Pro Tips for Busy Writers: Alex Stewart

Alex Stewart headshotTo this continuing series on “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome Alex Stewart, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands.

Alex and I met during our time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Alex has published sixteen articles or essays, written or co-authored five books, and begun a second PhD.

By this point in your career, you’ve likely worked on several writing projects concurrently (e.g., articles, books). What’s a memorable example of a cluster of projects you worked on concurrently?

There is always overlap with writing projects, revisions, etc. This is necessary because, even after you submit an article or book, there are several months before you receive feedback which often requires returning to the project to make changes.

The nature of the beast requires constantly bouncing back and forth between projects to see them to completion. I have been making progress on a second academic monograph in the background for the past five years or so while doing other articles and smaller books.

Concurrent projects slow down each of the individual projects but often benefit from synergism in the research.

Larger projects (e.g., a dissertation, a second monograph) can be more important but less urgent than others (e.g., conference papers, book reviews). How do you avoid letting good-but-less-important projects push out or cause you to procrastinate on those that are more important but less urgent?

This is not easy. Before giving my main strategy, I want to mention two practices which slow down larger projects but are worth it. They both provide short-term loss but long-term gain.

1. Book Reviews

First, despite what many people say, I have greatly benefited from doing book reviews. I have averaged 3–4 book reviews a semester for various journals over the past several years.

These require time, but the semesters are often so busy with teaching, advising, and other administrative duties that they are more conducive to one-off book reviews.

It is sometimes easier to squeeze in reading and writing a book review during an otherwise full week than to get the time and mental energy to make progress on a difficult or demanding larger project.

The benefits are tremendous. I keep more up to speed with recent work in my field and in related areas.

I try not to review books too far removed (due to lack of competence) but often dabble in related areas of interest. In particular, when I know I will be working on a topic in the next 6 to 12 months, I request related books to review in advance.

As you develop relationships with book review editors, you will often be able to ask for specific books.

Finally, although book reviews do not contribute to tenure or promotion, they make a significant contribution to the field.

Sometimes I regret requesting a particular book. But more often than not, I gain new perspectives and insights that I would have missed if I had just been reading and researching for the next writing project.

2. Reading Groups

Second, I began a Greek reading group with students when I first started teaching at Tyndale Theological Seminary. This group has met from 8:30–9:00 am Monday through Friday every week during the semesters for the past seven years. I also started and ran a half-hour Hebrew Bible and LXX reading group for a year and a half.

Students who regularly participate make tremendous progress, but I have benefited the most from this practice. I am convinced that genuine competence comes from the daily and automatic habits that shape our lives and productivity.

Sometimes I match the reading with projects (e.g., we read Revelation this past semester because I am working on several concurrent projects on Revelation this year). But even apart from that, regularly reading and translating the primary sources builds a deep well of competence over time.

3. Long-term Strategy

Both of these practices (lots of book reviews and regular and extensive time reading Greek and Hebrew) don’t directly help immediate projects and often slow them down. They are a short-term loss.

The long-term benefits, however, are incredible and hard to quantify (or at least that’s what I will keep telling myself).

The best strategy I have used for making progress on long-term projects came from the academic dean who recruited me for Tyndale, Drake Williams. He encouraged me to outline the next academic monograph and then seek to fill in the sections with conference presentations over time. This could take years but would eventually lead to a completed monograph.

Every January, I consider the various conferences for the year in the U.S. and Europe and send out proposals related to sections in the next long-term major book (in my case, my second academic monograph). Between ETS, IBR, SBL, the Vrije Universiteit NT Seminar, and an annual summer conference at KU Leuven, I normally send off 4–6 paper proposals annually and end up presenting 3–5 papers a year.

Most of these papers are strategically related to the long-term project, although some end up being one-off articles. These accepted proposals then become a part of my research agenda for the year.

The final paper doesn’t always exactly fit the major project, and I end up publishing it on its own. But it still helped build the research foundation for the larger project.

When you’ve worked on multiple projects concurrently, what processes, principles, or practices have you used to be sure you’re making good progress on all fronts?

The closest deadline gets all the attention. It is about that simple.

The other key has to do with summer and winter breaks. Everyone has different responsibilities and priorities, but I make most of my research and writing progress between semesters.

We take a normal family vacation. But aside from that, I treat school breaks as normal workdays and will be in the office 8:00–5:00 Monday through Friday researching and writing. I don’t know if this is an early career versus late career thing, but it has been the key to my research output.

I remember my first summer as a teacher when I didn’t have any projects with deadlines to work on. I still came in every day and read through and took notes on most of Charlesworth’s two-volume Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

Research and writing productively simply takes time and hard work. If you treat school breaks as normal work weeks you will make significant progress over time.

Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?

For one-off articles, I first outline the article and write an abstract of what I think I will argue.

I then try to read and take notes on 15–20 important articles or book chapters and 1–2 monographs. Then I go back and write the article.

Sometimes the final product has very little to do with the originally intended abstract, arguments, and claims.

What do you do to help you avoid overcommitting yourself either on timelines that are too short for their projects or on how many projects you take on? How do you avoid undercommitting?

This balance changes with the years (early career versus late career). As a young scholar, I have said yes to every opportunity since there have actually been very few invitations.

Some people seem to become very well networked during the course of their PhD program and get multiple contracts from the very beginning. This was not my story. I had nobody seeking me out to write chapters, submit articles, edit volumes, or do anything really.

Publishers are increasingly interested in your author platform, and if you don’t have a platform, they will likely have little interest in your proposal.

I responded by focusing more on peer-reviewed journal articles. You don’t need to be famous or have a platform to pass double-blind peer review. You simply need to do good work.

I also developed many book proposals and actively tried to shop them to publishers at the annual SBL meeting, but this has not been terribly successful.

As far as I can tell, a young scholar with no name recognition and few major connections simply needs to work hard with blind peer review venues.

I am at a bit of a turning point in my own academic journey after seven years of full-time teaching, and the danger of overcommitment is looming. Time will tell how I navigate it.

Administrative responsibilities and teaching load play a big role in how much research and writing can be accomplished without sacrificing quality.

When working on multiple projects concurrently, what tools do you use (e.g., filing systems, project management tools, apps)?

I have no major advice here. I keep a different folder for each separate project into which I put articles and other related pages. I often have files with further research ideas or for things I need to explore further in the future.

What are two or more projects you’re particularly excited about that you’re now working on concurrently?

I am really excited about four books which are all currently underway.

My second monograph on fear appeals and the rhetorical use of divine threat in antiquity has been in process for several years. I should be able to land the plane within three years. This will continue building on the theme of motivation I discussed in my revised dissertation.

I am also working on the Revelation volume for the EGGNT series with B&H. I am co-editing a volume with Alan Bandy on Revelation with Lexham Press that has some incredible contributors. Finally, I am finishing up a small, popular-level volume on Revelation for Lexham Press called Five Rules for Reading Revelation.

What closing advice (if any) would you offer to (post-)graduate students and new faculty as they try to become comfortable and competent for themselves in making progress concurrently on multiple writing projects?

Don’t compare yourself with others, and don’t rush things.

No scholar, even the most prolific, can research and write on everything. You can’t be an expert on everything, but you will be able to make a significant contribution on something.

Also, don’t sacrifice long-term competencies for short-term gains. Develop the habits which will build genuine competence over time.

Pro Tips for Busy Writers: David DeSilva

David DeSilva headshotTo the series “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome David DeSilva.

David is the Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary.

David has published or in press more than 15 academic books and another 13 for popular audiences. Beyond this, he has contributed upwards of 50 articles and essays to journals and edited volumes.

For more about David, see his personal website.

Larger projects (e.g., a dissertation, a second monograph) can be more important but less urgent than others (e.g., conference papers, book reviews). How do you avoid letting good-but-less-important projects push out or cause you to procrastinate on those that are more important but less urgent?

I’m personally not very good at this, but the key is, first, to say “no” to conference papers, invitations to contribute essays, and especially to book reviews (and usually invitations to respond to questionnaires that aren’t about one of my projects!).

[Given this principle, my special thanks to David for his decision not to say “no” to participating in this interview! 🙂 ]

I think I’ve done five book reviews in the last decade. When I do think about conference papers or essay invitations, I try to make sure they are in line with my current (or anticipated) project so that my head keeps swimming in the same pool.

When you’ve worked on multiple projects concurrently, what processes, principles, or practices have you used to be sure you’re making good progress on all fronts?

To be honest, I don’t really work on projects concurrently. If necessary, I set the one aside and get the other done, then return to the first one.

I find immersion to be the best way for me to make progress on something.

Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?

Yes, I tend to try to do the bulk of the research first, take a plenitude of notes, and shape them into the orderly progression that will become the article or book.

Of course, new questions arise in the course of the actual writing. But those tend to be rather specific things that I had not anticipated having to dig into and don’t stall the writing process too much.

What do you do to help you avoid overcommitting yourself either on timelines that are too short for their projects or on how many projects you take on? How do you avoid undercommitting?

Undercommitting has just never been a danger for me. I’ve used those rare occasions when I’ve had free time between projects to be creative in other ways, like composing anthems or arranging organ music for my church work.

I have a serious problem with overcommitting, and I’ll simply say that it’s better to err on the side of undercommitting—and having some good free time for other interests or just for the tasks of home ownership and yard maintenance!—than on the side of overcommitting.

The Hebrew Bible image for enjoying covenant blessings was sitting under one’s vines and trees, not incessantly working on them.

When working on multiple projects concurrently, what tools do you use (e.g., filing systems, project management tools, apps)?

When I can’t avoid working on multiple projects in the same time frame, I tend to compartmentalize and devote, say, Monday and Tuesday to the one and Thursday and Saturday to the other (before our kids were grown, however, Saturdays were sacred to playing!). That way, I can keep my focus in one place at a time.

But in these cases, they’ve also been significantly different kinds of projects, e.g., working on the Greek handbook on Galatians (so a lot of very technical and not-so-creative work) alongside writing my novel, Day of Atonement.

Organization is, of course, essential. I’ve never used “project management tools.” I just put all the physical books I need for one project on one group of shelves and those for the other on another group of shelves. I divide all my notes and drafts into appropriate folders on my computer desktop.

How has your approach to concurrent writing projects changed over time?

I have accepted my tunnel-vision approach and try not to work against myself.

What are two or more projects you’re particularly excited about that you’re now working on concurrently?

I’m excited not to be working on two or more projects concurrently!

What closing advice (if any) would you offer to (post-)graduate students and new faculty as they try to become comfortable and competent for themselves in making progress concurrently on multiple writing projects?

Publish articles and present papers on the way to completing larger monographs. If there are key new works that you must engage to do your own research, target those (and only those) for book reviews. (This is essentially advice not to get involved in concurrent projects, but to get the most out of a single project.)

Don’t stress yourself out about the quality of what you’re writing. Just keep working at the level at which you were working as you successfully completed your dissertation.

What you did once, you can do again—and again. Your skills will naturally grow with use and exercise, particularly as you keep engaging the research of your peers.

What’s your biggest take away from this interview?

Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash

Daily Gleanings: Updates (6 January 2020)

Thanks so much to all of you who took the time to complete my 2019 reader survey.

Your feedback is immensely valuable. I’ll definitely be revisiting it as I continue planning content for 2020.

Daily Gleanings

For the moment, I especially wanted to update you on the Daily Gleanings series.

Several of you both in the survey and outside it mentioned the value you’ve been getting from this series. I’m very grateful you’ve found it so helpful, and I appreciate your encouragement about it.

I’ve been finding the content in that series very helpful myself too. So I do want to continue covering this content, but I am going to experiment some more with its format this month (and perhaps beyond).

Upcoming Experiments

You’ll still get the larger blog article first thing every Monday. But in this experiment, I won’t publish the additional five posts each week that have been specifically titled “Daily Gleanings.”

Instead, I’ll try treating the content this series has covered in other ways.

For instance, some of the content in the Daily Gleanings series, I’d like to treat more fully and helpfully. So this will get “promoted” into larger article-type posts.

Other Daily Gleanings-type content will likely be more helpful if its organized more closely than a series of short blog posts will allow.

For example, rather than separate posts on related open access resources spread out over a number of weeks, I might batch those related resources and comments on them together in a downloadable PDF.

Conclusion

I’m grateful that the content in the Daily Gleanings series has been so helpful. It’s been very useful to me too both in the writing of it and in having this content available for later.

I’m looking forward to experimenting with new ways of formatting this content. And of course, I welcome your comments and input as this experiment develops.

Besides in other posts or downloadable PDFs, what other formats might you find helpful for receiving Daily Gleanings-type content in the future?

Daily Gleanings: Theology (3 January 2020)

Now available from Crossway is Gavin Ordlund’s Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals.

According to the publisher, the volume addresses a “‘me and my Bible’ approach to theology”:

This book aims to set forth a vision for how engaging historical theology can enrich and strengthen the church today—and highlight how it can be done without abandoning a Protestant identity. By addressing two key doctrines—the doctrines of God and the atonement—and drawing from neglected theologians—Boethius, Gregory the Great, and John of Damascus—this book charts a course for evangelicals eager to draw from the past to meet the challenges of the present.

Daily Gleanings: Textual Criticism (2 January 2020)

Now available from Brill is Donald Parry’s treatment of the Dead Sea Isaiah scrolls and their variants.

According to the publisher,

Donald W. Parry systematically presents, on a verse-by-verse basis, the variants of the Hebrew witnesses of Isaiah (the Masoretic Text and the twenty-one Isaiah Dead Sea Scrolls) and briefly discusses why each variant exists…. Variant characterizations include four categories: (a) accidental errors, e.g., dittography, haplography, metathesis, graphic similarity; (b) intentional changes by scribes and copyists; (c) synonymous readings; (d) scribes’ stylistic approaches and conventions.

HT: Jim Davila

Daily Gleanings: Productivity (1 January 2020)

Erik Fisher and Craig Jarrow discuss essential time management tools.

The conversation includes a good deal of helpful material to consider. But perhaps the most helpful segment is the stress on simplicity and contemplation of what kinds of basic tools really are necessary for knowledge work.