Writing Desk

Pro Tips for Busy Writers: Craig Keener

Headshot of Craig Keener

I’m grateful to Craig Keener for his willingness to contribute to the continuing series “Pro Tips for Busy Writers.”1

Craig has authored 25 books and numerous journal articles. A consistent hallmark of Craig’s work are his copious specific references to and interactions with a wide variety of primary literature.

Craig is finishing up his term as the general editor of the Bulletin for Biblical Research. He blogs at Bible Background.

On a personal note, I met Craig in 2011 when he happened to sit down and strike up a brief conversation in a hotel lobby at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting. At the time, I was in the throes of full-time adjunct work and hunting for a full-time faculty post in a proverbially thin market, an all too common experience then as now.

I don’t recall any of the substance of the conversation, but I distinctly remember Craig’s compassion and kindness as he inquired what I was doing and listened to the challenges I was facing. I’m grateful he took the opportunity in the interview below to share some of his own similar challenges in between finishing his PhD at Duke and his landing at Asbury.

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?

Quite often I am rushing to complete writing one book by a deadline, and another book comes back for responding to editorial queries, while yet another, closer to publication, comes back for indexing. My larger books, with lots of references, require 60 hours a week of indexing for a couple months (the four volumes of Acts took maybe 14 months altogether to index [affiliate disclosure]).

I can’t hire students to do the work because nobody else can put in 60 hours a week. So sometimes I have “crunch time” and occasionally have to ask for an extension.

Under more normal circumstances, indexing can be relaxing; I can listen to something low-intensity (say some friends’ podcasts or radio broadcasts) while doing it. But it’s hard to predict exactly when the publisher will ask for something, and sometimes I will work very hard to finish by the deadline they request, and the book will still take eight months to come out. It’s quite hard to publish something that is completely “current”!

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?

Different people may respond to this differently. Here I will share my own experience of completing my dissertation, with the pluses and minuses of my approach.

I saw some of my undergraduate professors struggling to finish their dissertations while teaching full loads, so I resolved to complete mine as efficiently as possible. I decided not to do conference papers or book reviews until I had finished my dissertation; I figured that if I published enough—and I already knew that I was sitting on vast mounds of publishable research!—I would be invited to do papers or book reviews later, so I wouldn’t have to worry in the meantime about the time-consuming process of submitting proposals and then potentially having them rejected. (And naturally over the years this has happened. I cannot accept most invitations that I receive now for lack of available time but do the ones that I can.)

Having said all that, I underestimated the difficulty of finding a job after I got out. I’m not sure that the conference papers would have made much of a difference in that job market, since I felt that published articles were stronger on the c.v., and I had only a limited number of even those at that point. I did get some job interviews, but sometimes there were confessional sticking points (some faculty considered me too conservative or too liberal or wrong on this or that theological point or counted against me life circumstances beyond my control).

Usually it was simply that there were many applicants and others fit the program’s particular needs better than I did. Most places had no openings anyway, and professors with teaching experience elsewhere had the first advantage.

I was just praying that the Lord would open the right door; I was convinced that God had led me to do the degree and that I should teach; I needed just one job, not many. Finally a seminary hired me, where I fit the program’s needs better than some others. So it can even out in the end. 🙂

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?

I find it much easier personally to finish one project before starting another. I’m ADHD, so part of my discipline is making myself finish, since otherwise I would jump from one thing to another and never finish anything. But unless one works only with a single publisher, the work flow is somewhat unpredictable. Meeting publishers’ deadlines takes one kind of self-discipline; working when none of the publishers has any urgent deadlines—when we have to be self-motivated—is another.

Normally I just try to put in solid days of writing (or, back in the days where as a young professor I would have five classes in a semester, solid hours of writing wherever I could). That’s a regular work flow, and it becomes hectic only when I have two deadlines at once (say completing a book for one publisher, while needing to get an earlier book indexed for a different one). When I have two competing projects, I usually try to knock the shorter one out of the way first and then get back on a regular schedule with the longer one.

For me, researching/writing is my default mode. After my devotions and breakfast, barring something urgent, I just go to work on research/writing. Starting a new project initially feels held back by inertia, so I just jump into it by forcing myself but then choose the pieces of it with which I feel most comfortable (sometimes collecting and organizing thoughts here and there; often I am aware of what I believe to be the Lord’s guidance or help in that). Once I start getting into it, it builds momentum and becomes the most natural thing for me to jump into every time I get the chance. If you do something regularly for 30 days, it becomes a habit.

I do take sabbaths—that is also part of my routine, ever since doctoral work. So the rhythm doesn’t have to be exactly the same every day. And some days are entirely solid teaching and in meetings at the seminary, with no writing at all. I mentally compartmentalize them as a separate sphere, so I don’t feel like I need to be writing during those times, any more than I need to interrupt my writing time for seminary administrative issues that can be handled together at a different time. Time-consuming stuff like T.V. I just don’t do (except, when my brain is too tired to think much before bed, I might catch some news on the BBC); that too is a habit we can break or establish based on our goals.

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

For me, the research is more fun. I love just working through ancient texts making discoveries that may be relevant to how I can understand the NT. But it’s not going to benefit others unless I organize it and communicate it. So much as I enjoy the study/research stage, I then need to arrange the material topically or textually (around biblical texts, for commentaries).

Happily, while writing I come up with new questions that invite some more research, so I can keep learning along the way. Nevertheless, I treat them as mostly discrete stages, so I may be collecting data for months, and then writing for months.

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?

It’s not always easy, at least for me, to estimate how long a project is going to take or what size it will be. I do always pray that it will take a shorter time than I guess, and that often happens. But I expected my Acts commentary to take two years. Instead, at the end of two years, I expected two more years to finish. And two more years at the end of those. Ultimately, it took about ten years to finish, though I was focused on getting married and establishing a home life during part of that period. Had I properly anticipating how long the Acts project was going to take, I never would have undertaken it. (In this case, I’m therefore glad that I didn’t know!)

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

I already have my data filed, though much of that was done manually before computers were widely available. I don’t have specific tools to keep projects separate except sometimes notes to myself on my calendar to remind me to come back to something. Big projects stay in my head anyway because I pray about them and mentally prepare for them even before I can start writing; those tend to take months (or sometimes years).

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

I used to panic about them. Now I am more relaxed when I juggle projects. And my publishers run late often enough that I figure they need to give me some flex room if I can’t make their earliest suggested deadline. That can delay things, but one can do only what one can do, and I do my very best to complete everything well and on time. When a hard deadline hits that can’t take any longer, such as my revisions on my background commentary [affiliate disclosure], then I have to turn it in as is.

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

Developing Richard Burridge’s (and others’—David Aune, Charles Talbert, etc.) recognition of the gospels as biographies, Christobiography [affiliate disclosure] explores the historiographic implications of this genre assignment. That one, due out around late August 2019, is probably my most important academic work since my four-volume Acts commentary.

For 2020, Cambridge is publishing a one-volume, condensed version of my Acts commentary [affiliate disclosure]. Cascade will also publish many of my studies on Acts. Right now I am finishing a 1 Peter commentary for Baker and preparing a larger commentary on Mark, though it will be a while before the latter project sees print (not nearly as long as I spent on Acts, though 🙂 ).

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?

Ideally, you do want to pursue one project at a time, especially if it’s a big project. Whatever you do, however, it is important to discipline your time and organize your information. Projects seem more manageable if you pursue them in stages—say, collecting and organizing much of your data before you begin writing; writing a rough draft before trying to perfect it; etc.

  1. Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash. 

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