Planning Writing Like You Plan Your Syllabus
Steps to Creating a Writing Plan for the Semester
Ever notice how "I don't feel like teaching today" doesn’t get us out of work like "I don't feel like writing today”?
Writing is often one of the tasks we procrastinate because it doesn’t have the same built-in accountability like other things we do on a regular basis. If my class meets every MWF at 11am, then I have to be prepared to teach each day. I am accountable to my students to show up at regular, scheduled intervals. I cannot say “I’m not quite ready to teach today, so I will do it tomorrow instead.”
Writing, especially for those of us who primarily write individually, doesn’t have the same rigid schedule, so it’s easy to punt to the next day or the next week if something else seems more pressing. Teaching often feels much more urgent and important in the moment because we are accountable to many people multiple times a week.
Today’s post offers some strategies for tackling this upcoming semester in similar ways that you would prepare to teach a course. That course needs a syllabus and weekly work to run and your writing also needs objectives and a plan that you work on each week.
My key point today: if you don’t approach writing with the same level of organization and planning as you do your syllabus, how can you expect to meet your writing objectives by the end of the semester?
Let’s begin by considering the planning one undergoes to teach a new course. Typically you design a syllabus and create objectives for that course that you want to meet over the course of the semester. You think about the overall scope of the course and where you want students to land at the end.
Many of us don’t approach our writing projects with the same sense of purpose and objectives at the beginning of a term. We may only have loosely formed ideas of what we want to achieve in the next few months.
So, a simple strategy is to think of beginning your writing for the semester like you would a course. What would you like to achieve by the end of the semester? What projects have you committed to with particular deadlines? What conferences or grants do you want to apply for? What conference papers do you have lying around that you’d like to turn into articles?
2. Topics and Due Dates
When designing a syllabus, the typical next step is to start making plans for each week of the semester. What topics will be covered any given week? What readings will be included and what assignments are due when?
Similarly, you take a look at the objective list you made and begin thinking about how to plug these projects into particular weeks in the semester. When are those grant and conference deadlines? When did you commit to that book chapter being finished?
At this point, many of us are overly ambitious with what we’ll actually be able to do in a semester. Like planning for classes, we cannot actually teach/do everything that we feel is important. Instead, we have to be realistic with our students and our writer selves and begin taking things off the objectives that just won’t fit.
Lesson Writing Planning
Most of us wait till the week we are teaching a particular lecture or facilitating a specific discussion/activity to prepare for that material in depth. We generally know the topic for the week because we put that in the syllabus, but the fine details usually must be worked out the week we are teaching them.
You can think about plotting weekly writing tasks the same way. Imagine this week you know that you are doing a literature review. So, you plot out when you’re going to read and take notes, when you are going to brainstorm around connections between threads of literature, and when you are going to draft that lit review. Each task builds on one another in a similar way that you would design a syllabus full of content.
The key at this stage is that you guard your time for writing related tasks with the same priority that you would give your class meeting time. If writing isn’t prioritized with the same sense of necessity for showing up, then it’s easy to talk ourselves out of writing because other things come up that seem more important in the moment.
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Accountability is probably the hardest step in making a writing plan and sticking with it. For teaching, we have dozens of people that we are accountable to each work week. Our students show up and expect to learn, so we show up too.
Academics are notorious for turning projects in late because we are only accountable to one deadline, not to the weekly writing that must occur to turn the project in on time. No one is showing up with us each week to make sure we are writing.
This is why so many of us find writing groups helpful because we need others to be accountable to. So, find a buddy, a trusted pal, or a group of colleagues that you need to show up for each week. It can be as easy as texting one another that you are meeting your weekly writing times or scheduling Zoom meetings to write at the same time.
Other forms of accountability could be giving yourself a reward for each time you meet a writing goal. Let’s say you really enjoy watching The Great British Baking Show. You decide that you need to meet a word count goal before watching the next episode.
5. Revisions to the Plan
The last step to executing a writing plan like you would a course syllabus is one of the most important ones. Like the caveat, “this syllabus is subject to revisions,” tell yourself up front that this plan is not final and that if you don’t meet your timelines, it doesn’t mean you failed and have to throw out the plan all together. The writing plan is not a document that's set in stone; rather, it’s an interactive process that helps you learn how you work and how long things take you so that you can better account for your time in the future. Your writing plan is a Google Doc not a PDF.
When I first started making semester plans and attempting to stay accountable to my objectives and weekly timelines, I found it quite challenging. The central issue is that I was unsure how long particular writing tasks took and I often grossly underestimated how much time each major component of a chapter or article would need.
This is normal. The more you make semester writing plans and adjust them as you go, the more you will learn about your pace for writing and how long things take.
Think of your writing plan as a living breathing thing that needs watering, soil turn over, and fertilizer to grow. You can’t just plop it in the ground and expect it to flourish without regular maintenance. Tend to your plan regularly and make adjustments as needed.
Plus, life can often get in the way of best laid plans. One semester I had to re-work my syllabus three times because of a major weather event and pandemic related revisions to class meeting modes. At no point did I throw out the syllabus all together, but I was kind to myself and my students and took things off the to-do list as needed.
You will likely have to re-work your writing plan a few times during a semester, but you’ll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish with a plan than without one.
I would like to give a shout out to NCFDD for their webinar “Every Semester Needs A Plan” that I took some years ago. Much of this advice stemmed from that fabulous workshop and I’ve adapted and used it since. I talk more about NCFDD in this post.
I want to hear from YOU! How do you plan for writing? What is particularly challenging about planning and meeting your goals? Comment below!
Yes! I love this syllabus idea. Starting with outcomes and then working backwards to define the tasks that are necessary to achieve them; but also laying that out in the week-by-week syllabus format and being realistic about how long the items will take... this seems like a really effective approach for making a writing plan! Thank you so much
Amen--so hard to stick it, especially as admin duties stack up. But wish I started doing this years ago.