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.

Daily Gleanings: Showing Up (29 November 2019)

In a rare interview, Steven Pressfield shares his thoughts on themes he discusses in his War of Art.

As a writer, much of Pressfield’s commentary will be pretty easy for emerging scholars in biblical studies to relate to. When encountering “Resistance,” Pressfield encourages continuing to show up, do the work, and keep moving forward.

Much of the application in the interview is then done in terms of small business and entrepreneurship. But this too is pretty easily re-translatable into addressing parallel situations in biblical studies.

Daily Gleanings: Consistency (19 September 2019)

Michael Hyatt discusses the importance of consistent effort over time versus more intense effort in more sporadic increments.

Much of the discussion has ready application to how one approaches any big knowledge work project—be it work for class, writing an essay or article, or writing a dissertation or monograph.

It isn’t developed in this discussion, but presumably Hyatt’s advice here isn’t intended to undercut what he’s developed elsewhere about (mega)batching—doing like work in larger chunks of consecutive time that are potentially less frequent. Likely the key to having both consistent effort over time and reaping the benefits of megabatching is to not let yourself go too long between sessions where you handle a batch for whatever kind of task.

Daily Gleanings: Focus (8 August 2019)

Joshua Becker reflects on how tools and gadgets ultimately aren’t the key to achieving your goals. Instead, he comments,

Change in my life was only going to come when I began to focus on habits and motivations and sought out lasting solutions and accountability. This is the formula for lasting life change—and it can not be circumvented by items at a department store.

These comments substantially resonate with those Craig Keener recently provided: Productive writing isn’t about having the right the tools. It’s about the focus and persistence you apply to a project consistently over time.

Michael Hyatt discusses the value of stillness for enabling focus and productivity.

Daily Gleanings (18 April 2019)

From Michael Hyatt on Twitter: “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re normal.”

Difficulty making progress (e.g., toward an advanced degree) might not mean you need to go another way so much as it might be a call for grit and creativity in finding new ways to continue taking steps forward.

Richard Middleton discusses the intermediate state with J. P. Moreland.