Writing a Book While Teaching (and teaching, and teaching, and teaching….) (A Guest Post)

[Please note that Dr. Karen is on summer holiday June 15-July 15 and not posting to the blog during that time.  This guest post will be the only post during that time.  See you in July!]

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 Mary Flannery responded with this account of writing a book while teaching a heavy schedule. (Her bio is below).  Thank you, Mary, for this inspiring guest post!  For the previous two guest posts on this subject to which Mary refers in this post, please look here and here.


When you’re dealing with a heavy teaching load, publishing a book can seem impossible.  This is especially the case when it’s your first book, the one that is supposed to get you recognition, tenure, or your next job.

My first full-time teaching post came with a 4:3 teaching load (minimum), new teaching formats, and lots of administrative responsibilities.  When I started, I thought that something as substantial as book writing could only happen outside of the school year, when I was able to set aside a large block of days (or weeks) to retreat to the peace and quiet of a library, immerse myself in literature, think deep thoughts, and wait for inspiration to strike.  Only in these idyllic conditions, I thought, could I possibly write The Book.

Five years have passed, and I’m now in a new post with a lighter teaching load.  But by the time I concluded my first four-year post, I managed to publish my first monograph and an edited essay collection.  In addition to discovering some of the excellent strategies outlined by Steven Engler and Katherine Vukadin, I discovered that how productive you are can depend a lot on how you think about research and writing.  While the below rules of thumb will probably seem self-evident to many, they certainly weren’t self-evident to me in the beginning, and I still find them useful now.

1. Don’t only research/write/revise outside of the semester.

Once I began teaching full-time, I couldn’t understand how anybody with a full teaching load could possibly get any writing done in the middle of the semester.  Eventually, I discovered that my most productive colleagues found ways to use whatever scraps of spare time they had to conduct research and writing in small bursts, whether it was between meetings, before or after class, or on the one day of the week when they didn’t teach.  The conditions weren’t ideal, but they made steady progress on their various writing projects.

It’s easy to be a bit precious about research and writing–I know I was.  But after I started to use scraps of time to accomplish small tasks (fetching books from the library, reading an article, drawing up an outline, brainstorming, or asking someone to read what writing I’d done), I found I was chipping away at what had previously seemed a massive and unmanageable project.

2. Be selfish.

By that I mean defend your research time as much as you can.  This can be tough to do as an adjunct, or if you’re working your way towards tenure.  But in many situations, you can negotiate a little, if you time it well and phrase your requests diplomatically.  In this respect, I was very lucky.  Even though I was on a fixed-term teaching contract, my department was relatively humane.  So when, ahead of my final year, I politely pointed out how much I had contributed to the department over my first three years and asked for a slightly adjusted teaching/admin load so that I could finish the books that might get me my next job, my colleagues were receptive.  I managed to reduce my load to 3:2, and did not take on any new courses or administrative roles.

If your situation permits, try a little gentle negotiation: politely recount your contributions to your institution, and then see whether there is any wiggle room.  Depending on your working environment, pointing out that you need to publish–to get tenure, to get the next job, or to help with external research reviews–can work, especially if you emphasize that you are looking for ways to manage your time so that you can contribute to the department in terms of research.  (If you’re planning ahead, you can even offer to take on a little bit extra now if the department would be willing to lighten your load in the future.)

3. Prioritize/be strategic.

Towards the end of my first teaching contract, getting the book done became the only thing that mattered.  I was facing potential unemployment and the likelihood that, without a job and a visa, I would have to leave the country that had been my home for ten years. I knew that the only way I would have a shot at a job would be if I was able to apply with books in hand.

As Steven has pointed out, when the book becomes your top professional priority, it’s important to be strategic about your research.  That may mean sometimes delaying or saying ‘no’ to other research or publishing opportunities.  That’s ok.

It’s also important to teach strategically.  Whenever possible, teach stuff you’ve already taught before.  Teach multiple groups of the same class.  Try not to take on anything totally new.  All of this will help to minimize teaching preparation and adapting while you’re trying to work on the book.

4. Learn to like deadlines.

It’s hard to like deadlines, especially during the teaching year.  But in the same way that using scraps of time can help you inch forward, setting frequent deadlines for yourself–even during term-time–helps you progress in a measurable fashion.  Some deadlines will be set by publishers or colleagues, some you’ll set for yourself, and some will be set by other events in your life (for example, I’ve found that a family holiday can function as a deadline: getting the work done beforehand means that I can actually spend time with my family instead of hiding away with a laptop!).  But whatever form they take, deadlines are useful.  Yes, they may have to move a little bit on occasion, but they’re important for maintaining discipline.  Make a schedule for yourself and stick to it as best you can.

5. Give yourself permission to write badly (at first).

I find this one particularly easy to forget.  No matter how many lectures, essays, or conference papers I write, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the first words I put on the page must be precisely the right words, that the ideas must spring fully formed from my head and flow directly onto the page.

That never happens (at least, not to me).  And when it came to my first book, what was even more disheartening was the fact that I was revising a dissertation that, upon rereading, I absolutely loathed–so much of it struck me as dull, uninspired, and ungainly.  The thought of how much work it would take to turn it into anything resembling a book frequently made me want to abandon the project.  Eventually, only one thing convinced me to plod on: each time I arrived at a raw new section, I would remind myself that this was absolutely as bad as it was going to get.  No matter what I did to it, my revision would be an improvement over what was already there.

As I begin to embark on the task of writing my second monograph, I’m facing a whole new set of challenges.  But by learning to give myself permission to write a rough, sketchy, even incomplete first draft, I’m getting the worst (and hardest) bit out of the way.  After all, it can only get better from here!


Mary C. Flannery is a maître assistante (UK translation: lecturer; US translation: assistant professor) in medieval English literature at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.  She has held posts at Queen Mary, University of London, and at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  For more information, visit her website (www.marycflannery.com) or give her a tweet (@15thcgossipgirl).

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Writing a Book While Teaching (and teaching, and teaching, and teaching….) (A Guest Post) — 2 Comments

  1. One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird about her writing process. She has a whole chapter dedicated to the SFD, or Shitty First Draft. It’s been a huge comfort whenever I churn out some piece of crap that needs to be turned into an actual article/chapter/book/whathaveyou.

    LOVE #5.

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