A reader wrote asking for a post on how to write a book while working at a teaching-intensive university. I put out a request for a guest post on the subject on Facebook, and Katherine Vukadin responded with this account of writing a book while teaching a heavy schedule and taking care of three young children at home. (Katherine’s bio is below). Thank you, Katherine, for this inspiring guest post!
“A book! We should write a book.” My colleague stood at my office doorway, her excitement irresistible. “A book of legal writing exercises–and answers.” The idea was a good one. At a previous law school, I had heard professors bemoan the lack of such a book. But how would we write it? We were assistant professors with just one or two years on the tenure track, we taught time-consuming legal writing courses, and we held committee assignments that seemed to expand by the day.
Home was demanding too. My kids were four, six, and eight at the time. My spouse worked long hours. Write a book? Surely not. And yet . . . the idea was a good one. Would such a window ever open again? “Yes! Yes, I’m in,” I heard myself say.
We spent the month of May grading papers and reading up on book proposals. Six months later we had a contract in hand, and fourteen months after that, the completed manuscript to Legal Analysis: 100 Exercises for Mastery. How did it happen? The process wasn’t perfect. The book isn’t perfect. But it’s done, we love it, and we survived. Our families are still with us. Your process may be different from ours; it may be better. Here, though, are a few thoughts on how we got it done.
Be passionate. Your book idea must excite you. It’s the book you looked for, but never found. It’s the thing you need to say. You will have to sell this idea, champion this idea, and sacrifice for it too, so make sure you believe in it and love it. Next, get fired up to write. For encouragement and non-nonsense tips, try Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeksand Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot.
Ask up front for as much time as you can. Our proposal gave us a year to write; our publisher sagely added a couple of months. Many times, I was so grateful for this. If you can get more time up front, ask for it.
Shrink what can be shrunk. Say “no” as never before. If asked to join a time-consuming committee, explain that this year, you can’t. Because you can’t. Contain your teaching obligations as much as possible. This is not the year to revamp your lectures. If your teaching is spread over five days, see if that can be tweaked before the semester begins. If higher-ups see that a simple schedule change can help you publish more, they may be receptive.
Schedule your writing time; be realistic. The most productive writers at my institution and the writers on writing seemed to hit a common theme: squeeze in writing time and don’t wait for the “perfect” time. This became my mantra too. I used Wendy Belcher’s scheduling forms http://wendybelcher.com/pages/WorkbookForms.htmand wrote a big picture goal in on a yearly planner. Each week had its own goal too, either in words (a goal of 2,000 words for a week for example) or in number of exercises. If life throws you an unexpected event (a sudden two-hour hunt for a lost blankie or an attack of lice that must be addressed NOW), you can make up your work on another day within that week without blowing your goal.
What about the children? It’s tricky, of course, to write with small children. I tried to make the absolute most of the days in December and May when my own classes were out, but the children were still in school. During that period, I wrote in the mornings and graded at night. When the kids were home, their down time or play time was my writing time. I also wrote most days from 8 p.m. until about 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. We allow video games on Saturday afternoons, so Saturdays became good writing days; we also started the popular Sunday Movie Outing with Dad. During the summer, the kids were in day camps about half the time, although camps can be pricey. When the children were home and bored or bickering with each other, I bribed, wheedled, and begged–let Mommy work for one hour, and then we’ll go to the park, get ice cream, etc.
At times, I felt guilty. But the kids still thrived. And the book had an unexpected positive side-effect. When my oldest, who had most noticed the writing process, saw the book, he was elated and so proud. He takes for granted that he can write a book when he wants to—because that’s just what people do. He’s seen it done. I had only considered the down side for the kids, but there is a huge up side too.
Know your limits and circumstances. We aimed to make just someprogress during the school year. We did not schedule any writing during the weeks that we conferenced with each one of our students, for example. But a summer alone may not be enough time to start and finish a large project. If you squeeze in some work during the year, you’ll be all set when summer hits.
Do something. If you can’t face the thought of writing on a given day, do some other task for your project. Read a source once again. Re-read what you’ve written. Or force yourself to write just fifty or a hundred words. Try one method Daniel Pink used in writing his bestseller Drive: sit down and make yourself write five hundred words before you do anything. And he means anything!
Bring it. Frustrated with lost time in car pool lines, doctors’ waiting rooms and the like? Bring along some small part of your project. Even a rough draft to read or an article to peruse can inspire you and keep you thinking. This probably won’t be your most focused work. But again, something is better than nothing and momentum counts.
Accept help. Help came in various forms. Friends and family read book sections; colleagues and former colleagues talked to us about writing and contracts; family and fellow moms offered help with school pickups. We gave our profound thanks, a grateful mention in our acknowledgements, and a rousing party when the book came out.
Billy Joel said in a recent interview that he loves having written but hates writing. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/magazine/billy-joel-on-not-working-and-not-giving-up-drinking.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 Writing is so hard, and so solitary, and so time-consuming. But when you dig deep, and your book comes out, you will love having written.
Katherine T. Vukadin is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. She was previously an associate at the law firm of Baker Botts L.L.P. She teaches, researches, and writes in the areas of law school pedagogy, legal writing pedagogy, and health care policy. Professor Vukadin received her J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law and her B.A. from the University of Houston.