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Writing and Productivity in Academe

All too often I talk to Ph.D. students and new assistant professors who are having trouble producing scholarship. They regularly present at conferences. In fact, I have attended their paper presentations and they are usually excellent. However, once they get home from the conference, they can’t seem to turn the conference papers into publications. I know a few people who have 10-15 conference papers that have never been converted into publications.

I have always used conference papers as a motivation to finish projects and to write articles, but this is difficult for some scholars. I think some of the difficulty can be linked to perfectionism. Many of the individuals I’ve encountered who have a problem finishing articles are worried that the papers they write are never done or aren’t perfect.

When I was an assistant professor, I received some wonderful advice from a mentor. I asked him how he managed his scholarship and how he had become so prolific—producing rigorous work and a lot of it. He was having a significant impact with his research. His answer was that he is NOT a perfectionist. He told me he does his best job to produce good scholarship and then he puts the work in the hands of reviewers and editors. He taught me to be open to feedback. This mentor taught me how to avoid being trapped by my own fear and perfectionism when it came to writing. Since getting this advice, I have read extensively about writing—what works, what keeps it fresh. I’ve learned a few things.

First, I learned that writing every day makes for better writing and easier writing. I write every day of the work week. Some days I write for four or five hours, whereas others I only write an hour. But I write. This strategy has helped me to accomplish my writing goals for the past 15 years. And research backs up this strategy—binge writers (those who write at the last minute in huge amounts) produce significantly less than everyday writers.

Second, I keep a journal of ideas. I jot down ideas wherever I am—on planes, trains, in boring meetings. It might take me a few months or sometimes even a year to get to these ideas, but eventually I do. Many of my articles and books are the result of an idea jotted down quickly in my writing journal.

Third, I work on related projects so that I can deeply engage the scholarly literature in my areas of expertise. This strategy allows me to write freely without constantly consulting sources. Of course, I draw from relevant sources, but I am not tied to them in a way that interrupts the flow of my writing.

Fourth, if I get stuck while writing, I just insert a note to myself (using the lovely comment feature in Word) and I move on to the next idea. Some scholars will stare at the computer screen for hours until they get a sentence right. Perfectionism of that sort wastes a lot of time.

Lastly, I make it a goal to convert conference papers into scholarly articles shortly after the conference. I take the discussant feedback seriously and make suggested revisions. Some papers are harder than others to convert, but I try nonetheless.

As scholarly productivity is directly linked to securing an academic job and being promoted, it’s important to have a strategy when it comes to writing. Good luck!

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