What is the Syllabus for your Writing Life?

Learning To Fly by Jim and Lynn Lemyre

At the beginning of each semester, we academic writers often find ourselves planning out a course of action for a… course. But what about our writing? What’s the plan? Oftentimes the plan has one big item, or maybe a few, but there’s no plot, no sequence. In our very brilliant classes we go through a carefully designed order, but for ourselves the plan is “work on the book” or “finish the article.”

There are so many reasons why charting out the exact steps, step by little step, is going to help the creative academic writer. But I will only write about one of these, which I like to call…


Which is, the emotional side of it. How painful thoughts can be avoided by getting specific about what you are going to do.

Of course we have big things to do, and aspirations and dreams and urges. And ultimately that’s what it’s all about.

But if we only see only see the big huge chunk of work we have to do, and how important it is in our career, and then compare it with our current behavior, then every time our current behavior happens to be less than ideal, the gap is huge.

I mean, sometimes we are not going to be spot on. So at that time, the gap between what we think we must do, and what we are actually doing is huge. And it’s awful to behold. We all stare into that abyss sometimes, and despair. When I do it, it’s by accident. It’s a mistake (it happens). And I urge you with all my heart to see it the same way.

This is one of the worst conditions under which to start holding what I like to call “The Trial of You.” The evidence is overwhelming at those moments– when the big goal or vague dream is in view and one is evaluating current, less than ideal behavior. The verdict in the trial is inevitable.

But, on the other hand, if you are watching a few too many episodes of Walking Dead on Netflix (or if you’re like me, watching people on singing shows having their hopes and dreams crushed in front of the nation), and that is conflicting with your specific goal to, say, write 500 words a day, well: you’re down 500 words now. You can make it up over the week—just 100 extra words a day for five days. The cops in your head are going to let you off with a warning.

This is very different than the thunderbolts and lightning crashing down on you: “Look at YOU! With popcorn bits stuck to your pajamas, mesmerized by lowly pop TV and failing at everything, while your manuscript lies in shambles, is going to go down in flames, and you’re fiddling around while it all burns…. You’re pathetic!”

I don’t know about you, but when the thunderbolts and lighting come down I know what I’m gonna do: get out of that storm by diving right back into the rest of season 3. May the Zombie apocalypse live forever!

Or, to cover our cases here, I might start getting busy with other people’s business, helping, get cluttered and involved in duties, etc.

(And no, writing Academic Muse doesn’t count—because that’s my project now).

But when you have specific, even measurable, goals, and your focus is on the day-to-day, then whatever day-to-day fluctuations in your behavior and output happen they are not major deviations, they are minor matters subject to adjustment.

Of course, it still remains very important to stay on track. It remains important to actually know how far off track you are on a day to day basis, and to know skillful ways to get back.

But thunderbolts and lightning are not the way.

Make a plan for your semester, for when you are going to write, and what you will work on step by step.

If you’ve never done that before, you might over shoot, just like your first jam-packed syllabus you made for your first unsuspecting victims. But you’ll get the hang of it.

Get that plan nailed down at the beginning of the semester, and know where you are in the plan at all times. It might be a simple plan like write 500 words a day, or revise and write for 1 hour on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

I didn’t even begin to touch on all the many ways in which that is helpful, but one biggie is that the Trial of You will never be for a capital offense.