I Write Slow

Dear Andrew,

How do I become a better keeper of writing deadlines? I am a grad student working on a dissertation that should be finished up soon, and have recently realized (always secretly known) that there is no deadline, however large or small, that I won’t blow with impunity. I frequently tell myself that this is because to do good work, I need to give it proper time to gestate. And to be fair, I have improved a lot on how I used to be in college.

I have: set aside a dedicated space for working where I go on a regular basis; installed internet-blocking programs on my computer; set chapter deadlines and created color-coded calendars to try to keep said deadlines; found a study buddy with whom I check in every week to go over goals, successes, and failures; broken my tasks up into smaller tasks and tried to attack the little tasks en route to the big task (the big D). But still, when I sit down to do my little tasks, I find that I cannot, for example, print out and read chapter 2 to look for the main threads of my argument, because I need to line-edit my intro, make sure my footnotes are sparkling, and my prose flows well. Argh!

I just recently had an extremely unpleasant email exchange with a journal editor who had solicited an article and which I was unable to complete in the short turn-around time. I should not have agreed to this, as I know myself and my other responsibilities, but on the other hand, if I want to be an academic, I have to be ready to turn out quality work at the drop of a hat. I know this. What is wrong with me? Is there any hope? In case you are wondering, I really enjoy talking about and researching my project, I just don’t know how to write any faster than I do, which turns out is kind of slow. Please help!

-Just Another Procrastinator?

First of all, know that you are not alone. Far from it. Almost everyone wrestles with deadlines, writers especially. Ralph Ellison and Katherine Dunn come to mind as writers who missed deadlines by years and still made out all right. So you’re in good company.

You’re also well aware of the problem and doing everything a cursory Internet search of how to avoid missing deadlines suggests. Dedicated work space, check. Internet blocking software, check. Setting goals, check. And meeting regularly with a study buddy to keep you accountable, check.

Which makes giving advice a little harder.

My instinct is: this is a tough-love situation. You need greater consequences for missing deadlines.

But the missed journal deadline complicates that theory. I’m assuming that was a potentially career affecting opportunity. Getting published would have helped your career, not getting published won’t. So consequences have been felt. Which brings us to now.

As far as the journal goes, you say you knew the turnaround was unreasonable, but you took it anyway. So moving forward, you need to be honest with your potential employers, publishers, editors, and most of all yourself about what you can do in a given amount of time. I suspect you’ve already planned to do so.

That said, I don’t think this is a non-starter for academic success. You say turning out quality work at the drop of a hat is integral to success in academics, but I think that’s partly your frustration talking. My professor friends have weeks, if not months, to write articles and make changes based on peer reviews, and years to write books. I understand expediency is a virtue, and the more you publish the less you perish, but this journal’s tight deadline sounds more like the exception than the rule.

So yes, there is hope for you. Plenty of it.

Nevertheless, less burn some sage. Finish the article. And send it to the editor with a note of apology and explanation. Doesn’t matter if it’s next week, next month or next year. Don’t do it with the expectation of getting it published in a later issue, although if it’s great, who knows. Do it because by finishing the piece you get to have the last say, not the deadline. And if this editor and journal might play a role in the rest of your career, it’s better to be known as someone who finishes, however late, than never finishes at all.

Moving forward, it would also behoove you to work on articles on your own, at your own pace. Pitch pieces after you’ve finished them, or at the least at a very solid rough draft status. You’ll meet deadlines, and maybe even turn in articles early. If a journal, magazine or website wants to see a proposal first, fair enough. They don’t have to know you already have the piece done. Worst-case scenario they accept your proposal but want you to take a different tackā€¦ and you still have a great finished draft to work off of.

Now let’s talk about your dissertation.

You’re getting tangled in the weeds. You set out with a single, simple mission and end up doing major rewrites. The reality is you’re putting the cart before the horse. If you’re still working through the major arguments of a chapter, it’s way too early to be line editing. If you change your argument, you’ll have to re-write the whole damn thing anyway, right? Never mind the fact that fabulous writing won’t save a lousy argument. You’re wasting your time by doing things in the wrong order.

What’s worse, you know you’re doing this, but you can’t stop yourself.

Again, know that you’re not alone. We all have our own idiosyncrasies and strange writing rituals, most of which slow us down rather than speed us up. My personal pitfall for a very long time was having to fix every single problem identified by Microsoft Word spell check. And I’m not a very good speller, so my screen gets filled up with little red dots underlining words an awful lot. Not to mention how often I use proper names or purposely write an incomplete sentence. I work in advertising after all, it doesn’t always have to be perfect English.

So right there in the middle of a great thought or idea, attacking the keys, I would stop short and correct the little mistake. Or correct Word that the mistake was in fact not a mistake. And then I would try to get back on the roll and remember where I was going with my thoughts. It wasted time and my writing suffered.

For a long time I fought this by getting really fast at making those red dotted lines disappear. It made the interruptions shorter, but they still came with the same regularity. Finally, I got very hard on myself. I began to admonish myself for stopping mid-stream to correct tiny errors that I could fix later during rewrites. I got mad at myself. I told myself I was an idiot. I got to the point where I was able to shame myself into continuing without fixing the misspelling because, I told myself, I was cheating myself out of a great sentence or thought if I stopped. Eventually it worked.

Doesn’t sound like telling yourself you’re an idiot is going to work for you. So I propose a system of rewards and punishments. For instance you get to screw around on the social network of your choice for half an hour if you complete your task on time and in order. But you have to unsubscribe from 3 friends if you don’t. Perhaps a bad example, but you get the picture.

Find something you care about and tie it to your writing. And stick with it. I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, but given your commitment to color-coded calendars, I’m confident you can create and follow through on a system of rewards and punishments like that.

Hopefully this at least gets you taking care of the trees. Now for the forest. The dissertation deadline itself.

Since there’s no real deadline you need to come up with one on your own. Come up with a date. But think it through. Don’t give yourself until when you think you should be done. Give yourself until when you know you can get it done, and take into consideration the fact that you have a life outside of writing this dissertation.

I know there are a lot of jokes about 8-year grad students. A good friend of mine was one. He endured the jokes. Today he’s happily employed as a professor, and publishing like a madman.

So again, this is your deadline. Use your study buddy, mentors, friends, fellow grad students and professors you’re working with to help figure out the date. Use your parents. But come up with a deadline you can meet.

Now, how to meet it.

I’m tempted to say the same punishment-reward system might work, albeit a radical version. Say giving a trusted friend or relative 5 grand. If you meet your deadline, you get it back and buy something you’ve always wanted. (For me this would be a hot tub, and yes, I choose 5 grand because I’ve been led to believe 5 grand is about what it would take to get into a decent hot tub, installation and electric included). But if you miss your deadline, your trusted friend or relative donates the money to a non-profit. Maybe even one you really disagree with if you need the extra incentive of funding a group doing work you’re opposed to.

Or you choose a place you’ve always wanted to visit. As soon as you finish your dissertation you get to go there. But you can’t set foot there until you do. You get the idea. Choose something big, something scary, something life-changing.

Does that sound like it might work? If you got excited reading it, great. Try it.

If not, perhaps some other readers out there have some ideas. Anyone?

But if my idea, or any others that might fill the comment section, don’t resonate, let’s acknowledge this is an online advice column without a back and forth, back and forth and dedicated follow up, follow up. And follow up is probably what you need. More and better accountability.

Your study buddy is not enough. You should consider enlisting some paid professional help. Someone who specializes in helping their clients meet deadlines. I know there are life coaches that specialize in that, I suspect therapists as well. Either way, someone who has helped clients who are deadline-averse meet deadlines is not only going to have really good ideas, tailored to your personality and working style. They’ll also stick with you and make sure you finish.

Is it going to cost money? Hell yes it will. And it will be worth it. Because not only is getting this done on time worth paying for, actually paying someone to help you meet your deadline will make you more likely to meet your deadline. It sounds counter-intuitive, you’re paying them after all. But once you form a relationship with this person based on finishing your dissertation on time you won’t want to let them down. You might even feel worse disappointing them by not finishing than you feel letting yourself down. After all, if their business is helping people with deadlines, and you don’t finish on time (despite working with this person for months or even years), you end up hurting their business.

So, give it a think. Feel free to follow up with questions, thoughts, arguments, or counter ideas. Or just take some of these and run. But do let me know what you decide to do.

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4 Responses to I Write Slow

  1. matt says:

    I have found that writing on paper- with a pen or pencil- away from a computer, is a great way to get things done. Not only does the computer encourage you to write perfect sentences, as Andrew has noted, it offers too much “productive” distraction- such as looking up the definition of a word, looking up synonyms, doing quick research, etc. While that stuff is ultimately important, it can really detour during the moments when lots of words need to be written.

  2. RCH says:

    You’re punishing yourself! Why are you punishing yourself? Maybe you like or believe you deserve the pain of disappointing yourself. You should sublimate your taste for pain into something more constructive and overtly emotional. Then you can have a strictly professional relationship with your writing.

  3. Yours Truly says:

    Also there is this:

    It seems weird but it’s being talked about a lot in academia right now–she recently wrote an article for The Chronicle about how everybody’s thesis advisor is failing them or whatever. It seems legit for people in your situation?? Check it out maybe!

    I think Andrew’s advice was spot-on.

  4. the OP says:

    Andrew, first of all, let me say thank you for the tough love. You are correct that the journal article debacle was serious in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Missing the deadline was awful and the series of smoothing-over emails that followed helped me see that I cannot do this anymore. But you are also correct about turn-around times in academia. The editor admitted that it was an unusual situation. Still, I am taking it as a lesson in being clear with people and not committing to stuff prematurely.

    But, the part of your advice that rang the loudest bells in my brain was the thing about getting tangled in the weeds. Of course! I have been thinking about my process and how I go about building chapters and the whole project, and you are totally right – I am polishing parts that might just get chucked out in revision. And on top of it, it’s extra-hard to let go of sections whose prose I have already gotten just so. Geez! Why??? I’ve been revising a particularly long chapter in the last two weeks and, after letting myself do a once-over for grammar (couldn’t help it) and running up against my color-coded calendar deadline, I ended up just printing what I had, making a new outline, and, barely even reading the individual sentences, just moving parts around, deleting parts that were not relevant, etc. Sometimes I would have a note in the margin saying “add transition here.” Then I would just throw in a transition. Nothing fancy, no metaphors, just “as I was saying above, now I’m going to talk about this other thing that follows.” Thrilling.

    So, just wanted to check in and say that your kick in the pants+insight about the details versus the bigger picture and what comes first was much appreciated. As my deadline for completion is in about 3 months, I’m going to leave the writing coaches alone for now. But YT, I totally know about that website, and reading the PhD Poverty stories on there has been both embarrassing and depressing. But yea, she’s definitely on my list for application materials come fall.

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