You’re writing a book? But… aren’t you a part-timer?

StanzilitBy Janet Mullin
Departments of History at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University, Fredericton, Canada

There’s an urban myth out there that says part-time academics (aka “lecturers”, “adjuncts”, &c) aren’t really professors, because they aren’t required to do research.  If it ain’t in the job description, it ain’t happening.  Part-timers are a) too busy teaching b) working at other jobs to keep a roof over their heads c) not interested in doing something for which they won’t be paid.

Right.

As most of us already know, that’s not even close to true.  Sure, we part-timers may have to put more emphasis on our teaching – that’s what’s bringing in the bacon, after all – but even course-prep writing is still writing.  Besides, there’s nothing like doing lots of writing for undergrads to make you itch to get back to the crafting of sentences, the building of arguments, that got you that PhD in the first place.  Most of my lecture notes are peppered with crossed-out clever phrases and erudite references that have bombed in the classroom.  The only way I’ll get to use them is to write for other academics.

Making the mental shift from course development to writing – in my case, turning The Diss into The Book – has been a long process.  I’ve been talking to others, making notes, planning and re-planning, for about two years now.  Even as I prepped and introduced two more new courses for my growing list, The Book was always there, nagging at me from the depths of my cerebral cortex, popping into my dreams before fleeing on awakening.  Clearly, I had to get some momentum going, or it wasn’t going to happen.

I’ve been lucky, because a few things have happened to kick-start my writing.  They’re not unique to the part-time world; they apply to everyone who’s got the itch to write but who hasn’t, for whatever reason, actually produced anything yet (or hasn’t in a while).  I offer them to you, in no particular order, as probably pretty obvious points, in hopes that they may help you to get out of the starting gate.

1. Make outlines.  Lots and lots of outlines.  This will be an ongoing process; you need to have a sense of direction, something to map out what you want to say and what you’re actually talking about.  A huge part of my initial stalling was that I didn’t really know what the book was going to be about.  It’s one thing to say, “Oh, it’s about underwater basketweaving in the American colonies”, but quite another to craft an introduction that sets out, in detail and with sequentially-planned argument, what points will be made in what chapter.  That’s where outlines come in: if you can’t write an outline you’re happy with, you’re not yet ready to write that chapter or that book.

2. Keep a notebook with you all the time.  (OK, maybe not in the shower, but the rest of the time.)  You never know what’s going to bubble up in your brain, nor when it will do so; nor can you trust that it’s going to wait around until you have a chance to jot it down.  The absent-minded academic is no myth, folks – we all have a lot of things tugging at our mental sleeves, so you need to be able to write it down when you think of it.  Keep paper and pencil on your bedside table; I do.  If you can scribble something at 2:00 AM without having to turn a light on, your bedmate will thank you.

3. Plan your work-times, if that’s what works for you; many writers find that having a set time to meet their muse is helpful.  The Pomodoro technique (http://pomodorotechnique.com/) has helped many people manage their workdays, and it’s adaptable to almost any workday framework.  Some people (including myself) have better luck writing when the fit takes them; the more flexible your workday is, of course, the more workable this will be.  If you feel like you’re really forcing yourself to write, allow yourself to stop – BUT write something, every day if you can, even if it’s just toying with an outline.  Just being in the presence of your project will set the wheels whirring, and they may very well pull up something neat three hours later, when you’re not expecting it (see point #2 above).  And of course, if you get on a roll, run with it if you possibly can.  It’s one of the best feelings ever, and you can’t know when it will happen again.

4. Cut/Paste and Copy/Paste are your friends.  Don’t be afraid to switch things up, move things around, change the order of paragraphs or whole sections or whole chapters.  If you’re not sure you’ll like what you see, create “holding” files for your experiments; “Chapter 1a” may end up in the Recycling Bin, or it may get renamed to “Chapter 1”, if it passes your acid test.  Word-processing software has made writing infinitely easier; take advantage of that.

5. Consider the buddy system.  Academics are, by and large, cats who walk by themselves.  Even when we’re co-authoring a paper or co-chairing a conference panel, a lot of the work that goes into the final product is done in solitude.  However, there are times when it’s a huge help to know that others are also struggling to stay on-task in the midst of the busy-work of teaching, university service, &c.  A group of like-minded colleagues has made all the difference to my writing, especially in my momentum: I know I’ll be reporting on my progress each week, so I make sure I have something to report.  It’s made actual results happen, for all of us.

6. Don’t be afraid to step away.  If you think you need to process what you’ve just done, and especially when a Big Idea strikes, give yourself time to think about it.  You don’t need to consciously think about it, either – in fact, often, it’s better if you don’t.  Go for a walk, have a break with a cup of tea and a novel, and come back to it later.  If you’re contemplating a major shift in argument or organisation, let it percolate for a bit before sketching out the new schema.  And sometimes that really does involve sketching – I’ve found that concept maps are a big help, for example.  My computer can’t do that nearly as quickly as my pencil can.

My own book project is still in its infancy, so I have yet to learn about the publishing process.  However, I’ve just sent out my first publishing proposal, and that certainly would not have happened by now if not for at least some of this advice.  The one big hump that all writers negotiate – the first one, starting out, and being motivated to put our work out there – is arguably a tougher one for part-time academics than for those on the tenure or promotional track.  We’re not expected to write, so no one’s pressuring us to write; no one, that is, except ourselves.  Our curiosity and our love of the subject that stayed with us, even during the roller-coaster of grad school, are what makes us dig in the archives and toil in the lab.  They’re what brings scholarly work to birth.  I hope the results are worth the pangs, for all of us.

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