How to Put an Academic Writing Project on Hold: 3 Steps to Avoid Future Stress and Wasted Time

How many times has this happened to you? You have been working on an article for months, and are just finally getting “on a roll.” Things are clicking in a way that they haven’t before, and you’re excited to get your new thoughts down on paper. You’re chugging along.

And then it happens.

The form it takes is always different. Maybe you realize that you must start working on your upcoming conference paper or else you will literally not have anything to present. Or maybe you leave for a planned family vacation. Perhaps you get sick and can’t work for a week.

But the result is always the same: you come back to the project–whether after weeks or years–and nothing is clear anymore. You spend days–if not weeks–just rereading your old writing, and thinking, “where was I going with this?” “Why did I talk about X and not Y?” “What was I thinking here?”

You spend weeks getting reacquainted with your project and building back up the momentum, focus, and direction you had when the interruption struck. I call this reinitiation overhead.

Our humanities writing projects take months, if not years. We are constantly juggling our priorities, putting some projects “on hold” to meet other, more pressing deadlines.

We can’t always control the fact that we must sometimes put projects “on hold.” But we can deliberately package our projects up to significantly reduce our reinitiation overhead.

Here’s how to do it.

Capture the Project’s Direction, All Major Decisions You’ve Made, and WHY

Remember that you are immersed in your writing project right now. The decisions you have made–where you’re going, why you’ve structured your project the way you did, why you chose to talk about X and not Y all seem very obvious.

But you should assume that your future self will have forgotten it all–not just the decisions you’ve made, but also the fact that you considered many options before settling on one you thought was best. In short, your future self will forget not just your decisions, but also the reasons you had for making them.

Why spend time re-making decisions you’ve already made?

So, before you put a project “on hold,” first, you need to document where your project is going. In my dissertation to book boot camp, I teach the “Tour Guide Model,” and call the direction your writing project is heading “the path.” Before you lose touch with your project you need to write down the path so that your future self can come back to your project and know where it is going.

Second, much of the work defining your writing project’s “path”–as any of you who have worked with me know–involves eliminating other possible paths your project can take. There are always hundreds of paths you could take to explore any given topic in writing, but there are only a few paths that do service to what you’re trying to do in your project. Setting a path takes a lot of time and energy–time you do not want to duplicate when you come back to your project. So, now is the time to document all major decisions you’ve made–and your thinking behind them–in as much detail as possible.

Questions to Guide You in Documenting “the Path” and the Decisions You’ve Made:

  1. Where is this project going, ultimately? What is your “path” and how does each section fit in? (Write out a description of what each of the sections will do).
  2. Why did you structure it this way? (What other possible structures did you consider and reject? Why?)
  3. Why have you selected this corpus? (What other works did you consider including and reject? Why?)
  4. Why do you use this methodology/analytical framework? (You can do this at the article/chapter level or at the level of individual works).

Take Stock of What you Have, Organize It, and Create Cover Sheets

One of my biggest frustrations with coming back to a project is not being able to find all the material I know I have. 

Even though I use Scrivener for most of my writing, my projects are usually spread across multiple files and documents–including handwritten notes.

One of the simplest things you can do for yourself to save pain and frustration is to give yourself an easy way to get your hands on everything when you come back.

This is what I do:

  1. Create a note of the digital file names of the project’s major documents (including folders, if necessary) in my tracking log.
  2. Create a document in my Scrivener binder that documents my “overall state of the paper.” I have found that when I come back to a project, sometimes I don’t even remember what I have.Scrivener Put a Project on hold
  3. Reread and organize my handwritten notes. I usually staple them all in one packet (right now I prefer to write on unlined printer paper). Then, I add a new “packet” page number. Finally, I create a cover sheet similar to my “state of the paper” document. I treat my cover page as a letter to my future self in which I tell myself what is in the packet of notes. This means that I can quickly get my hands on what I need.

Give Yourself Concrete, Actionable Next Steps that Involve Quickly Getting Yourself Back up to Speed (Project-level Closing Routine)

Finally, think of putting a project on hold as a project-level closing routine. Closing routines have two key elements: the time you will return to the project and the next step you will take. Even if you don’t know when you’ll be able to return to your project, you still want to give yourself next steps.

Your first next step should always involve rereading your writing to get back up to speed on your project. Then, you want to give yourself concrete action steps to take toward completing the paper. I usually write out about a week’s worth of action steps.

I will usually give myself action steps that look like this:

  1. Open all documents listed in my tracking spreadsheet.
  2. Reread my “state of the paper” Scrivener document. (Reacquainting, project-level)
  3. Look over my notes on where the project is headed and the major decisions I’ve made. (Reacquainting, project-level)
  4. Reread section 3 of my paper. (Reacquainting, section-level)
  5. Reread pp. 7-16 of my handwritten packet to reacquaint myself with the novel’s main themes. (Reacquainting, section-level; transitioning to writing)
  6. Close read quote p. 34 of novel through the lens of X. (Writing)
  7. Close read quote p. 86 through lens of Y. (Writing)
  8. Write paragraph comparing novel A to novel B.

Your Turn

What of the strategies above do you already use to package your projects up before putting them “on hold”? Which one will you try? Or, what questions do you have about when and how to reduce reinitiation overhead? Ask me in the comments below or by email.

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