With several fellow writers at Brown University, I sat down to discuss writing productivity advice with Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, who has authored or edited 25 books in the last 16 years. With a publishing career spanning academic monographs, encyclopedias, edited volumes, and cookbooks—as well as articles, chapters, essays, public writing, and dozens of media appearances on television, radio, podcasts, and in print—we can all learn a thing or two from what has worked well for this prolific writer:
1. Let projects choose you that you genuinely enjoy.
Ken’s single greatest piece of advice is to choose a field of study in which you’re “completely driven by intellectual curiosity. You have to love what you’re doing and want to spend time on it.” As a food studies scholar, Ken shares that he loves cooking, shopping for food, and thinks about food all day. He gets to use that energy when he writes: “My research gives me somewhere to put all that.”
Similarly, Ken recommends working on research and writing projects that you truly enjoy. Then you’re less likely to procrastinate or to get (or feel) blocked. “It’s your attitude,” Ken says. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, it’ll be drudgery. Don’t turn your writing into a chore. Think of it as your reward, as in ‘I get to write!’ Then, it’s not an effort at all.” Such a perspective shapes the writing process, as well as the final result. “Don’t write from a sense of having to,” warns Ken. “Then the writing has no verve to it. A lot of very serious academic writing is tortuous that way.”
2. Plan out your writing projects. Balance them with teaching and service.
Ken uses a hand-drawn calendar, charted out three or four months at a time, setting incremental goals and tracking his daily word count. To balance writing with teaching and grading, Ken recommends “grading in a deluge,” such as assigning longer mid-term and final papers, rather than grading numerous, smaller assignments throughout the term.
3. Write quickly.
Although perhaps not a feasible goal for all writers, Ken writes at a rapid pace. He wrote his dissertation (which would become his first book, Eating Right in the Renaissance) in about a month. He wrote his most recent book, Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession, at a one-week writing retreat. Ken’s approach to writing ensures his speed, which he describes as “throwing thunder bolts…I write the same way I throw pottery and the way I cook—I throw it all out there.” In order to stay in the writing zone, Ken adds footnotes after he completes the writing itself.
4. Don’t belabor sentence-level revisions.
Ken says, “I don’t immediately revise and belabor every sentence. Get the ideas there first.” He explains his approach with a pottery metaphor: “If you poke at it too much, the clay won’t hold. Your writing won’t either.” Ken also writes in much the same stye and voice as he speaks. “I hate jargon and technical obscurity, which helps with writing this way” he says.
5. Research slowly (and by hand).
Although Ken writes very quickly, he researches for “as long as it takes.” He may have written Noodle Soup in a week, but he researched it everyday for three years. While he does not outline chapters, Ken sketches a chapter map. He takes careful notes by hand throughout the research process, arguing, “The physical writing out of the sentence burns it into your head,” paving the way for your own writing later.
6. Trust in the process of writing.
In defense of not outlining or doing lots of writing pre-work, Ken repeats the advice of one of his college creative writing instructors: “The ideas come in the process of writing.” Writing for long stretches during the day, Ken remarks, “You get in the zone. You forget time and space. Everything goes away. I don’t like to stop. I like to keep the kettle boiling.”
7. Be open to saying yes, even to happy accidents.
Ken has never said no to a project. “If I’m doing it,” he says, “I’m doing it because I want to.” He recommends such an approach to others too: “If it’s fun, you might as well do it.” At the same time, Ken assures, “It’s fine to write things and not publish them.”
8. Write with confidence. Don’t let negative reviews affect you.
Ken shares, “Everyone has self doubt: Is this any good? Will anyone like this? You ignore that.” For dealing with, and moving on from, negative or unhelpful reviews—a constant in any academic’s writing life—Ken says, “Sometimes you ignore the reviews too. Convince yourself that person is a moron and keep going.”
9. Take time to rest and relax.
Despite the pressure for academics to work all the time, Ken never writes in the evening and takes weekends off. “Go home,” he says. “Leave the work there. You need a place away from it.”
Top photo credit: Emily Contois, 2018