NaNoWriMo / #academicwriting month: a review

Bottom line: November is a terrible month for academics to make a push on writing. I recommend picking a different month. But it worked for me. I benefitted from publicly announcing a schedule and from the support of friends who knew what I was doing. Word counts ended up being useless to me: in most cases I far exceeded them. As I said at the beginning, producing text isn’t my problem. It was all about sealing edges and creating continuity.

If I were to do it again, I would:

  • probably choose a different month
  • again publicly declare my project and deadlines
  • build in a little more flex time for things to come up and go wrong
  • find some more ways to create goals related to finishing things up rather than sheer word count
  • again start with space to ignore reviewing and letters (mostly) for 4 weeks (there’s a big pile to get out this next week)
  • if it’s during a term, it needs to be a term with a light service load and a compact schedule

When I turned in my manuscript last Tuesday, it was immensely satisfying, though I was immediately struck by how tired I felt after pressing “send.” Finishing in November wasn’t easy, especially toward the end. If I hadn’t set a deadline for myself, I would have taken a few more days (or half-days) off towards the end, and possibly finished in December. As it was, even though I budgeted for 1 bad day a week (defined as “feel too bad to work” as opposed to “not feeling perfect”), there were a couple weeks with more than that, which meant I wound up pushing the deadline and even cutting a couple corners I wanted to square before submission. During the last week of writing there were definitely a couple times where I really had to “push through” to make it. That may show in the writing, or it may not. Whatever, I get to revise.

But sometimes an artificial deadline is good. My original deadline for the manuscript was 31 May 2019. That wasn’t even close with my medical adventures, and the surprising difficulty of writing what because two voice chapters. Then I set 31 August as my deadline. I whiffed soon that one, too. So then I put the manuscript on my grad syllabus, and that was enough. Even so, without the push in November, I wouldn’t have made it. Or maybe I would have if I hadn’t been sick all of September. I don’t know.

In some grand cosmic way, not getting it done on the 26th wouldn’t have mattered, except that I was at a bit of a traffic jam in my work: two book manuscripts at the same exact stage is a bad place for an academic to be. Now I’m not in that place. I’ve got one book manuscript under construction and one under review. That’s much better.

A few other things made this possible. My teaching schedule this term is compact: seminars that meet once a week W and Th, with some new preps but not a lot in November; I also don’t have a lot of students in my classes, which is also unusual. Because of the drugs I decided not to travel after Minneapolis this term. One of the things that’s clear is the amount of time and energy travel eats up during a teaching term, especially now that my recovery times are longer. There is simply no way I could have done what I did if I had a “normal” (for me) travel schedule. On letters of rec, I have moved to Interfolio for mass mail-outs, which means less weekly time spent doing clerical work. I still have to write them and send them in some cases, but it’s a lot lighter this year. Also more jobs are not asking for letters up front. Thank you search committees. And I have been careful with reviewing, doing stuff, not not excessively (much of my reviewing has happened in doctors’ waiting rooms this term).

Finally, I had to draw some boundaries. I had one situation where I kept getting a manuscript sent back with additional requests for checking small things, editing, etc. At a certain point, I simply said I didn’t have more time to work on in November. I made myself unavailable for some meetings people wanted to do on writing days. Writing advice always say to do this but as for a lot of academics, I have a hard time doing it. I think in some perverse way, the fatigue makes saying no easier, because I feel the cost of saying yes.

So that’s my review.

I thought a little bit about privilege as well. Obviously I benefit from institutional security and the personal security that comes with it, as well as a relatively light teaching load compared to most professors. At the same time, I would wager that my body is less cooperative than that of many academic writers at this particular moment. And while I have the benefit of research assistants and the like, RAs don’t have a lot to do with it once I am at the point of actually solo writing (they certainly transform the research process, and increasingly, also come on as coauthors).

I am coming around to the idea that the writing thing is really about time and mindset more than everything else. I don’t mean that in the neoliberal way: those aren’t necessarily things a person controls; mindset comes as much from the support you get from others as what you feel in yourself. But if we are talking about sitting at a computer for hours issuing forth mountains of wordage for a month, I think most academics, regardless of career stage or institutional setting, can do it IF they are able to carve out the hours and pick the right month. Four large courses, or two small children, or lots of travel or service or conflict, or lack of a support network will obviously get in the way. But all of those things are temporary conditions (even someone with a heavy course load has times of the year they are not teaching). There are real obstacles to writing and thinking in modern academe. But there is no point in waiting for ideal circumstances to write. Some conditions are necessary and sufficient, but many of the “it would be nice” things we elevate to necessities in order to write are, well, not necessary. This term I taught and wrote while feeling like shit. I wouldn’t have felt any better had I not taught or wrote.


I said that once I finished, I wanted to play with my synthesizer. I had one letter to send on Saturday, but Thursday I went to the doctor and celebrated thanksgiving. Friday and Saturday I mostly did play with a synthesizer (confession: I own more than one synthesizer). Now I’m blogging and watching football and will soon make chili for the week (we are mostly through our leftovers).

Tomorrow it’s back to work but I will be ready.