Before getting to my AcWriMo reflections, I’d like to say thanks and welcome to all my new subscribers and followers. November was the busiest month ever on the blog: there were nearly 5,000 views and we passed the 50,000 views mark overall. Thank you all for reading and commenting and linking and sharing!
As anyone who reads this blog knows, November was AcWriMo, an exercise in public accountability and support for academic writing facilitated by the lovely people at PhD2Published. As I discussed in a post at the beginning of the month, I decided to participate as an experiment. Looking back over the guiding principles set out by PhD2Published, I see that I basically kept to them. I aimed relatively high; I certainly told everyone; I thought a lot about being strategic in my approach; I checked in over the course of the month; and I did work hard. What I didn’t do was meet the target I set for myself. I committed to writing a weekly blog post (five over the course of the month) and turning a conference paper into an article. I did do the former, although that was no more than I would have done anyway. I started working on the paper and even managed to create an initial draft. But by the middle of the month, I hit a wall: to finish the paper I needed to engage more deeply with the literature and didn’t have time to do that. So I carried on blogging and following the AcWriMo activities of others and using what extra time I had to plan the literature review I need to do. (I was assisted in this planning process by an amazing series of posts by Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn (of The Thesis Whisperer) on Pat’s blog patter; in this series, they detail and reflect upon a work in progress. It is a rare and welcome thing to see people trying to give voice to how complicated and unruly the research process can be. For me, that was AcWriMo at its best: a public discussion of writing challenges in a manner designed to demystify the process.)
Engaging with AcWriMo confirmed one of my key assumptions about writing: we all need less how-to and more self-knowledge. The ‘right’ way to write is elusive, considerably more elusive than a lot of writing advice seems to grasp. To get a sense of the vastly different ways that we experience writing—brought into focus by the artificial pressure of an ‘academic writing month’—I recommend looking at some of the great post-AcWriMo reflections that have been written thus far. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed: Raul Pacheco-Vega; Peter Webster; Liz Gloyn; Lyndsay Grant; Ellen Spaeth. And PhD2Published has begun the process of reflecting on AcWriMo through a series of Storify posts. If you read these posts, think about what resonates for you as a writer. What writing practices works for you? What holds you back? Can you distinguish between psychological and practical barriers to writing? Does technology help or just displace the problem? When has writing been best for you? Academic writing is hard enough—trying to do it according to the dictates of someone else’s process can make it even harder. Self-knowledge is key. In that spirit, I offer my own reflections. They are unlikely to be interesting in and of themselves, but I hope they serve as an example of how to develop a better understanding of oneself as a writer.
So what did I learn about my academic writing process from AcWriMo?
1. That concrete and demanding writing goals are essential. Writing is so easy not to do; I start many days wanting to write and having to do any number of other things. Anything I can do to move writing into the obligatory column is valuable. I have found it helpful to think about the imperative to write in two ways. First, I need to conceive of what writing means to me for professional satisfaction, development, and advancement. For most of us, writing is crucial, but I found it useful to identify its precise value to create more motivation. Second, with that sense of my broad priorities, I need to create a concrete writing schedule. Working backwards from a target means that I can see exactly how much needs to get done right now and prevents the sort of magical thinking that allows me to imagine I’ll pull off miraculous feats of writing in an unspecified future while remaining hopelessly unproductive now.
2. That committing to a certain amount of time spent writing works better than committing to a number of words/pages per day. In particular, short Pomodoro-style bursts work best for me. The 25-minute period, short enough for even my appallingly bad powers of concentration, helps balance writing with the rest of my life. I can be out of touch for 25 minutes, from my co-workers, from my kids’ school, and from social media. The five-minute break spent catching up on email and messages gives me the sense of connectedness that I love as well as the ability to stay on top of all the little things as I go along. Which leads me to my next observation.
3. That getting behind on everything else for the sake of writing makes me unhappy. My central professional commitment is teaching, which means class preparation, reading student writing, meeting with students, and—needless to say—lots of email. I need to get these things and any associated administrative work done in order to be comfortable writing. This prioritization is not something that always works well; if writing is put last, it will sometimes be left out. Taking AcWriMo as an opportunity be more aware of how I spend my time allowed me to see that my days fall into three basic types: days when I genuinely can’t write; days when I can and do; and then days when I could except that my inefficiency and inattentiveness mean that I’m unproductive. Accepting the first type as legitimate helps me to turn my attention to reducing the third type.
4. That making myself read is always my biggest challenge. Reading makes me impatient; the ideal pace for reading is slower than I like things to be and requires more intellectual flexibility than I naturally possess. Writing, on the other hand, allows me to be active and creative. Of course, good academic reading must be active and can be creative, but it’s still not an activity that comes easily to me. When AcWriMo begins in 2013, I’ll need to have a well-researched project in hand, ready for a month of intensive writing. In the meantime, I hope to turn my attention to solving this persistent weakness in my research process.
5. That my writing process is unduly hampered by pre-emptive anxiety. It doesn’t speak well of me, but I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?…
6. That blogging is a lot more than just writing. I was so struck this month how much time I spend preparing each post (beyond the time spent writing) and how much time I spend in general maintenance and social media engagement. This entire process is one that I love, but it is time spent and not exactly time spent writing. When thinking about how to allocate appropriate time to writing, I need to think about all the facilitation and administration that goes along with having a blog. (Pat Thomson had a very interesting post this week on blogging and social media participation as a complex form of academic labour that breaks down any simple dichotomy between work and leisure.)
7. That traditional academic writing can be restful after the immediacy of blogging. At the beginning of the month, I felt a little uncomfortable to be writing in other than a blogging or microblogging format. The lack of feedback felt strange; like when you put an actual letter in an actual mailbox and then wonder, six hours later, why you haven’t heard back yet. But once I got over the strangeness, I found it very restful. Once again, I could take advantage of the ‘nobody ever has to read this but me if it’s awful’ strategy that got me through my entire dissertation. That’s a hard strategy to employ in blog writing; knowing that I’ll be publishing in the coming days (or even hours) means that I have to be fairly committed to what I am writing at the moment of composition. It was lovely to write with a broader time frame in mind, knowing that I could finish the whole article with the luxury of returning to it with a critical eye later.
Overall, AcWriMo was a great chance to focus on what both writing and not writing look like for me right now. In particular, this month gave me a unique opportunity to reflect on the role of writing in this phase of my life: without the pressure to produce a dissertation, without the anxiety that accompanied my recent promotion process, and with the very different rhythm of maintaining a blog. I look forward to continuing to reflect upon the experience of academic writing amidst the wonderful online academic writing community; thank you to the people at PhD2Published and all the AcWriMo participants for the encouragement and all the engaging commentary. I hope you are all able to continue to, in the memorable words of an AcWriMo participant, ‘write like there’s no December’.