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How I work the 12 steps of Publish & Flourish: An interview with Tara Gray

Tara Gray
Tara Gray

Tara Gray, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Criminal Justice and founding director of the Teaching Academy at New Mexico State University. She has published more than 30 articles and three books including Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar.

Here Gray discusses how she incorporates her 12 steps to Publish & Flourish into her own writing process.

TAA: What is your approach to writing?

Tara Gray: “I try to write every day of the year, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays included, but I would say I average writing six days a week year-round. Sometimes I feel discouraged because I’m not as successful at writing daily as some of the writers who wrote books emphasizing writing daily. For example, former TAA member, the late Frank Silverman, rarely missed a day of writing for any reason whatsoever. In contrast, I have written daily for only ten years. Nonetheless, as the years go by, I’m becoming more committed to writing daily.

Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific ScholarI write at home in the early mornings to face the day with confidence and to minimize interruptions. By writing first, I can go to campus confident that one third of my workday is behind me. The interruptions I do face at home are almost all internal, and my best way of keeping them at bay is to know that I have duly noted my beginning writing time on my writing log. It’s like a ritual for me. Once I have noted the time I started writing on the log, I know that this is my time for writing, not for emailing or for anything else.

I believe strongly in accountability, so on Sundays, I write a note to my sponsor (accountability partner) explaining how many days and minutes I have written and exercised in the past week. There is something essential about keeping records and sharing them with someone. It’s what keeps me on track.”

TAA: How do you choose your writing projects?

TG: “I write from the first day of my research projects. When I first begin thinking about a topic, I get out my computer and start free writing. Then I choose between topics by comparing my free writing on one topic to the free writing on another. By having something on paper, I am also able to move forward with my writing because, once something is written, it’s much easier to criticize, revise, and ratchet it up to the next level. The ‘something’ that I have on paper is likely to be PowerPoint™ slides. You may find this technique useful as well. You might create a simple set of PowerPoint™ slides and then write a paper from it. Of course, this is not too different from working from an outline, except it really encourages you to say your ideas out loud before writing them down, which can be enormously helpful.”

TAA: Do you have any tips for how to organize your thoughts and strategize your writing time?

TG: “I divide my writing time into about three five minute time slots. I spend the first five minutes reading the paragraph(s) that I wrote the day before and making revisions. Then I move on to writing new prose. I insist that I write at least one line, but preferably one paragraph. This takes another five minutes or so. In the last five minutes, I revise what I have written.

I organize each paragraph around a key or topic sentence. I don’t know why my paragraphs were so incoherent before I used key sentences, but they were. Key sentences brought my paragraphs into focus; more important, they brought my thinking into focus. I had always tried to be organized by keeping outlines. In these outlines I synthesized the essence of each paragraph. But the outlines were a private thing; my reader wasn’t privy to those outlines. Putting my key points in key sentences made my outlines accessible to my reader.

Next, I line up my key sentences to make an after-the-fact outline. I go through the after-the-fact outline carefully, checking first for purpose and audience. Does every sentence help me convey the purpose to the audience? Next, I check for organization, by which I mean logic and coherence. Have I said something half way twice instead of saying it once and referring back to it as necessary? Are my ideas ordered in the most logical way? Are they coherent? Do the paragraphs stick together as well as is possible? I spend a lot of time with this step and see a huge payoff in my writing.”

TAA: Do you elicit input from others, and if so, how do you respond to comments?

TG: “I share my work with every manner of expert, including non-experts. Over a period of thirty months, I shared this book with a half-dozen of each of the following: writing groups (non-experts), experts, and Experts. For an ordinary academic article, I would share with only three or so people in each category. People remark most on my sharing of my manuscripts with Capital-E Experts. I go straight to the top. I invite the people whom I respect the most–on my side of the debate and on the other side–to read my work. I learn a lot from both groups

I try to listen well, without being defensive. I use different techniques depending on whether I’m ‘listening’ to someone talk or to someone’s email. When listening to someone talk, I take notes right when I would like to disagree. I force myself to get a record of what the person is saying so that I will be able to distill the essence of it later when I am usually less defensive. When listening to someone by email, I write down what I would like to say to them, which is usually me explaining myself better than I did on paper. Instead of emailing this to the critic, I put it in my paper.

I also try to respond to every specific comment. I sometimes set aside a comment because I don’t understand how to respond to it or I am resisting it. I have a vague sense that the reader is probably right about something, but I don’t know what to do about it or I think I have a better reason for leaving it the way it is. Later on someone will say something similar, and I realize that I should have made the change sooner. So I’m not as good at making a response to every specific comment as I could be. I should probably ask more questions of my readers until I understand more and can see yet a third way that accommodates my reason for how it is as well as the reader’s reason for a change.

I read my work out loud–or listen to it read out loud to me before sending it off. This step reduces my verbiage a lot and gives me a different window to my work. Personally I like having my work read out loud to me while I follow along. Involving someone else in this step makes this a much better experience because I learn from this important step, as I always did, but now I enjoy it more, too.”

TAA: Can you share some insight into your project submission process?

TG: “I know before I send a manuscript off that if it comes back rejected, I will send it off again, and where. So I have my next move in mind as a way of being prepared for rejection.

Before sending a manuscript out for review, I query the editor of the journal I want to send it to. It’s invaluable. Sometimes I am rejected, but sometimes I am encouraged to submit the article and then I have much more confidence that it will be accepted. Querying editors has reduced the stress of publishing a lot for me.

I do eventually kick every manuscript out the door. Only three times in my life have I decided against sending something forward. Even in these instances, I decided against it rather than procrastinating it. I decided that the works had fatal flaws and that my time would be better spent on other projects. In all three cases, I still think I was right. So I don’t have any unfinished projects waiting to be finished. I do have a few ideas that I have not started seriously yet.

When it comes time to send something off, I do hesitate because I feel scared. But I remind myself of a definition of courage I once heard. Courage means you’re scared, but you do it anyway. So I’m scared, but I kick it out the door!”

TAA: What is your favorite TAA benefit?

TG: “My favorite TAA benefit is The Academic Author, of which I am an avid reader.”

Tara Gray has presented TAA-sponsored workshops on Publish & Flourish since 1998. To date, she has given this workshop to 5,000 participants in more than thirty of the United States, and in Mexico, Guatemala, and Saudi Arabia. Learn more about Tara’s TAA-sponsored workshop, Publish & Flourish.