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February 25, 2021

From: Denise K. Magner

Subject: The Quick Tip: Lost in the Weeds of Your Writing Project Again?

How to stay on track and avoid those "epiphanies" that tend to derail your writing progress.

Getting lost in the weeds is an affliction that can hit even the most focused writers. It’s harder than it seems to avoid the temptation to let some sort of revision epiphany spiral into changing your entire manuscript.

Following that urge to rewrite, however, is almost always a bad idea. Why? Because most of the time, it isn’t actually an epiphany: It’s a procrastination technique. So how do you tell if a game-changing epiphany is real or just your brain distracting you from finishing? Don't start revising right away after your big idea. First, make a four-column spreadsheet and put the following in it:

  • In the first column, describe the proposed revision.
  • In the next, enumerate the chaos that would ensue if you pursued it: Exactly which arguments would have to be reimagined, and in exactly which ways?
  • In the third column, list what you would gain: Exactly how would your manuscript truly be better than it would have been before?
  • In the final column, describe what you would lose: time, effort, years of work, and, yes, whatever brilliant idea you had before.

What you've created is essentially a scholarly profit-and-loss statement. Leave everything for 24 hours, and then revisit it. Does this overhaul still seem like a good idea? On the 5-percent chance that your answer is “yes,” then sure, go for it. Otherwise, stay the course.

Continue reading: "Are You Working? How to Stop Writing From the Weeds," by Rebecca Schuman

Thanks for reading The Quick Tip, a free newsletter from The Chronicle. Twice a week, we’ll send you fast advice for your job and your academic life.

Suggestions for what you’d like to see here? Other thoughts? Please email Denise K. Magner, a senior editor who compiles this newsletter, at denise.magner@chronicle.com.

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Denise K. Magner is senior editor of The Chronicle’s advice section, which features articles written by academics for academics on faculty and administrative career issues.