Thoughts on Summer Writing

Normally this time of summer I’m putting together a “where to find me” post for the fall.  This fall, I’ll be hunkering down in the office (campus and home, and by “home office” I mean my kitchen table).  I’ve gotten quite a lot of writing done this summer and am hoping to keep the momentum going once the semester starts.  

My summer began as perhaps that of others did:  with this article on how the unstructured time of summer can lead to a sense of isolation and purposelessness (and the resulting debate on whether concern over this and its effect on mental well-being is justified).  I do know that creating a sense of structure for myself is important—and I also know that I’ve had a lot of help and guidance.  This post is both a round-up of strategies I’ve found helpful this summer, and a thank you to those who have inspired and guided.  (There’s no huge insight or original thought here, and some of this I’ve probably written about in some other form for my posts for Inside Higher Ed [like this one] and ProfHacker [see here]—but this is just the stuff I found especially useful this summer for whatever reason.)

Late-summer journaling

+ Planning not for a “semester’s leave” but for a sabbatical year:  This perennial favorite of mine from Kathleen Fitzpatrick for ProfHacker has been at both the back and front of my mind for months.  I’ll be on sabbatical this coming spring, and I started thinking about how to structure my research and writing at the end of last spring in order to “give” myself a “year.”  This summer involved creating momentum as well as routines I’ll be able to use throughout the year, including the semester I’m on leave.

+ Giving every day a “theme”:  I use this one during the semester as well—every day has a theme, and you think about each day in terms of “if…then.”  If it’s Monday, then I take care of department business I’m responsible for as chair.  If it’s Tuesday, then I spend the day at the library.  Likewise, as I plan out my to-do at the start of the week, I can say, Wednesday’s theme is peer review and editorial work:  anything that’s a report for a journal, or proofs to review, or work along those lines, all those tasks go on Wednesday.  In terms of writing over the summer, this meant I designated particular writing tasks to get done on particular days:  a Tuesday to be dedicated to a chunk on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, for instance.

+ Kanban Boards!: This feature from the Chronicle back in April has a few good ideas, but my main takeaway was Melanie Nelson’s advice to use a Kanban Board.  It has helped me keep track of a project with a lot of moving parts, and not only has it facilitated my progress—it has also helped me process the logic of what I’m trying to do.

Kanban Board for a section in the Bloomsbury book on life writing

+ Accountability partners:  Lots of people do the accountability partner thing; this summer I had two, one a campus colleague and one someone I know from my field (we’re in the same professional organizations).  I have a lot of respect for them, and having to tell them I didn’t meet my goals for the day would make me feel a bit like my world had crumbled.

+ Chunking out the calendar:  I absolutely love this post from Explorations of Style on what we actually mean when we talk about “having time to write.”  (Forever indebted to Raul Pacheco-Vega for drawing my attention to it.)  Beginning the summer by thinking about how many weeks I’d be devoting to family and travel, how many weeks I’d need to prepare for the new semester, and how many weeks I would have for writing (and “writing-adjacent activities,” like library days) helped me think clearly about how long drafting a chapter would take and how much I could reasonably expect to get done with the time I had.

They don’t have to be good; they just have to be words


+ They don’t have to be good; they just have to be words:  I feel like I’ve heard some version of this from the writing gurus I know and trust (like Jo Van Every and Gina Hiatt) but this summer I really came to understand exactly what this involves.  It involves making a huge mess and being okay with that, knowing that real revising is part of the work to come.

I think what’s worked for me this summer has been a combination of (mostly) structure and (a little) non-structure.  Maybe 80% structure—theme-ing, chunking, lists—and 20% non-structure. Overall I feel really grateful, as we go into August, for all the folks out there who share resources and support that help us get things done, maybe even help us enjoy it.