Image: Twentieth Century Culture and Deportment, by Maude C. Cooke (National Publishing Co., 1899)
Right now, as I write this, I have three other Word documents open on my desktop. I am scuttling back and forth between them, spending 45 minutes working on one before I take a short break and switch to another. Slowly, the word counts rise and the pages pile up. I know what you’re probably thinking because I’ve heard it from colleagues and friends before: “I can’t work like that! I need to concentrate on one thing at a time.”
Maybe the idea of tackling various writing projects simultaneously sounds too scattered, too unfocused. But what if I told you that you might actually be more focused and productive — not less — if you worked on different subjects, in different fields, or in different genres all at once? And that you would write more quickly and skillfully? (If you’re a staunch devotee of the “one thing at a time” approach, hold your naysaying until you’ve really given this method a solid chance.)
For years, I struggled — as all writers do — with procrastination or extended periods of writer’s block. Usually those were related to the ubiquitous problem of structure. The more I tried to force myself to zoom in on my argument, or work on my text piece-by-piece, the slower my writing and the sloppier my prose became. I learned the hard way: There is such a thing as overbaking the cake. Whenever I concentrated on one piece of writing at a time, I started to obsess over it. And once writers become fixated or frustrated on a particular piece, it often takes us far too long to get it out the door (and into the hands of editors or reviewers).
Here’s the counterintuitive thing I discovered far too late into my own career: Spending all your time on one project— working on it day after grueling day without a break — can backfire. Massively. It can completely stall your writing. You’re much better off taking a break and coming back to it a couple of days later than slaving over it continuously for many unproductive weeks or months.
I know, I know. Now you’re thinking, “But how can anyone do this and still be productive? I don’t have the time to take time off from writing this.”
Yes you do have time. Oodles of it, in fact. The trick is learning to work during any given week on multiple projects at once, preferably in different genres, to maximize your productivity, increase your output, and improve your writing chops.
This habit is the biggest key to my own productivity (and sanity) as a junior faculty member. Why? Because “code-switching” helps keep my thinking and writing fresh. And it may well help you, once you get the hang of it. It’s simply a matter of training your brain to code-switch faster and more effectively. Here are some tips to get you started:
Start Small. If you’ve been relatively focused on academic writing for most of your career, then start keeping an informal diary. The only rule: Don’t write directly about your subject in the diary. Write about something else — anything else — and write about it in plain language, almost as if someone else were going to read it. It can even be a frustration journal if you’re experiencing writer’s block, a place where you can write about whatever is going through your head. (You’d be surprised how effective it can be to scrawl “I have nothing to say” or “I hate this article” over and over again until you’ve exhausted your editorial demons.) I recommend using pen and paper for this. It can be good to get words on the page away from the glare of a screen. The change of pace might also spark some unexpected solutions to problems you’re having or ideas for future essays.
Branch Out. Academics are always talking about the need to reach different audiences, or complaining about how the media is (mis)reporting on our subjects. So practice what you preach and change the conversation: Write an op-ed. Be careful to keep it under 800 words. Write on what you know, but practice writing about your topic in a different voice and using a different tone. Be conversational or persuasive. Heck, even try being funny.
Writing op-eds or short “hot take” opinion pieces for Slate or Vox — or commentary and advice columns for The Chronicle to reach a broader academic audience — can help you hone in on your arguments. The process of writing clearly and for a general audience can often trigger a breakthrough in your scholarly writing. It also helps to clarify your own thinking. I often figure out things only after I’ve tried — and failed several times — to condense them.
Really Go for It. If you’re comfortable with writing nonacademic essays, write a longer nonfiction piece for a popular outlet like The Atlantic or The New Yorker. This takes a lot of practice to get right (and to get accepted by publication), but it’s a rewarding process. If you’re just getting started, I recommend reading The Best American Essays 2015, taking them apart, and then copying their style, tone, and length. Mimicking the best writers will allow you to learn the craft of general nonfiction writing and find your own style.
If nonfiction isn’t your thing, then try your hand at whatever you love to read. Write short stories, poems, or longer fiction. Really. Working on more creative side projects can aide your academic prose style. Working on nonscholarly projects while you’re working on academic texts can also be a reminder that writing can be really fun.
Always Alternate. If you’re working on a book manuscript, an article, and an op-ed, switch between the projects on a regular basis — either every day or every other writing bloc, whatever feels most comfortable to you. This method will allow the things you have already written to have some breathing space, giving you a fresh perspective whenever you cycle back to them.
If you’re really, really stuck on a certain project, work on it every second or third day. That gives your brain a rest, avoids unnecessary frustration, and allows you to feel less guilty about “not writing.” If you’re cycling through projects and genres, you’re always making progress on something or developing a new skill set. The confidence you build by learning to code-switch will make tackling difficult academic writing tasks that much easier.