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
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