How to Balance Multiple Writing Projects: Serial vs. Parallel Writing

Most academic writing projects take months, if not years.

Put your eggs all in one basket (like the book), or work only on projects from start to completion and you might not have much to show for your work in the end.

But split your attention too much bouncing from project to project and you might never finish anything.

So, in this post, I tell you the two main setups you can use to balance multiple projects: serial writing and parallel writing.

Which one works best for you will depend on how you work and how much time you have. I recommend you start with serial writing and focus on improving your overall productivity before then experimenting with parallel writing.

Serial Writing: Write One Project to Completion

Serial writing means focusing all of your writing energy on one project at a time.

Usually, you work on that project for multiple weeks in a row until it is complete or until you must abandon it to meet another upcoming deadline.

Who Should Write Serially?

If you have not yet established a daily writing routine (writing 1h or more most days) and a weekly writing review, you should definitely stick to writing serially for now.

Or, if you have less than one hour to write per day, you should stick with serial writing. Trying to split your attention between multiple projects can cause too much project-switching overhead.

Advantages to Serial Writing

  • By focusing all your writing energy on one project at a time, you concentrate your mental bandwidth.

Disadvantages to Serial Writing

  • Requires good project prioritizing skills. Writers with less developed prioritizing skills might feel like they’re running from project to project haphazardly.
  • Longer-term projects like academic books will have to be interrupted several times.
  • Can give the impression of slower progress.

How to Write Well, Serially

Writing serially requires good project management skills and the ability to prioritize projects well.

Your goal will be to minimize the number of times you have to interrupt a project on the way to finishing it. So, you will plan your priorities in 3-month blocks.

Prioritizing Projects

First, mark your calendar with conference proposal due dates in the next 3-6 months. Block off at least one week for abstract preparation in advance.

Next, mark any non-negotiable deadlines in the next 3 months (conference presentations or article due dates). If you have such deadlines, I highly recommend that you begin working on those projects now. Once you finish, you can move on to another project.

If you have no projects with non-negotiable deadlines in the next 3 months, you will need to choose to:

  • prioritize the article or chapter that is closest to submission [best if you need more publications quickly]
  • work on the article or chapter that you are currently most passionate about
  • focus on the part of your book article or chapter that has the most to draft [best if you need your book for tenure]

Working Serially

As mentioned above, the goal is to work for multiple weeks (Belcher’s book is called Writing your Journal Article in 12 Weeks for a Reason) on one project until it’s finished.

Of course, you won’t always be able to finish every project without interruptions.

If you must switch projects–if, for instance, you receive a “revise and resubmit” decision with a tight deadline–I recommend that you always package up your current project so that it’s easier to pick it back up when you come back to it.

Parallel Writing: Working on Multiple Projects at the Same Time

Parallel writing, as opposed to serial writing, means intentionally working on multiple projects at the same time.

This is the strategy that I found worked the best for me when I was writing my first book because it allows me to make continual progress on my book (an extremely long-term project) while still finishing conference papers and articles at the same time.

Who Should Try Parallel Writing?

If you have more than one hour per day to write and already write most days, you should consider trying parallel writing to see if it works for you. It’s not recommended for people with less writing time per day because you risk losing too much time and focus switching projects so often.

Advantages to Parallel Writing

  • I found that it more naturally fits the unpredictable nature of academic deadlines.
  • In my view, it seems to better track with the need to regularly produce new writing and to submit finished pieces.
  • It can also help authors establish and maintain forward momentum on extremely long-term projects like books while simultaneously publishing and presenting shorter pieces.
  • Switching projects can help prevent “burnout” or mental fatigue on any one project.

Disadvantages to Parallel Writing

  • You risk spreading your mental energy too thin.
  • Switching projects (or “task switching”) depletes some of your focus.

How to Set up Parallel Writing

In my formulation, parallel writing means working each day on two different writing projects, during two different writing sessions.

Here’s how I set it up.

First Writing Session (1-2 h) in the morning : Drafting Project

My first writing session was always devoted to what I termed my current drafting project. This was always the next piece of new prose that I had to produce, usually a conference paper (that I planned to expand into an article or book chapter).

This session was devoted to generative writing, close readings, and getting words down on the page. I usually saved reading for later in the day, but sometimes read during this time if absolutely necessary.

Usually I worked on the drafting project for multiple weeks in a row until it was done. This ensured that I was always producing new writing.

Second Writing Session (1-2h) sometimes morning, sometimes afternoon: Revising/Urgent Project

During my second writing session I focused one of two types of projects. Either I worked on the next most urgent project (like whenever I got “revise and resubmit” decisions) or needed to write a conference abstract. Alternatively, I also used this slot to revise dissertation chapters into their book counterparts, or to expand and revise conference papers.

Usually I worked on these revising projects for multiple weeks in a row until they were done, unless another revising project became more urgent. This ensured that I was always finishing projects.

In my weekly writing review, I always set product-focused weekly goals, and tracked my progress for both my drafting and my revising projects.

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