How do you get back to a writing project you haven’t worked on in a while?

November is National Novel Writing Month, and I’ve participated every year since 2010. The goal is to write 50,000 words during 30 days, and it’s geared toward fiction. By the end of the month you should have a large chunk of a first draft of a novel. Which is awesome, and I love the community and everything that comes with it, but … academic work? What academic work?

It hasn’t been a whole month since I’ve worked on this project, but it’s been a good couple of weeks. So now I have to pick it back up, and recalibrate my brain to academic writing instead of fictional fantasy, and remind myself of what, exactly, I said I’d write in the first place.

So the good part: Past Rebecca wrote up a book proposal. Academic book proposals don’t usually include a full manuscript – it’s “just” the intro and a sample chapter or two – but they do include a full outline. It’s something I really don’t like doing at the time, but I rely on it a ton as I’m working on the book. For this project, I not only had to submit chapter titles, but also a quick summary of what each chapter is about. The framework is there.

Before this break, I’d also compiled my notes for each chapter. I like to print them out so I have have them next to my laptop while I’m writing. They’re not entirely organized the way I need them for each chapter, but they’re all present and accounted for, so I can highlight the most important things and then cross them off as I use them.

I’ve even got my little tabs so I can switch to a different chapter if the muse is being difficult. (That’s a good way to get your words in for the day – switch to a different section. You paint yourself into a corner by the end and have to write the more difficult bits, but by then you’ve got so much of the project done that it looks like such a small hurdle. Or so I tell myself.)

But then the new problem I give myself is that I have various files for various chapters but, especially after a break, I don’t remember what chapter is in what step of the process.

So I started off my day with arts and crafts. I figure I’ll use this again, so I’ve got my foam board divided into sections with labels across the top: not started; notes exist; barely begun; mostly there; needs another look; integrated (into the whole book and not just as a stand-alone file); and ready for a final read. These are all chosen based on what I know about myself and my writing process, so you could easily have more or fewer, depending on how you work. 

The chapter numbers, plus a quick reference word or two, are on sticky notes that can be moved from column to column. (I’ve made all the sticky notes one color because there are times I’m working on multiple projects, so … there might need to be another color added if, for example, my chapter proposal for an edited collection gets accepted in January.)

This helps me step back and take a look at the forest instead of my trees (or, in the case of paragraphs, individual pine needles). Nine chapters, plus intro and conclusion, feels a lot more manageable than “Okay in this chapter I need to discuss three books, but this one has fourteen, and this other one over here …” It also helps me remember which chapters have been completely abandoned in search of inspiration and which still need just a little something before they get integrated.

Some days it’s also easier to focus on the small thing: today, I’m going to move this chapter from “notes exist” to “barely begun.” (That’s actually my goal, although I’ve already put Chapter 5’s sticky note into the other column. It’s only jumping the gun if I finish this blog post and then don’t work on chapter five.)

It may look a bit like silly arts and crafts, but it helps remind me of the scope of the whole project, and how much I’ve already done – and, perhaps most importantly, it reminds me of all these cool ideas I’ve had that are worth the struggle to actually write down.

What does it look like when you come back to an older project?

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