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June 6, 2014

The summer is in full swing for most of us and those who for whatever personal or institutional reason (try to) maintain a research program are turning our thoughts to what we want to accomplish before classes start again. It’s exciting to be able to devote ourselves more fully to our writing and research, but the summer poses not only that opportunity but its own set of challenges: with so much unstructured time and so many appealing distractions it can easily slip away.

Below I’m going to describe several books that I’ve found useful for developing and maintaining a research practice during summers and even during the semester. I’m not the most productive writer in the world but I’ve become much more productive from implementing many of the techniques in these books. This list should also be of interest to graduate students and early-career scholars who, like me, are still learning the technical aspects of participation in scholarly discourse. By “technical aspects” I’m referring to a set of skills, different from the brilliant or not-so-brilliant ideas about antiquity that we are trained to cook up, that too often are not explicitly taught in our graduate programs: how to formulate and structure arguments, the constituent tasks of different stages of research and writing, how to approach a journal or press, and how to make continuous progress toward completing projects. In general, scholars who publish a lot have figured these things out (usually on their own, or, best case, by imitating what a mentor did). For those of us who, like me, aren’t as skilled at developing these techniques without being taught them explicitly, I offer the following resources. If you’re struggling with any of the challenges below, a few days spent reading the relevant material will more than make up for the time you didn’t spend working on that article or book.

If you want to write an article this summer take a look at Writing your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Belcher. This step-by-step workbook is intended for those who want to turn a conference presentation or lecture into an article, but its advice is useful for anyone formulating a project. My recent article on Quintilian took me a little longer than twelve weeks, and I didn’t follow every last instruction, but the general schedule worked well for me. The book’s greatest strength is its specificity: for each of the twelve weeks she gives five days of tasks, many of which are not obvious to the first-time article writer. For example, she gives step by step advice on selecting journals (not all of it exactly relevant to the classical scholar: she advises you to avoid journals which have been published for fewer than five years and many of ours have been published for over a century). As another example, she doesn’t just tell you to proofread, she gives you several specific textual searches to do in order to improve your writing. And above all she theorizes participation in scholarly discussion, with her most useful advice coming in how to manage and engage with the secondary literature.

If you need help finding time and/or motivation to write, I recommend Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure without Losing Your Soul. You can see from my picture below that this book is not intended for me but her advice is applicable to anyone trying to learn to manage the varied demands of our job. I first learned about Rockquemore’s work from a column she wrote for Inside Higher Ed’s “Career Advice” section and although other books contain much of the same advice her particular presentation worked well for me. Chapters 4 (“Tenure and Time Management”) and 6 (“Healthy Pathways to Publication”) are the one’s I’d recommend most: these deal with time management, goal setting, and establishing a daily writing practice. One key chart is found on p.91 which summarizes research by Robert Boice (see below) showing that faculty who employ the methods she recommends (daily writing of at least 30 minutes, keep records of writing output, weekly accountability structures) composed ten times more than those who just wrote however they wanted.

If you have plenty of time to write but find that you just can’t when you sit down at your desk, you might try Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers, which is primarily about writers’ block and reluctance to write. It features a diagnostic test for different aspects of difficulty writing which can help you vanquish blocks by giving them a name (I didn’t realize that “impatience” could interfere with writing), several exercises intended to help writers start writing, and specific advice for maintaining a writing practice over the long-term.

If you’re trying to formulate a new project, The Craft of Research has some very interesting chapters on how to turn an interest or a question into a viable research project. The book is intended for undergraduates writing research papers but the authors report in their preface (xiii) that they have received messages of thanks from “advanced researchers, including more than few tenured professors.” The chapters that have helped me the most are chapters 3–4 on turning a research topic into a research problem, chapters 7–9 on the elements of arguments, and chapter 11 on “warrants,” this last a very useful discussion of how to recognize our own assumptions and biases as we argue.

Sometimes you need a little help with your self-talk more than you need a new schedule or set of techniques. The books listed above contain some advice on this but I’ll mention a few others here that have stuck in my mind.

How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva includes a quote by Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels and innumerable other books, that has stuck in my mind: “'Three hours a day,' he declared, 'will produce as much as a man ought to write.” I rarely make it to three hours of real writing in a day but it’s a good—and to me, humorous, both for the gendered language and the whiff of moralizing in that “ought”— reminder that a daily practice need not take all day every day. It’s the daily engagement that keeps projects moving, not occasional day-long writing binges.

Like the Black Academic’s Guide the title of Howard Becker's Writing for Social Scientists may put off some classical scholars, and not all of Becker’s advice is appropriate for our field, but several chapters are worth a look, especially chapter 3, “One Right Way,” in which Becker approaches perfectionism from a interesting point of view, and chapter 6, “Risk,” not written by Becker but by a former student of his, a really raw exploration of the feelings of fraudulence, fear, and shame that many academic writers feel and some ideas about how to face those monsters.

That particular challenge is the one I’ve thought the most about, and to judge from the number of books that address it I’m not alone. “Creative” writers have some of the most interesting things to say about it, all of which is relevant to academic writers. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a useful memoir about the mental anguish of writing; the most memorable passage for me is the one in which she describes the negative self-talk that inflicts nearly all writers as a radio station playing in your head. The call letters? KFKD (For decency’s sake I won’t spell it out further). Her recognition of the pain of writing helps one feel less alone and less like a failure. In a similar vein is Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I talk about when I talk about running, especially chapter five “Even if I had a long ponytail back then.” Murakami’s beautifully conceived idea that writing produces a toxin in our bodies will resonate with anyone to whom writing does not come easily.

Best wishes for a successful summer, whatever that means for you.


Curtis Dozier teaches Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College. He is the producer and host of The Mirror of Antiquity podcast, and the director of Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics. (Photo Credit: ©Walter Garschagen/Vassar College).