John le Carré on Writer’s Block

What writer has not struggled with occasional writer’s block? In a recent interview, David Cornwell (better known as best-selling author John le Carré) offered his advice about dealing with writer’s block:

Lastly, Kroft asked Cornwell if he ever gets writer’s block. Yes, Cornwell admits, he does. But to him, writing is like exercise: Do it every day even when you don’t want to.

“I absolutely will not say I can’t write today, therefore I’m not writing,” he tells Kroft. “I go to my desk. And quite often, if you really press yourself, you get decent stuff out of yourself at the end of it.”


Rules of writing from an international best seller. (2017, September 17). CBS News. Retrieved from

Jake Knapp: The “Burner List”

Academic writers often ask for ideas about how to organize their time so that their writing does not get buried under their many other commitments. I read about a good idea today that I want to share. It’s called the “Burner List,” created by Jake Knapp, author of Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. The idea is simple and elegant: you divide your to-do list page into three sections, metaphorically named the front burner, the back burner, and the kitchen sink. The front burner is for your one (and only one!) most important project. The back burner is for your next highest priority project (again, only one). For projects on the front and back burner, you can list specific, incremental sub-tasks in the space provided. Everything else goes into the kitchen sink. You can see an example here. By using this system, and by recreating your list every few days as you make progress, you force yourself to prioritize and to focus on completing your most important projects.


Compton, J. (2017, September 14). How this simple to-do list can help you tackle major life goals. NBC News. Retrieved from

Knapp, J. (2017, August 31). The “Burner List”—My simple, paper-based system for focused to-dos. Medium. Retrieved from

“Code-switching” for Productivity

As you might guess, writers often contact an academic writing coach because they feel stuck — either in making progress on a single project or with their larger writing agenda. These writers are looking for guidance on how to write more efficiently, more productively, and with less pain and frustration.  Of course, there are many, many strategies available, and part of the work of the coach is to help each writer identify and develop strategies that work for him or her.  For those open to a counterintuitive approach, I recommend this strategy from Theresa MacPhail: “code-switching.”

Code-switching usually refers to the practice of switching between two different languages in a single conversation. MacPhail uses the term metaphorically, to describe a process of working “on different subjects, in different fields, or in different genres all at once.”  MacPhail offers the image of a writer having several different documents open during a single writing session, toggling from one document to another as ideas develop or barriers arise. A writer could use the approach in more structured ways, too, such as working on different projects at different times of the day or on different days of the week.  The key, though, is to be writing in different “codes” in each document. For example, one work-in-progress could be an academic journal article, another could be a private diary, and another could be an op-ed or magazine article for a general audience. By switching to projects in another code, the writer has an opportunity to take a mental break while still maintaining momentum in the writing process.


MacPhail, T. (2016, January 8). Code-switching to improve your writing and productivity. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Even President Obama’s Writing Goes Through Peer Review

For all those writers who grumble about the peer review process for publication in academic journals, it might ease the pain a bit to know that even President Obama has had to go through the process. Today’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an interview by Arielle Martinez with Howard C. Bauchner, editor in chief of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), about publishing President Obama’s article titled “United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps.”

In addition to describing how the editors at JAMA ensured that the President’s article met the journal’s content requirements, Bauchner revealed:

I needed to remind them of what our process of editorial review was and that there’s copy editing that goes on with every author, and there certainly would be editing that would go on with this author.

This paper was handled much like all other special communications. It underwent peer review with critiques and criticisms and was sent back to the president requesting changes, very specific and very general changes in the document. Our peer review is confidential, so I don’t want to detail what those requests were.

On the other hand, the President did get a couple of special courtesies. He was permitted to share vignettes and to write in the first person 🙂

Martinez, A. (2016, July 13). When the President of the United States writes an article in your journal. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Mo Willems on Ideas

Here is something to ponder while you are waiting to “get” an idea for your next writing project…

I think that a mistake that people make is they think ideas are things that you get, like shoes. And they’re not. They’re not shoes. They’re plants. Ideas are things that you grow,” Willems said. “And every day you go back, and you take your sketch book, and you’re planting a little seed, and some of them just don’t grow at all. And every now and then, one of those seeds slowly, slowly grows up and becomes a beautiful tree that bears fruit that you can cut down and burn for profit. Right?”

Mo Willems on the art that enlivens his best-selling children’s books. (2016, June 18). CBS News. Retrieved from

Free Guide to Summer Writing Success

For academics, the summer “break” is here! For some, that means it is writing season; for others, it is time to regroup, plan, and prepare. And just in time, The Chronicle of Higher Education is offering a guide to help you make the most of your summer break. The booklet, entitled The Academic’s Guide to a Successful Summer, includes the following chapters:

How New Graduate Students Should Spend Their Summers

It’s a Good Time to Get a Head Start on the Fall Job Market

The Professor Is in: I Know What You Need to Do This Summer

Planning a Productive Few Months

Summer Survival Strategies for Adjuncts

Designing A Realistic Writing Schedule

Summer Prep for New Teachers

What We Did on Our ‘Break’

On the Pleasures (and Utility) of Summer Reading

You can download the booklet free by going to Vitae at The Chronicle and signing in. Enjoy!