An update (and lessons learned) on the Liturgy of the Book

I would have made a poor nun!

Last autumn I wrote a blog post in which I described my plan to finish a draft of my book by the end of 2013.  My scheme involved waking up at 4 a.m. several days a week to write for a few hours while the house was dark and quiet.  Well friends, I have failed to do that, but in many respects I consider the experiment a success.  Furthermore, I learned some things that may be of use to the rest of you.  To wit:

  • I did not complete a draft of the entire six-chapter book, but I produced a pretty polished draft of chapter 4 and I have something called chapter 5, which is probably better  than I would have done without even trying this early morning experiment.  So, I would say that I have about 5/6 of the book drafted, and would therefore give myself a B for effort and a B-/C+ for achievement.
  • The main reason I didn’t finish all six chapters is that I pooped out after about five weeks of very steady writing and engagement.  I caught a cold in early October, went to a conference, and then midterm papers and exams came in.  In early November I had a trip out of town, and then it was Thanksgiving and I caught another cold, and that’s where October and November went.  And then December, with final exams and papers and grading, not to mention the rest of the holidays and family visiting?  You can imagine.
  • Biggest lesson learned?  The 4 to 6 a.m. writing experiment is a great thing to do for two weeks or a month at a time, but expecting to keep up that schedule amidst the demands of my day job was unrealistic.  I should have realized this when I started getting up at 4 a.m. and ended up spending two hours just answering emails and reading the news.  Even with going to bed at 9 p.m., I got pretty run down.  However, I’ve resumed the early morning work this week and will probably keep it up through next week too.
  • Other lessons:  getting a draft banged out sure does expose the holes in your research!  (And how!)  This is a good thing.  Also, continual engagement really works.  After a few rough mornings, I came to enjoy my writing time and even looked forward at 6 or 6:30 a.m. at the end of a writing session to 4 a.m. the following day, when I could open my file and write again.
  • Although I respect and appreciate the concept of what archivists call MPLP (More Product, Less Process), I am not a “$hitty first draft” kind of writer.  Part of the reason for this is that the intricate social history that I must do in this book means that I’m frequently both doing the research and making discoveries and connections while I’m writing.  Part of it is that I just really like writing, and so find it difficult to move along by just dashing down ideas and facts.  This may also explain why I wrote only a scant two chapters instead of the three I intended to write.

16 thoughts on “An update (and lessons learned) on the Liturgy of the Book

  1. I concur with this opinion, save for the last sentence in bullet-paragraph one. As an outside reviewer, I probably would have gone with the ceremonially-dreaded graduate school A- in both categories. Sister, pictured above, would have considered that more than enough hair shirt, even for a truant like me. (Actually, a truant like me was all but unreachable, which is why I only write in odd-numbered Leap Years, which may not even exist for all I know. I was a pretty poor astronomer, too).

    Indyanna, J.


  2. I wonder whether any of the information/ideas on this article (which is over a year old, but I ended up reading after following a link — I can’t remember where — in the last few days) is/are relevant: ?

    I’m especially thinking of the conclusions about when and how overtime works, and its aftereffects.

    In any case, thanks for reporting your results. I think it’s clear that one thing that university faculty at all levels (and independent scholars) increasingly have in common is trying to figure out how to fit writing and research into schedules that are already quite full, at at time when funding for concentrated time off is scarce to nonexistent. Projects that require movement back and forth between research (especially archival research that requires travel) and writing are especially challenging (and are, of course, by no means unique to historians, though perhaps more common among historians). It’s also useful, for a whole variety of reasons, to be able to come up with realistic timetables for ourselves (and few of us are trained/encouraged to do that. A relative who has spent hir career in university press publishing, working with both professor-authors and a few full-time writers, says that academics are terrible at estimating time to completion, and it’s not entirely our fault, since so many funding schemes, from grad school onward, encourage the making of unrealistic timetables — i.e., if you say you’ll write the book in a year, even though you still have to do much of the research, you’ll get the fellowship/grant; if you say that all you can do with a year is make a substantial start on the research and a very preliminary start on the writing, you probably won’t get the funding).


  3. Good for you! We have somehow gotten stuck with a model of intellectual “productivity” that no actual human being could live up to, but we’re supposed to feel like slackers if it turns out that we have bodies, families, and students that need time and attention. Plus, I have found that alternating sustained attention to writing/research with down time yields the best results. I need to write in order to think through my material, a process that often sends me right back to doing more research. But sometimes I just need to walk away and let things stew in the back of my mind for a while.

    We are not little machines spitting out widgets on demand. I wish we could break this destructive productivity model.


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  5. My work habits differ drastically from my wife’s habits. Two of my kids diff in their works habits and aren’t close to mine. We talk about three scientists and one brilliant health care analyst. My youngest work habits resemble mine.

    Differences of work habits become clear in college. My friend would study until 2am before an exam while I went to the movies. We both did well in the exams.

    If it works for you, great. Otherwise, change the way you go about your work. Whatever works for you.


  6. By my standards, getting done with 2/3 of the writing you planned is awesome progress! And yeah, you can’t keep up that kind of effort without a break. I am convinced that the concept of periodization as applied in the context of athletics applies equally in the context of intellectual effort.


  7. Congratulations on getting a few chapters drafted! It’s also useful that you know you can do this in bursts, but not for long stretches. I tried something like this some years ago, and found that I need to ease into writing, so tempting as the early morning blitz is, it didn’t work for me. As Koshembos noted, we all work differently!

    But I also want to echo Northern Barbarian: the scholars of the 50s and 60s (and even later) thought nothing of spending ten or more years on a book. When the humanists tried to copy the science model of productivity, we created an impossible task for ourselves. Because no one should have to work a 60 or 70 hour week to do their job. (I’m assuming that between 6am and 9 pm you did at least 9 hours of work on various tasks associated with your job, and that you take a day off a week…)


  8. I think what you’ve expressed here about writing exposing the holes in one’s argument is the strongest argument for stopping research sooner rather than later. Get to writing! I’ve been saying to myself. I have a lot more reading to do, but frankly, I don’t really know what I have – and what I don’t have – and the only way to know that is to start trying to put ideas together and see where the holes are.

    I would really like to try the 4 AM wake up idea. I’m not sure it’s realistic in my circumstances, but maybe I’ll give it a go, now that I’m nearing writing myself. It’s very helpful to hear that it might make sense to try the experiment for discrete chunks of time, rather than the whole semester. I was also getting a lot more personal work done in the front half of the fall semester, and then fell into the black hole of grading and service in the second half.


  9. Great progress on the book! I have always been an early riser–that’s just how my body clock works. I’ve also found I can do stretches of very early rising (3:45-4:00am) for shortish periods of time–though I tend to do it to fit in long training runs rather than to work on my research. But my problem is I CANNOT go to bed at 9:00 (not because I’m not tired, but because my 12 year old son’s day is not over at that point–he has gymnastics until 9:00, and then he still needs to get something eat, often finish up homework, etc). So while getting to bed by 10:00-10:30 and getting up at 4:00 is OK for a while, eventually the sleep deprivation outweighs the training benefits of the longer runs. I can imagine the same would be true of my capability for sustained thought if I tried to write at 4:00am.


  10. writing exposing the holes in one’s argument

    This is true in my (science) experience as well. Something that might not translate directly but for which I’m sure there is a parallel is starting the writing from a good set of illustrations (feature maps, plots of data, etc.) that tell the story.

    I find that I often can’t just sit down to do something very technical–like reading about a new methodology or reviewing a manuscript–without a creative warm up. That could be drafting illustrations for a project or a lecture, working on a personal art project, or the like. I can be struggling to focus on a really dense text, spend 30 minutes working on a poem or a drawing, and then go back to the original and get right into it.


  11. I’m with the group saying good for you for getting done what you got done. I think one lesson to be learned is that the time from beginning of term to midterm is exploitable for writing, and after midterm not so much. This has always been my experience when on full time duty. The other lesson is not losing touch: creating some kind of a schedule, regardless of how miniscule, to keep things moving means that the project moves forward relentlessly, if slowly. And it strikes me — chapter four and part of chapter 5? — you are getting close to the finish line if there is a 1,2, and 3 there as well.


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