What Are Work Plans, Why They Are Useful, and How to Create One

Have you ever read a fellowship or grant application and noticed one of the requirements is a work plan and wondered what that entails? Or why you might be asked for such a plan? Good questions! Work plans are basically calendared outlines of how you plan to attack your work. They are useful for fellowship committees to assess whether your goals are feasible and whether their fellowship dollars would help bring your project to completion. But they are also a really useful tool to focus your writing, plan your year, and provide motivation.

Before providing a step-by-step guide for creating a work plan, an important disclaimer: work plans are like snowflakes. No two work plans should look alike. We all have different demands on our time, whether they are children, pets, day jobs, teaching responsibilities, elder care, side gigs, learning challenges– and the list could go on and on. Similarly, we all have different work styles. If you ask 100 historians how to write a book, you are going to get 105+ answers.

The plan I crafted for myself is what works for me, based on my book contract and my intended publication date. Writing is essentially my fulltime job, which is a great privilege and comes with its own challenges. I’m acutely aware of both and I’d encourage you not to base your writing plan on mine or compare our deadlines. The examples I give below are based on the book model but can be applied to any writing or work project. Take the spirit of these suggestions and use the ones that work for you!

Work backwards from your goal. Is it a publication date? A dissertation defense date? A fellowship application due date? If you are writing a book, you will start with your targeted publication date. That will be your final step.

Set aside production time. This applies to all projects, from podcasts to books. All projects have a certain amount of time out of your hands before coming into the world. For a book, you should move backward 12 months (or more depending on the press). This period should cover peer/editor review, revisions, copy edits, page proofs, and production. That means you should have a complete draft one year from publication date.

Note: If you have a firm publication date (like an anniversary) or a press that takes a bit longer, you might want to add a few months of buffer time. Reviewers sometimes take longer than expected or presses make mistakes, and you don’t want to miss the date if it is non-negotiable.

Block off time for a full project review. Set aside at least a month  for full manuscript revisions. Ask yourself, do the parts of the manuscript all work together? Are there sections that are repetitious? Don’t skip this step! Even if you edit each chapter to death, you will still need to revise once you have the whole thing in place.

Calculate how much time you need to write each chapter (or produce each section of your project). For round numbers, let’s assume you can write a chapter per month. Obviously, that depends on the length of the chapters and how much research you’ve already completed.

Note: You must be honest with yourself in this section. I am often overly ambitious and assume I can work at superhuman speeds for an extended time. I can often write really fast for a few months, but it’s not sustainable long term because illness and unexpected circumstances crop up.

Set aside dark periods. Do you have particularly teaching-heavy semesters or quarters? Do you have a month with many service demands? Block off holidays if you don’t get a lot of writing done when family is around. Block off periods in the summer when you need a break. Don’t expect every month to be perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. If you build in those dark periods, you will be grateful down the road – when you need a break,  you’ll be able to take one and not fall behind.

Calculate the length of writing time. Let’s say your manuscript will be 10 chapters and you plan to write a chapter per month (round numbers for ease). Add ten months to your calendar and timeline.

Plan your research time. This step will vary depending on your preference and the amount of travel required for your research. Some people like to complete all their research, then write. Others like to write while they research.

I personally like to write while I’m researching for a few reasons. I come up with ideas while researching and I don’t want to forget them. I like having words on the page and not letting my writing muscles get flabby. But most importantly, I don’t know everything I need to research until I’m actually writing. For example, if I’m writing about a meeting, I might not think to research the weather, what the room looks like, or the best route to the meeting until I’m trying to describe it. By writing simultaneously, I spend less time researching because I don’t have to do it twice. For me, that means scheduling a bit more time per chapter than I would need for pure writing.

Note: This research method often doesn’t apply to students writing their dissertation. Graduate programs often require a year or two of research, and then a year or two of writing. Additionally, graduate students often don’t have the ability to write on location or research fellowships are short and don’t provide writing time.

Add it all up. How does it look? This plan often looks longer than you might have expected or the deadlines might appear closer than anticipated. For me, that’s very motivating because I feel like I need to get a move on!

Once you’ve crafted your work plan, you may want to consider these reflection questions. Do you have enough time to meet your goals? Do you need to re-adjust your expectations? Did you set unrealistic expectations? Did you include buffers for human fallibility? If not, go back and fix it. Keep in mind that this work plan will likely evolve over time and it should as your research and writing progresses. The goal is to provide a rough outline and motivation to encourage your work going forward.


Featured image courtesy of AppleDave, Flickr.

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