planning and managing multiple writing tasks

Henry Miller’s first writing commandment was “Work on one thing at a time until finished”.

I find this almost impossible to do. It’s so impossible that much of the time I think that it’s not a sensible rule – well not for academic writing anyway.

In reality, I always seem to have several things on the go – one or two refereed articles in review, a conference paper being developed, something to be proof read. I might think that I can concentrate my attention on one thing, but then a paper will arrive back…. It demands attention. You can’t let this kind of thing slide. You have to deal with it – perhaps not immediately but certainly within a reasonable time period. It has to be done at the same time as other writing already on the go.

Then of course there’s the blog. I try to do a post at least once a week and I’ve got to the stage now where I always have a few posts in reserve so I won’t be caught short. With a reserve list, I can always add something when I’m inspired and provoked. This kind of organisation means I don’t get too stressed by the regularity of the writing.

But there is a point at which the Miller rule holds true. I do generally find that I can multi-task relatively small pieces, particularly if I have a good plan to work to, and I’m clear about what I’m writing, and who for. But when doing a really big piece of writing, I find it’s better to focus on getting it done to the exclusion of all other things.

When I have to write a research report or a book I DO need to plan ahead and set aside enough time to be able to focus on the one sustained text. To do a big text I have to use the Miller rule and keep some time really sacrosanct. That’s often summer and bits of negotiated research leave.

In order to manage the mix of multi-tasking and focused periods of writing, I keep a rolling publishing plan. I work out how much writing I can do in a year, what kind of texts I’ll produce, for whom, and how much time I’ll need to get them done. I programme for a whole year in advance.

I schedule the writing of conference papers and the time I’ll need in order to get them to a state where they can be submitted for review. I plan the publications that will come out of research projects. But I know that this kind of planning will be flexible, and that for much of the time I’ll be multi-tasking. Then I carve out the big slabs of time for the big slabs of writing and try to anticipate what could possibly disrupt them. I attempt to deal with those beforehand.

This kind of planning is not infallible. Disruptions happen. Nevertheless, writing the big manuscripts won’t happen at all without a plan. Planning doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly gives better than even odds.

Grudgingly, I admit it, Henry’s rule rules OK.

Henry Miller on Writing. (1964) New York: New Directions

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Henry Miller, publication plan, publishing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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