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Featured Member Julie Peterson Combs – Embracing an imperfect writing practice: Ebb and flow, organization & persistence

Julie Peterson Combs is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University. In addition to maintaining an active research agenda, she has written over 84 journal articles, seven book chapters, and co-authored four books including The Trust Factor: Strategies for School Leaders (Routledge).

Here Julie talks about the evolution of her writing practice and how ebb and flow and persistence can win the day.

TAA: With two decades of academic writing experience, how has your writing practice evolved and what have you learned?

Julie Combs (JC): After almost 20 years as an academic author, writing instructor, and dissertation advisor, one might assume that I have a consistent writing practice where I write every day. Although I do continue to produce manuscripts regularly, I find that my writing practice has an ebb and flow. Sometimes it feels like a dance: two steps forward and one step back with a lot of water breaks in between. I know there are those who practice and benefit from a regimented writing practice, but I confess, I am not one of them. My practice is, I’ll say, “less regulated”, but my persistence helps me find my way back to “beginning again.”

TAA: Using the “ebb and flow” method you mentioned, what types of strategies do you use to keep your projects moving?

JC: One thing I know about myself is that I’ll keep showing up for the things I value, and when I get off track, I find my way back by doing the following:

1) Review my next steps

Maybe I can’t see the entire picture or all the details for the project, but do I have the “next 20 feet” figured out? Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird uses many metaphors to help writers understand the struggles, the insanity, and the ways to find our way back. She compares writing to driving a car at night. The headlights show us the next few feet. A few feet is all we need to see to drive—and to write. The metaphor of driving at night with headlights reminds me to not get too far ahead of myself (which tends to bring on the overwhelm). In writing, I like to use a concept map.  And as I move along, I ask myself what is the next turn ahead? Focusing on the next simple step is what keeps me moving forward.

2) Schedule weekly writing sessions

As simple as this is, if I don’t schedule weekly times, I may go days or even weeks without writing. Let’s face it, life happens, and between the emails, the students, office time, and personal commitments, the calendar fills up pretty quickly.

Writing is like one of those Quadrant 2 activities, introduced by Stephen Covey many years ago in his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When discussing how we use our time, he grouped activities by their importance and urgency. Quadrant 2 activities are those that ARE important but NOT urgent, and most of my writing practice fits into this category. On the other hand, Quadrant 1 activities find their way onto our daily tasks lists, those that are both urgent AND important. Covey noted that to be effective, we need to find more time for the Quadrant 2 activities. I use his concept as a tool to evaluate the use of my time (and my perception of what is truly urgent).

I have decided that if writing is important to me, it should rate high on my task list and it deserves space in my calendar. My best practice is to designate Sunday evenings as the time to plan the coming week and to schedule time for writing. I have found that scheduling also helps with the anxiety related to “will I get everything finished?” By scheduling, I am more likely to keep these commitments.

3) Be realistic about the time I can dedicate to writing

This strategy is important because I can be unrealistic about how much time I can give to writing. I might have the intention to spend several hours writing, but when I review the schedule, I see that 30 minutes, 3 times a week is what is realistic. Allowing for “white space” or unscheduled time in a daily or weekly schedule is another important practice. Just like the margins of a page, we need white space to help with the sick dog, the aging parent, or the flat tire. I find that my stress level seems to correlate with the amount of white space I allow. Being more realistic with my scheduling helps me be less stressed and more productive.

TAA: Do you use any tools to help you stay organized and productive?

JC: I have tried many tools; some were time-consuming and delayed my writing. Now, I try to use the simplest tool to accomplish the task, which could be a Word document or paper and pen. To keep my research organized, I used Mendeley, a free software that works with a cloud server across platforms. Some people collect stamps; I collect research papers and Mendeley helps me keep them in order. I can keep track of the articles I have read, star my favorites, store notes, and find the reference information in one place. I have been building these collections over several years, which helps with continuity with a topic. Another helpful feature is the suggest tool where Mendeley sends me recommendations based on the articles I have collected.

TAA: What’s your take on writing accountability partners and writing groups?

JC: Yes and Yes! I have a writing partner who I check in with each Friday by text. Each week, we share our goals (e.g., write 3 times this week). I also use a writing log to track my practice. For the last several years, I have recorded the session date, time, and description at the end of each session. Most importantly, I indicate what my next step is for the next session. That practice has saved me time and helped answer that dreaded question of “where do I start?”

Having tried many different groups, I like “parallel writing” where others are in the same room and we are working on our separate projects. I find a sense of community in witnessing the labor and the ups and downs of the writing process.

Another great writing community is TAA. I value the resources like the newsletters and webinars, and of course the interactions with members. I have attended the TAA conference for the past several years and it is my most favorite conference of all that I attend as an academic! TAA is a “first class” organization that provides a space for learning about writing, publishing, and mentoring others.