Professors and aspiring writers who know I have authored or co-authored over thirty books and many smaller pieces often ask me, “How do you do it?” I am always glad to share my thoughts on this subject, particularly with those who are struggling to get their career started at a time when they are preparing new course materials and doing committee work—often in the context of a young family. To them (as it was to me at the beginning of my career in the late 1970s and early 80s), it seems like an impossible task. On some days, it’s difficult to find time to eat and sleep.
I remember early on trying my best to find time for research and writing. I did the four-hours-of-sleep-a-night approach. That didn’t work long. I know some people for whom that supposedly works and, at least among my acquaintances, after talking to them for a brief time I realize they actually do need to sleep more!
I’m thankful not only that my wife insisted I sleep rather than write, but also that she did not let me get away with shirking on family time. So how have I managed to find time to write over a hundred thousand words of published material a year? (Yes, I count and keep records of words. More on that below).
Well, the first bit of advice I give my colleagues is that, if you want to be a successful and productive writer, you must give up the myth that you will ever find a large block of time to write. You have to learn how to write in the gaps.
My day is similar to that of other teachers; it’s filled with classes, committee meetings, student appointments, emails, and on and on. There are no large blocks of time in my schedule during the academic year. Things get better during the summer, but summer is short and doesn’t provide sufficient time for writing. In any case, I notice some of my colleagues understandably want to rest, fix up the house, be with family, take vacations and the like. It is hard to kickstart research and writing, dig into the material, and make significant progress over the summer.
The solution to my dilemma was to learn to write in the gaps of time. When I may have thirty-five minutes between a class and a committee meeting, I have a choice to make. I can decide that it’s too short a time to write and go talk to someone in the hall (and sometimes it’s important to do that to develop friendships and collegiality!), or I can sit down and make progress on a project. Over the years I have decided most often to do the latter. To make a little bit of progress, maybe even write one hundred words on some days, is better than making no progress.
I count words and set weekly goals (depending on the week). My literary hero is Anthony Trollope, a prolific novelist from nineteenth-century Britain. He worked for the General Post Office, but he had very definite writing goals each day. I imagine he set these goals for the same reason I do: to provide motivation and bring discipline to the act of writing. Another benefit of writing a set amount every day in the gaps—rather than in large blocks of time that might be separated by many days—is that it’s easier to keep continuity and reduce the time necessary to start writing. Since relatively short periods of time separate my gaps, I can pretty much sit down and start writing.
Of course, not everyone is the same. But I hope this short bit of advice (629 words!) is helpful to others who desire to broaden their teaching ministry by writing.
This article first appeared in Didaktikos, the journal of theological education. Didaktikos is a professor-to-professor journal that covers important advances in theological education in a user-friendly format.