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Hi writers! How’s it going?

Today’s episode is inspired by a lively webinar I participated in recently called “How Writing Coaches Get Unstuck” that helped kick off Academic Writing Month for Sage Publishing.

The webinar featured myself, Michelle Boyd, and Cathy Mazak. We’re all writing coaches and published authors and were also there to celebrate the publication of Michelle’s wonderful new book with Sage, which is called Becoming the Writer You Already Are.

Michelle runs Inkwell Retreats, which are online and in-person week-long scholarly writing retreats, and Cathy runs various group coaching programs for women and non-binary academic writers.

The webinar garnered huge interest from around the world.

We were asked to give our best tips about ways to get unstuck when you’re working on a long-term project like a book and are feeling frustrated or unmotivated.

I wanted to provide four of these tips for you today.

But, before I get to all of that, I wanted to check in with you. How are you doing during this incredibly busy part of the semester?

If you’re anything like me, then you’re looking at the calendar wondering where the last couple of months went!

Between going full-time with my coaching business, working on a third book, and taking care of a toddler who is constantly bringing home pesky daycare illnesses, I feel like I’ve been juggling a lot.

And yet, it’s been one of the most rewarding periods of my entire life because everything I’m doing is my own choice.

That’s one of the things that was sorely lacking for me in academia.

I spent so much time on tasks that just needed to get done for the sake of the department or university.

But it didn’t feel like they made a real difference in anyone’s life and therefore weren’t rewarding to me on an emotional level.

And when you spend too much of your time doing work that is not aligned with your values and priorities, it quickly turns into frustration, resentment, and burnout.

Over time it can develop into long-term mental and physical issues.

In my decade as a faculty member, multiple colleagues of mine had to take extended medical leaves for stress-based illnesses.

Even if their minds wanted to work, their stress levels had gotten so chronically high that their bodies wouldn’t allow them to do it.

Some of these folks found other academic jobs that suit them better.

Others, like me, realized that moving beyond the academy was the better choice.

I believe I can make more of a positive difference in higher education from the outside.

I can say things I used to be scared others would judge me for or talk honestly about issues I couldn’t see as clearly when I was still a professor.

The difference now is that although I’ve been super busy, I’ve also never been happier and healthier (minus the illnesses I get from my son, but you know what I mean)!

I want to remind you that my mission as a coach is to help YOU find ways to prioritize the things you care about most in all areas of your life. And that starts with writing!

FYI, I’m booking clients for the new year, so if you are interested in working with me to unleash your potential as a writer, sign up for a free consult with me here.

So let’s dive in! Here are my top four tips for getting unstuck with book writing.

1) Write Your Way In

So my first bit of advice is to do something I like to call “writing your way in.”

The first thing I should mention is that the kind of writing that I enjoy the most and what comes easiest to me is ethnographic storytelling, which is basically creative nonfiction.

When I’m not sure where to start with a book chapter, I like to “write my way in.”

As an author, I like to take my readers on a journey or through a particular scene that invokes the senses AND also highlights the major point or points that the chapter is going to make.

If I’m feeling stuck, I always spend a few hours fleshing out one or two stories or examples that were the most memorable from my research.

Because if they’re memorable to me, they will likely also be poignant to a reader.

I often talk to my clients about “sticky stories.” What stories can you include that will stick in peoples’ minds after they close the book?

It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, readers feel connected to a book through its stories.

On the other hand, a book that is without stories gets forgotten immediately—and that’s IF a reader sustains enough interest to make it to the end!

Once I have the initial story written, I’ll often then use it to open my chapter. This, for me, makes it a lot easier to set up the argument and ground the analysis.

Ultimately, writing your way in can mean just doing the writing that is the most enjoyable and comes the easiest to you first.

This is because it can get your gears going and propel you to tackle other writing tasks that you don’t find quite as enjoyable.

2) Recognize that things will take longer than planned

My second piece of advice is more a strategy for feeling better about your writing.

I read a lot of stuff about time management.

There’s something which I’m sure a lot of you have heard of called the Planning Fallacy, which refers to the human tendency to underestimate how much time it will take to accomplish something.

We do this because we often aren’t thinking in very clear detail about what the task truly requires, which might actually turn out to be 100 smaller things.

And, we often don’t factor in other life situations that will take up our time and energy like teaching or getting sick or taking care of our families or traveling that will extend the amount of time you actually need.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development, has written that you should take whatever time you think something will take and multiply it by 2.5 X to come up with a more reasonable expectation.

And even though I know this, I still find myself falling prey to the planning fallacy!

I’ll give a recent example. As I’ve been talking about for awhile, I’m at the beginning stages of writing a third book that’s being developed for a university press.

My goal has been to complete a book proposal to send out for review (and I should note that this is a trade book for a wide audience, so they’ve only asked for a proposal rather than a proposal plus sample chapters).

When I met with the editor at the end of May, I told him that I could get him a proposal by the end of August.

I figured, “I’ve done this twice already. Why would it take me longer than that?”

But then I realized I needed to do a bunch of in-depth interviews for the book.

I completed almost 40 interviews over a period of a few months, which took a huge amount of time to set up and actually conduct, not to mention to analyze.

In addition, over the summer I went on an international family vacation for two-and-a-half weeks and then I got extremely ill for two weeks.

Then there was the work of actually figuring out what the book was about and how to organize the chapters.

In the end, there was a lot of extra work required that I had to do before I could even start writing a proposal, so that deadline came and went. 

So I set a new deadline for mid-December. And the truth is, I have a lot of other things on my plate that are not book-related, so it will be a really big push because I need to make sure the proposal is rock solid before it goes out.  

Luckily this is not a problem with the press.

However, if I had been more realistic about my time and broken things down into much smaller tasks and planned around those, then I probably would have not promised to have the proposal done so early.

Long story short: always add A LOT more time than you think you will need.

3) Break goals down into tiny chunks

My third piece of advice is to break writing tasks down into the tiniest pieces possible.

This is the best thing you can do because a book is the culmination of about a million little things.

For example, when I was writing my dissertation, I had these mega goals like “write introduction” or “analyze data” or “write new article” that would just hang around for weeks and even months.

The usual result was that even though I was working hard, I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything.

And that’s one of the most demotivating things to any writer or researcher.

I didn’t realize until much later that taking the time to sit with your large goal and think through in excruciating detail what it actually entails in practice would save me time and also help me see that I was making progress.

For something like “write literature review,” you can list out all the articles and books you need to read and take notes on before you can even start writing.

Then you will need an outline, which will need to be broken down into smaller tasks.

And then you actually write it, piece by piece.

But not until you have a very specific idea of what you’re working on can you make an honest assessment of your own progress.

4) Celebrate every small win

And my fourth tip ties into the last one, which is to celebrate every small win and tiny amount of progress you’ve made.

One thing academics don’t do enough of is acknowledge what we’ve accomplished before we’ve reached the final destination.

People put off celebrating until they’ve reached their huge, tangible outcome—whether that’s a defended dissertation, a published book, or getting job or tenure.

The problem with this approach is that it delays ALL of your satisfaction and pride in yourself until the very end, at which time you’re probably so tired and burnt out that celebrating can feel like just one more thing to add to your to-do list.

Therefore, to maintain motivation throughout a multi-year project, I encourage people to celebrate and take note of your small successes.

And I should clarify that by “celebrating,” I don’t mean big things like throwing a party or hosting a fancy dinner.

I mostly mean just giving yourself positive acknowledgment for what you are doing.

This means creating a daily practice of giving yourself credit for the work you’re doing.

In this way you can more accurately see the progress you’re making instead of feeling like you are just wasting time or spinning your wheels.

What does this look like?

Well, I often advise my clients who feel like they’re getting nothing done to actually write down what they did at the end of a work session.

It’s like keeping a “done list” instead of a “to-do” list.

For example, they wrote two paragraphs of a section of a book chapter. Great! That’s something that didn’t exist before today.

Or maybe they read a few articles and decided that they don’t need to include them in their lit review. Awesome! That’s also pushed the project forward.

In the end, this practice is about embracing the process and seeing more accurately how tiny steps are what ultimately add up into a big finished product.

Summing it all up

So today’s episode has hopefully given you some concrete ways to get unstuck in your writing.

Let me sum up my four tips:

#1: Write your way in. Do the writing that feels easiest and most enjoyable to you to get your gears going.

#2: Recognize that things will always take longer than you think. Take your first estimate and multiply it by 2.5 times to come up with a more realistic amount of time.

#3: Break your bigger writing goals down into tiny, tiny chunks and then plan around those.

#4: Celebrate every small win. Keep a “done list” where you take note of all the things you did and the decisions you made, however small, that still pushed your project forward.

This last point is especially important to remember during the end-of-semester crunch, when you feel like you’re not able to get any of your own work done.

Don’t forget that every big goal we accomplish is the result of doing a million small things.

So good luck making progress on your project, one tiny step at a time!