To this continuing series on “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome Anthony Le Donne, Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary.
Anthony has authored or edited thirteen books. He also serves as the executive editor for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.
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?
My most recent example is in 2017–2018. In that two-year span I published five books.
Two I wrote from start to finish in the span of a year. Two were projects that I had started a few years before. And one was a co-edited project with a few colleagues who did the heavy lifting for the project toward the end.
One reason for the cluster is that some books take forever to write or edit and others come together rather quickly.
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 think it’s important to know yourself as a writer. If you know that writing a book review will take a full week of your life, think hard about whether you can devote this kind of time.
Of course, say no if you can to such projects. But if you know that you can read, process, and write a book review in a day (and that this will be a positive experience for you), it may be worth it.
I will say one more thing about priorities: don’t let anything get in the way of your dissertation. Work on it every day, even if its only writing a few words or formatting a footnote. Make it a daily habit to write.
This was advice I got from a mentor when I was a student and I’ve tried to take it seriously. I write (almost) every day.
Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?
I usually research while I write. Sometimes this is messy, but I use writing my own thoughts to process what I’m reading.
I know really smart people who take meticulous notes as they read so that they can organize their thoughts before they begin writing. This seems like a good idea too, just not for me.
If I need to read an entire book, sometimes I trick myself into not being tempted by the keyboard. I’ll take the book somewhere (maybe to a park) and leave the computer and phone behind.
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?
My advice—and I don’t know if it’s good or bad—is to avoid publishing until you’ve got your PhD in hand. Give yourself time to grow into your scholarly voice. Everyone I’ve ever met who published their MA thesis (or parts of it) has come to regret it.
What’s your biggest takeaway from this interview?
Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash
We like to be able to say “yes,” whether it’s to a person, an organization, an activity, an object, or whatever. But, human experience works out such that inside any “yes” is also a “no.”
A bias toward “yes” isn’t inherently bad. It keeps us moving forward. Where we start running into trouble is when we neglect the fact that “yes” also costs us something.
This cost is sometimes described as an “opportunity cost.” Often, the concept is illustrated with economic examples. For instance, any dollar spent on a purchase is, by definition, not saved, given away, or spent on some other purchase.
Because dollars are interchangeable, this “opportunity cost” might not mean too much. But, the reality gains teeth when we also come up against the fact that the number of dollars anyone has access to is limited. Eventually, resources run out, even despite occasional efforts simply to go on pursuing more (see, e.g., Collins, How the Mighty Fall, 45–64).
The same principle applies with time and commitments. We can only fit a finite number of things into our attention at any moment. We can only pursue a finite number of actions in a given space of time.
And whatever we decide to put our attention on or to put into action then, by definition, squeezes out of that time and attention whatever else would otherwise have been there. So, for instance, time and attention spent studying can’t then also be spent in other ways.
But, investing time and attention in activities like study definitely can let us engage better with life as a result. To cite an often and variously quoted illustration:
Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”
“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!” (Covey, Effective People, 299)
Like anything, time spent “sharpening the saw” in study has its own opportunity cost that we need to be mindful of. But, it also pays dividends in making us sharper and better prepared as we continue moving forward serving and living life in biblical studies.
What encourages you to devote yourself to “sharpening the saw”?
Header image provided by Jon Tyson
Mailhot aggregates several lines of advice, but one particularly key piece is the anecdote that
A mentor of Ben’s recalled writing in his Bible as a young seminary student, “I’d rather burn out for the Lord than rust out!” Reflecting on that memory nearly fifty years later, he regretted such a perspective and encouraged all who were in the room to do neither! Burning out and rusting out are both ways to ruin one’s legacy. Neither one is the calling that God has placed on the leaders of his church. Rather, as a seminarian you are called to live in the tension between studying and ministering.
Whether specifically in seminary, another form of higher education, or another place of heavy demands, trying to learn to live well with this tension requires healthy boundaries for those various demands. And as a help in maintaining those boundaries, it can often be useful to recognize the “opportunity cost” of saying “yes” to a commitment when there are—as there always are—finite resources with which to fulfill that commitment. A “yes” to Netflix or a given “one more” ministry opportunity will, by definition, be a “no” to something else like time in study or with one’s family. That tension probably never disappears, but it does need to be navigated as wide-eyed as possible to avoid the blindness of “Lord, did we not …?” (Matt 7:22–23).
For the balance of Mailhot’s reflections, see his original post. For Zacharias and Forrest’s volume, see Lexham Press or Logos Bible Software. For some reflections about developing healthy boundaries, see Henry Cloud’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Zondervan, 1992).
Although I’ve moved away from using Evernote, their blog still often features interesting content. Recently they’ve had a three-part series on minimalism that heavily leans on Joshua Becker (part 1, part 2, part 3). Among Joshua’s reflections that the series provides are a two-part suggestion for “saying ‘no’ effectively:
1. Figure out and write down what your priorities and values are, even if you’re in a hectic environment. Ask yourself some tough questions like “Who is the person I want to become? Would my 40-year-old self approve of this?”
2. Realize and understand this: “If you say yes to something, you’re saying no to everything else. If you want to say no to something, realize that allows you to say yes to something else.” This is the true power of saying no: freeing up time so you can say yes to the things that matter most to you.
“If you say yes to something, you’re saying no to everything else.”
Or, in economic terms, each opportunity taken also has with it an accompanying “opportunity cost.” For the balance of the post series, see the Evernote blog (part 1, part 2, part 3). Joshua’s book, The More of Less (WaterBrook, 2016) can be found on Amazon.