with now, or put it off until a particular date. What matters is that you are intentional.
Secret #3: Live Well
  • Stay connected as you write. Build a writing group with colleagues; plan coffee dates for side-by-side writing; recruit an accountability partner.
  • Take an authentic vacation. Academic work can be flexible. Too often, that leads you to feel that work hangs over you all the time. You need time off.
  • Build balance. Just as it is important to include self-care and family/friend priorities during intensely scheduled times, it is important to stay in touch with your scholarly self when the balance shifts.
This will be the best summer ever! You can meet its promise and avoid its perils!

Please comment below with any tricks that you have that make the summer (or any unscheduled free time) work well for you.

*with apologies to our many members in the Southern Hemisphere, and thanks for your routine translation of seasonal comments



From our friend Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, A series of columns in Inside Higher Ed during summer 2010:

Single, Peg Boyle, Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text, Stylus, 2009

Belcher, Wendy Laura, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks:A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Sage Publications. 2009.

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May 8, 2012

Summertime, and the Living is Easy--Or Not

So it's finally summer.  You've turned in your grades, you've finished TAing that horrible class that took all of your time, and your department is winding down its endless meetings.  Now you can get down to your own writing, right?  You can finally work on your own work that you've been putting off because you had to get those papers graded and go over all those tests.  Well, yes and no.  If you've been teaching this academic year and have minimal teaching and administrative responsibilities this summer, then yes, you will have a great deal more time.  But what you probably won't have is a lot more energy.  In fact, you'll probably be a bit burned out, or experiencing some version of Academic Exhaustion syndrome.  In that case, seriously consider taking some sort of break to mark the end of the term.  Go away for a long weekend, or even (gasp!) a week, and use that time to regroup and recharge so that you can come back refreshed and ready to work.

Then, when you come back (or maybe even before you leave), make a plan for what you want to accomplish this summer and how you want to handle it.  Be sure that plan is realistic, and that you're not trying to cram twelve months worth of writing and research into three months.  Find out what your optimal length writing session is and how many separate sessions you can productively fit into a day.  If you find that your attention wanes after 45 or 50 minutes, there's no point trying to work for an hour and a half or two hours.  Likewise, if you find that you can fit in several 25 or 30 minute sessions, make sure that you're not planning for too many in a row.  Break up your day with other activities.  Allow yourself to have breaks.  If you are the kind of person who works well working straight through, then go ahead and plan for your two or three hours, but then carefully monitor your energy levels.  As Eviatar Zerubavel says in The Clockwork Muse, if you go over your optimal length writing session, you may just experience diminishing returns.  Be aware of that possibility and plan preemptive strategies to circumvent it.

The summer is a great opportunity to get work done, and many academics flourish during it.  But don't get caught up in the trap of thinking that because you have "all this time" that you are required to use every second of it.  Think about what is realistic and what is going to help you make the most advantage of your time.  Make sure your summer writing goals aren't so large that you're just going to frustrate yourself.  And remember that the same strategies that work for squeezing in the writing during the academic year can often be employed in the summer as well.  It's really the flip-side of the same problem; either way, you're faced with the challenge of managing your energy as well as your time.

What are your goals for the summer?  And do you have any particular tips or strategies to help other academics handle the summer paradox of "too much time?"

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