How to Write a Book: Bandit Style

I recently announced signing a book contract for Media Marathoning: Immersions in Morality. This next blog post aims to help others tackle their daunting projects. I wanted to make the title of this post “How to Write a Book, as a Junior Faculty Member, at a Teaching School, with a Young Family: Bandit Style”–but that wouldn’t work with SEO.

Bandit style is a time management technique whose name came from my friend, Tricia. We both garden, and we both realized that we maintain our gardens not in hour-long stretches but in 10-20 minute spurts of speed planting, speed weeding, and speed harvesting. She called it bandit gardening. And I realized bandit style is my way of meeting many goals–including writing this book.

The essence of bandit style is finding small chunks of time that, when combined, allow you to accomplish something meaningful. The underlying principle is similar to the efforts of this runner who made over $8,000 picking up loose change over the years.

Bandit style was the only way for me to write a book given the time constraints listed in this post’s opener.

The publication process has been surprisingly quick, but the writing process was anything but. I benefited from reading the advice of academic bloggers, including Tanya Golash-Boza. Here are my nuggets of bandit wisdom for anyone tackling a book in a situation similar to mine.

stealing-time269

Love the project. I had the idea to study media marathoning several years before acting on it. The initial years of mulling the project over were like dating before getting engaged: I had to make sure I was committed before taking that leap. I ultimately decided that this was a project that needed to be written, and I had to write it. If I didn’t love the project, I could not have remained focused on finding these small chunks of time and using them productively.

Know when to hold ’em. In order to move the project forward, I had to eventually stop researching and interviewing and start writing. I stopped interviewing marathoners once I achieved discourse saturation. The research process isn’t linear, however. I stopped reading new sources for a time, but I periodically dip back into the library and databases to fill in holes. This month I will integrate even more scholarly sources based on peer feedback.

Set long- and short-term goals. The most successful bandits have well-laid plans. I had to put in a moderate amount of work for several days a week, every week, month, and year leading up to the creation of a finished manuscript. From the beginning of the project (in 2010), I used a “To-Do List” in Google docs that I consulted every work day.

Here’s one example of a 30-day schedule I mapped out:

Revision or Writing Goal Deadline
re-revise introduction (stopped at page 14–e-books) mid-February
Take notes on 24 Season 1 end of February
Finish revising Untenable Position chapter (intro and highlighted body section) Next week (2/24)
Finish conclusion draft end of March
Change everything to Chicago–eek! Spring break

My daily goals took these broader goals into consideration. Drawing from the list above, a daily goal might be anything from taking notes an an episode of 24 to re-working one paragraph, to writing a page. I did have some longer stretches (usually during winter, summer, or spring break) in which I could revise a full chapter or do another large chunk of work.

No matter what time management system you use, do your best to establish reasonable goals so you feel accomplished at the end of the day. Setting unrealistic goals can promote stultifying self-loathing.

Apply pressure. To encourage myself to meet my goals, I selected conferences to attend and subjected myself to their submission deadlines. I also created valuable social pressure by asking my peers and students to review drafts. I gave these readers a delivery date I was compelled to stick to. External pressure helped me be a more focused and calculating bandit.

“Discover” time. I had to think creatively about fitting this book project into my day. Teaching a class on media marathoning was the biggest leap in productivity: I was reading-to-teach and reading-to-write at the same time.

During semesters in which I wasn’t teaching media marathoning, I took notes on TV shows during my lunch breaks. I read half an article before heading to class and finished the article before leaving work that day. I wrote while proctoring exams. When I had to take notes on the Toy Story trilogy, I “stole” my kid’s TV time for that purpose. We watched the films together over the course of a week. I also read, wrote, and edited in the car while my husband drove us the six hours to our hometown for holidays and family visits.

Perhaps most importantly I maximized my productivity by analyzing my work patterns. I know that I read and write best in public spaces, so I camped out at the JCC coffee shop (conveniently located next to my kids’ day care) as often as I could.

Recruit accomplices. I could have taken longer to write a crappier book. Thankfully, I had friends, colleagues, mentors, students, and family who helped with research, resources, or feedback throughout the writing process. I hope to repay these many favors some day.

In sum, writing a book about marathoning was clearly not a marathon. Bandit-style writing involves transforming small chunks of productivity into a meaningful finished product. I hope these ideas help others feel optimistic about tackling their own daunting project.

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  1. Pingback: Marathoning and Mom Guilt | Media Marathoning

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