Home » Posts tagged “process notes”

Question from a blog reader

June 29th, 2011

A blog reader who is a faculty member at a university in the DC-Baltimore area asks: I’m curious what advice you would give to someone embarking on their first nonfiction book project about staying organized and on track.  For example, do you recommend Scrivener, DEVONThink, or another specific data-management program?  Are there particular tips, tricks, or programs your writers find helpful in managing a project’s schedule and logistics?  Selling the book is not an issue; this question is about producing the manuscript.

Faculty in Booklab have reported their experiences with various types of organizing systems, and the clear winner was DEVONThink because two people recommended it versus one-time recommendations for other programs. From my observance most don’t use any system at all. Also, it depends on the type of book you’re writing, and how many bits of things have to be organized.

I’ve been a longstanding fan of Franklin/Covey, and I did a one-day “Focus: Achieving Your Highest Priorities” seminar in 2006 when I started this job as a way of learning how to organize and plan at a higher level. I have also tried a system recommended by choreographer Twyla Tharp in her terrific book The Creative Habit. She uses physical boxes; I wrote a blog post about it here. My problem was that the box worked best for people who like things printed out on paper. I like documents as computer files whenever possible, so I eventually abandoned the box and returned to Franklin/Covey. However, it is interesting to think about for those who like physical representations of ideas.

The thing I have found that works best is being part of a faculty scholarly publishing group. Scholars keep one another on track throughout the academic calendar, and it is amazing to watch the hyper-organized people exert influence on the less organized not through direct instruction, but more passively, by example. They set the bar higher, and we all find ourselves living up to it.


Chunk a big task down

February 16th, 2011

A faculty member of one of the scholarly publishing groups was in a bit of nervous despair.  It is February 16, and he has an appointment with a university press editor at a conference in mid-March.  The editor expects to see a prospectus for this author’s new scholarly book before that conference.  No big deal, right? Well, the author is also presenting a paper with one of his best graduate students at the conference. Add to that two other can’t-say-no obligations due earlier, and two kids who have been sick off and on all winter, and the author is looking at a (pick your image) pileup, train wreck, or at the very least some hasty writing that isn’t its best/strongest.

The prospectus is the task that seems largest and most daunting, so we discussed a time-tested method that many coaches shorthand as “chunk it down.”  This is an old idea I gleaned from several sources including Franklin-Covey, Jack Canfield, Brian Tracy, and others, and adapted for academia. You probably already know and/or do a version of this, but it helps to think in a fresh way sometimes, just for idea-sharing.

To chunk something down is to divide it into manageable and discrete units that represent nameable tasks that can be assigned a date and time.  For example, a prospectus–at least if you are following my prospectus model–could be represented as about ten chunks, with a chunk being approximately a two-hour work session on a given day.  Each chunk can happen on a different day:

1.  Overview (three chunks): (a) Why we need this particular book now in this field; (b) the core of your argument presented for an intelligent nonspecialist; (c) Why you are the ideal author.

2.  Audience and possible peer reviewers (one chunk)

3.  Literature review (two chunks): (a) collection of the basic list; (b) a sentence or paragraph about each that places yours in context.

4.  Chapter Outline (three chunks): (a) division of material into an arc; (b) organization into a chapter-by-chapter format; (c) prose and polishing.

5.  Apparatus section (one chunk): maps, charts, images, appendices

Using this method, it would be easy enough to see that you need ten writing sessions or 20 hours, but that’s in a mythical world where the next ten writing days are available.  Assuming that almost a third of them will be destroyed by life, then I would assign 13 writing days to this task.  If all ten days stay clear then the project can be finished early, but if everything goes wrong, the project will still be done on time.  If writing days are only Monday-Friday, that would mean the prospectus draft would be finished Friday, March 4 if all writing days between now and that date are devoted to it and one- third are lost.  If weekends are included it will be finished a good bit earlier.

The beauty of this system is it assigns a specific task to an actual day without the stress of thinking “I just have to work on the prospectus,” yet not knowing what “the prospectus” represents in terms of the here and now.  Going back to our notion that many of us particularly appreciate concrete things such as specific dates, times, amounts, etc., this could relieve a lot of stress simply by giving our brains something they understand.

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Writing a complete book draft in 30 days

January 25th, 2011

Although this method probably won’t fly with scholarly writing, we’ve been enjoying the lively do-it-yourself kit Book in a Month for narrative nonfiction, a genre in which many of our scholars work.  Even though it touts itself as a fiction guide, the methods work just fine when you’re dealing with a story that actually did happen.

I waited to blog about this one until I had used it for a few days, but now, on Day 6, I’m sold.  Unlike the vast majority of vague, copy-each-other writing guides (it’s such a bleak genre), this one actually gets you somewhere helpful on Day 1, and it continues to get better as it goes along.  Author Victoria Lynn Schmidt, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, also studied writing, and she seems to approach writing as a scientist rather than an artist.  Personally, I find that helpful.  Every day you will have boxes to fill in, questions to answer, or patterns to establish, and at the end you even get a sheet of stickers to reward yourself.

If you want a fun jump-start to your work for the new year, this might be the most fulfilling $15 you’ll ever spend.

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Homage to scholarly collaboration

January 11th, 2011

Paula Ruth Gilbert (l) and Miléna Santoro

It is customary for researchers in the sciences to work together, write together, publish together, and receive awards… together!  But for some reason humanities disciplines seem enamored of the solo scholar model, so much so that at tenure and promotion time committees can show a preference toward single-author work, even though co-authored books and articles may be much, much richer.  Personally I find this preference for the standalone to be intellectually insupportable, but it is the state of the academy at the moment, although with enough creative pressure who knows, that may change.

Miléna Santoro, a professor in Georgetown’s French department, and Paula Ruth Gilbert, professor of French, Canadian, and women and gender studies at George Mason University, cheerfully defy the norm with their brilliant co-authored and co-edited work.  Their recent book, Transatlantic Passages: Literary and Cultural Relations Between Quebec and Francophone Europe (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) is a showcase both for the breadth of Quebec literature, cinema, art, music, photography, comics, and culture, and for the power of scholarly teamwork.


Article summarizing key writing principles

November 17th, 2010

Joanna sends along this link to an article from Inside Higher Ed that does a good job of summarizing some basic concepts for regular, steady progress on scholarly writing.  It includes Academic Ladder, an online group some of our faculty members have enjoyed.

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Scriptorium for fall — schedule pending

September 7th, 2010

The Scriptorium writers will meet in the street-level, large conference room of the Mortara Center today, Tuesday, September 7.  We’re usually in a smaller room, but it happens to be available and other space is booked.  I will be there with laptop and books from 9:30 – 11:30, writing.  Faculty authors are welcomed to join me.

For those who are new to the concept, Scriptorium (loosely translated as “a place for writing,” although it has other more specific historical meanings) is a way of getting together to sit quietly and write.  It serves several purposes, including adding a layer of collegiality and accountability, getting us out of our usual spaces for writing, and allowing a quiet realm where others won’t tap on the door and the phone won’t ring.  We tend to focus more and multitask less when we’re together, and we are more likely to keep to a two-hour-per-day schedule when other people are expecting us there.

Scriptorium is drop-in, so there is no need to sign up, but I look forward to seeing you if you want to come.  Enter quietly, set up your laptop and get going.  We don’t do greetings (the occasional whispered hi, but keep it to a minimum), and there’s no need to make a big announcement if you have to leave, just pack up and wave.  I hope to see some of you there!

As the semester develops and we get a more regular Scriptorium schedule, I will post it.

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Update from the Voltaic group

August 20th, 2010

Here’s my post from the Voltaic group (their posts are private, but I can share mine with you):

This morning was a-ma-zing.  I have learned slowly what others have said over the years, that cutting an article can make it sound much more coherent, since readers don’t know what you didn’t say!  Just going through and weeding out the interesting starts I had that went nowhere tightened the paper up to a manageable 11,000 words.  Although I was sad to lose those ideas (some of them could have led somewhere), an article can’t do everything and I could have spent months tracking them down.   Writing with E. in Scriptorium this morning was inspiring, and I’m looking forward to five big Scriptorium days next week.  9:30-noon, all week long.

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Churn, churn…

July 20th, 2010

One of the summer faculty book group authors today discussed “churn,” which in her terminology as a journalist meant taking in so much information, matching it quickly to her own understanding, making necessarily quick judgments, and then turning it right around as published copy for the news.  She longed for more time to simply sit with information, to think and let it be until she understood it better.

Ideally we academics have more of this time, but do we always use it?  Or do we sometimes procrastinate to deadlines and then end up churning as well?  Churn in this context isn’t always bad — without it we would not have the news.  But I’d welcome more thoughts about when it works and when its opposite (rumination?  contemplation?  reflection?) is a better idea.

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An honest and engaging article about long effort

July 17th, 2010

I meet so many authors like this one — and I have my own unfinished-and-then-finished novel story.  Susanna Daniel on her tortuous about-to-be-published novel.

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Updated Scriptorium Schedule for Friday, July 2

July 1st, 2010

On Friday, July 2, I will hold the 9-11 Scriptorium session at Lauinger Library, but NOT the 2-4 session.

Next week’s schedule will be similar to this week’s:

Monday, July 5: 9:30-11:30

Tuesday, July 6: 9:30-11:30

Wednesday, July 7: 9:30-11:30

Thursday, July 8: No meeting

Friday, July 9: 9:30-11:30 AND 2-4

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Scriptorium schedule, June 28-July 2

June 28th, 2010

Scriptorium schedule for this week, all in the Pierce Room in Lauinger, to the right of the circulation desk:

Monday, June 28: 9-10:30 (I might be there at 8:30)

Tuesday, June 29: 9:30-11:30

Wednesday, June 30: 9-11

Thursday, July 1: No meeting unless noted otherwise (otherwise noted?)

Friday, June 2: 9-11 AND 2-4

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The Now Habit: Innate Worth

June 25th, 2010

This summer I promised to blog about the book The Now Habit, by Dr. Neil Fiore.  In a lovely passage, he writes of “Elaine,” a high-achieving woman who struggled with performance anxiety and procrastination.  “The mere thought of even a minor error caused her hours, often days, of panic and anxiety.”  She came from an accomplished family with an “alphabet soup” of degrees from top universities, and she internalized the pressure to be perfect.  When Fiore asked her about her sense of innate worth:

[S]he was dumbfounded.  ‘How can worth be innate?’ she asked.  ‘Where will it come from if it doesn’t come from what I do?’  When I asked her about those less capable than herself, she had to admit that they had worth and deserved respect in spite of their inability to perform as well as she, but it was difficult for her to apply a similar level of generosity to herself.

The solution for Elaine was to learn to remind herself of her worth whenever she made a mistake, and forgive herself.  I would venture that we might benefit from making these reminders concrete and visible.  For example, if you receive a peer review from a journal submission that does not recommend publication, stop first and write down a simple statement reminding yourself of this essential humanity and worth. I’m not a big fan of artificial affirmations (our subconscious minds and inborn sense of satire can see right through them), but a plain statement of truth is often effective.

We want to think that our academic struggles are of vital importance to the world, but when we look big-picture we realize how small we are, and forgiving ourselves for minor missteps becomes easier.

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Booklab Scriptorium Experiment, Day 1

June 22nd, 2010

Yesterday I posted about the summer Scriptorium experiment, where Georgetown faculty are invited to meet me in different places on campus to write quietly during the day.  This is Day 1, and I will be in Lauinger Library on the entry-level floor in the Pierce Reading Room, to the right of the circulation desk as you walk in.  The entry floor in Lauinger is actually Floor 3, and a map is here.  Bring your computer or your paper, enter quietly, and join me in focused time from 9-11 a.m.  It is fine if you come late or leave early as long as you’re quiet about it (a friendly wave or smile is fine).

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Guest blogger: Jim King on our first assigned book

June 3rd, 2010

Jim King observed the following in his first week with his faculty scholarly publishing group:

Completing my assignment, reading the first four chapters of Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot, I see that his techniques apply to the effort to tame any unstructured, creative or extracurricular activity. In fact, I applied his planning advice, inadvertently, to get those four chapters read. Not a huge task, but one that had to be fit into the available nooks and crannies of available time.

Silvia’s writing is fun to read and so I imagine fun to write.  When I can take the liberty, and when I am not otherwise foiled by my subject matter, I also try to make my writing fun – and in so doing, make it better (I hope) more readable and more memorable but most important, more prolific. I get charged up when I am having fun writing. But it is sometime difficult to see the line between “fun” and “glib”, or worse “self indulgent”; and I find I have to get pretty ruthless as my own editor, throwing out the otherwise beloved “cutecisms” and distracting parentheticals; which makes me wonder about what I’m writing now. Silvia belies his own statement, though – writing is not necessarily like repairing a sewer or running a mortuary.

Curiously, my writing topic – “Alternative Workplace Solutions: Coworking and Consolidation” – is focused on the ability (technically, socially, organizationally, spatially) to work anywhere, anytime, through laptop immersion and the suspension of peripheral perception, with all tools and resources available at a series of keystrokes; and without the necessity of an established workplace or “large blocks of time” Silvia mentions. Certainly, there are minimum “dive-times” (immersion process), but it’s not necessarily a long weekend – it can be as brief as a 2-hour airport layover. But, back to Silvia and the challenges he lays down (specious barriers, in some cases) –

  1. Cannot find the time (I allotted the time to read the four chapters) – GUILTY
  2. Binge writing (or binge anything) – BIG TIME GUILTY
  3. Waiting till a large block of time can be “found” – EXTREMELY GUILTY
  4. Failing to schedule – GUILTY
  5. Allowing e-mail distractions – GUILTY
  6. Getting set up, with the right space & equipment, first – GUILTY
  7. Not in the mood – GUILTY
  8. Setting too many goals – GUILTY
  9. Not setting any goals – GUILTY
  10. Failing to schedule time to think – GUILTY
  11. Neglecting to monitor, measure and so improve my productivity – GUILTY
  12. Writers Block – NOT GUILTY
  13. Complaining – GUILTY

Perhaps this is just one more “distracting parenthetical”, but I can’t not include my favorite Silvia quote:  “The best kind of self control is to avoid situations that require self control.” I see why you suggested this book. It really is helpful; and chapter four leads to your group. Thanks Carole.

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Blogging “The Now Habit”

June 2nd, 2010

Now Habit Book CoverFrom time to time I blog about some books we like in this office.  Last fall I worked through Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Belcher.  This summer I will blog on at least two books, The Now Habit by Neil Fiore; and Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice.  As always, I don’t blog away all the good stuff in the book (out of fairness to the authors), but I do offer tidbits, responses, and my overall take on the book’s real-world effectiveness for faculty publishing.

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Counterpoint on audience

May 28th, 2010

As is typical of just about anything, some Georgetown authors disagree about audience.  Although a fair number would nod at the suggestion in yesterday’s post that a sophisticated understanding and appreciation of audience is one key to writing an essential book, there’s at least one dissenting view.  A case can be made (and has been made) for writing to please yourself, with no concern for either audience or critics.  Some highly successful authors do this, without caring how they are perceived, or received.  The result?  When it works well, this can yield smart, honest, memorable writing.  Now that I’ve heard this other viewpoint, I’m torn.  My nurture-nature wants to think about audience, but this different approach seems to have much wisdom in it as well.

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Another perspective on your audience

May 27th, 2010

Authors come to Booklab with all sorts of different notions about audience.  The most common early thought is that the book is “for everyone,” when in fact audiences for books are almost always rather specific, and frustratingly challenging to suss out.  Some interesting authors spend creative energy thinking about audience more pointedly (women or men?  under 30 or mostly midlife and older?  various ages but specific life experiences, such as military service or a shared faith?), and we offer specific tools to enhance that, but there can be even more to it than demographics.

The most amazing authors who have taught me much are those who place themselves in different relationships to their audiences.  Everyday authors craft a “me up, you down,” asking “Who will buy and/or read this book and make me famous?”  Rare and wonderful authors sit a little lower and place their readers a bit higher, asking “Whom do I serve?  How will this be used?  Whose needs can I meet and how fully?  Why would a reader come to me versus (or in addition to) all the other choices out there, and how do I fulfill that role?”

A book written purely for promotion, attention, or wealth can succeed.  But a book crafted with a defined audience’s needs in mind and heart is one that also stands a chance of going beyond immediate success into the realm of the essential.

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It will never be perfect, but it is often good enough

May 26th, 2010

Dust BunnySome years ago a psychoanalyst friend introduced me to the work of the well-known pediatrician D. W. Winnicott, who wrote, among other things, about the concept of the “good-enough mother” who was better for all practical and spiritual purposes than the elusively ideal “perfect mother.”  The former was who she was, loved her kids but didn’t always get it right, and somehow made it through with them to their adulthoods with everyone doing the best they could at the time.  The latter strived for a higher level of exactness and correctness, but often lost the war in the service of battle after battle.  In her constant efforts to do a flawless job she did, overall, a terrible job.  The perfect (to quote an old cliché) was the enemy of the good.

This applies to our writing and then some.  It will never be perfect (whatever that is), and our efforts to perfect our writing often lead to self-criticism, doubt of perfectly good passages, and a questioning of the whole enterprise when we as authors grow sick of it, even though it will be fresh to readers.  A common feeling among authors pulling their newly published books from their boxes for the first time is “I still want to change it.”  How much better the good-enough model where we do what we can, edit appropriately, and then blessedly let it go.

To illustrate this I offer something related yet somewhat different, Christoph Niemann’s cute blog in today’s New York Times about dust bunnies and other enemies of perfectly kept houses.  I’m sure it will be blogged about everywhere, it’s that spot-on and that comforting to those of us who will never, even on our best days, be absolutely perfect, and who also think that’s fine because it makes us more relatable.


GUEST BLOGGER: What Google Books Can Mean For You

February 27th, 2010

Lewis Levenberg, a graduate student in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture and Technology program, works with Booklab from time time, giving us fresh ideas for using the internet and various social media to promote authors and books.  I invited him to guest-post some of his thoughts about digital books online:

What Google Books Can Mean For You

A lot of confusion and controversy surrounds the ongoing saga of the Author’s Guild and Association of American Publishers‘  legal action against Google. Since 2005, these two book-world powers have been locked in protracted argument with the search giant’s books division over copyright and payment issues. This complex, long-term negotiation seems to be drawing to a close, with Google honing in on the rights to expand what they hope will become the largest-ever “digital library.” However, the fact that this vast database of scanned texts is well on its way to becoming the primary reading and retail source for books on the web does NOT mean that authors are left high and dry, only to watch as their work becomes available to view (at least in part) online.

Read more…

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All Hail the “Mechanical Revision”

February 16th, 2010

Sometimes we speak about emotion as though it’s a good thing.  When it comes to writing, however, it can be a real detriment.  There’s a perhaps-overly-cited quote from Truman Capote that says in part,

I seem to remember reading that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humour and dripped tears all over the page when one of his characters died.  My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader.  In other words, I believe the greatest intensity in art in all its shapes is achieved with a deliberate, hard and cool head. (Conversations, M. Thomas Inge, ed., University Press of Mississippi, 1986)

Whether or not Capote practiced what he preached, I tried his method when revising an article recently for resubmission.  Instead of waiting for inspiration or even thinking about it very much, I went through mechanical steps to turn it around in the week I had allotted to the task.  Type, type, type, no feelings pro or con.  It worked!  I thought fondly of all the regular-guy-and-gal types going to their jobs as plumbers or electricians or auto mechanics (my family background is more similar to this than to the ivory tower), and how nobody asked them this morning how they feel about it.  They just do their jobs, and so should I.

The emotion that followed the work was great.  I had a sense of exhilaration combined with pride in a job done properly and on time.  Will it get in the journal?  I can’t really tell you, but I can say this — it’s in the editor’s hands now and not mine, and it went there sans drama.  :-)

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