As I prepare for an upcoming dissertation boot camp, I find myself frequently returning to a central question: How do I talk about productivity without seeming to suggest that my audience is somehow at fault for being insufficiently productive? There’s no getting around the fact that self-improvement schemes often rest on a basic notion of inadequacy. Why else would we need to improve the way we eat, exercise, communicate, or store our socks? Obviously, many such suggestions are benign; even if you’ve been bundling your socks all wrong, it’s unlikely that any suggested improvement could make you feel particularly bad. You may even feel good about your existing sock storage regime and be happy to roll your eyes at those who advocate dramatic new approaches. But chances are that you lack the same insouciance when on the receiving end of writing productivity advice.
Advice about writing productivity is a sensitive topic for two reasons: one, because writing is an inherently hard activity that is intimately connected to our sense of self and, two, because writing often elicits our very worst tendencies. If it were just the former, things would be much simpler. Advice would scarcely be necessary: support and encouragement would be sufficient. But the truth of the matter is that most writers struggle to write enough. Our writing struggles are emphatically not a superficial issue: all this not writing isn’t freeing us up for more leisure or more sanity in our work-life arrangements. If anything, inconsistent writing habits are making it harder for us to achieve some sort of balanced allocation of our limited time. The promise of writing productivity is that if we learn to manage our distractions and use sound strategies to harness our good intention, we might spend less time writing and still get more done. While that sounds entirely good, advice about writing productivity can still often feel very wrong.
One of the reasons that productivity gets such a bad name in academia is that it often seems as though even good productivity advice fails to take into account the complex context in which academic writing takes place. Self-improvement, after all, puts the focus firmly on our self, leaving very little room to treat that self as subject to a wide range of social, economic, emotional, and physical pressures. When the individual is seen as the sole author of their own productivity woes, they are likely to experience a sense of personal inadequacy, regardless of the structural barriers that they face. However, while productivity can be a pernicious framework, productivity itself can be amazing. The ability to get things done is generally a significant factor in the happiness of a writer. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that a writer who isn’t writing because they have caregiver responsibilities or administrative duties or teaching tasks or a desire to enjoy these last days of summer vacation is doing anything wrong. There are so many reasons for not meeting externally determined goals, and I have no desire to contribute to the view that we are only doing right when meeting those goals and conforming to standardized productivity approaches. But while productivity can be a poor master, it can still be a good servant. Despite my reservations about the hazards of the discourses surrounding productivity, I’m still going to talk to graduate students about having a productive writing process.
My hope is that the shift from talking about productivity to talking about having a productive writing process will undercut any hint of guilt or blame. Being productive can mean meeting external demands in a way that is detrimental to our sense of ourselves and to our ability to live a full life. But having a productive process is something that naturally benefits us. We aren’t focused on producing a certain amount or on meeting disembodied requirements, but rather on what we need in order to be productive writers. To develop that self-understanding, we have to be reflective about all aspects of our writing process. What does being productive mean to us? What does a good day of writing look like for us? What sorts of things stop us from realizing those goals? What roles do guilt and anxiety play in our ability to write? What sort of writing support community do we want? What specific pressure points tend to push us away from writing and towards distractions? What might we do differently to change the patterns of our writing practice? These types of questions are a way of starting a conversation about building a productive writing process into our lives. And while that conversation needs to be critical about the conditions of academic labour and highly attuned to individual circumstances, it also needs to acknowledge the power of building a productive writing process.
Linking productivity to practice and discipline seems like good advice to doctoral students. I’m a fan of the Manchester U, phrasebook to help academic writers find the little phrases to move productivity along. Examining writing from award winning dissertations or just ordinary dissertations (with other dissertation writers) may catalyze productivity. Confidence increases, if the writer knows in advance the mark to hit in a dissertation as a result of close analysis and study of acceptable dissertations from the doctorate program.
Thanks, Sheri. I agree that expertise can be a crucial aspect of productivity. We are often better able to remain focused when tasks are–or feel–manageable. The types of questions that I suggest writers ask themselves about their character as a writer are designed in part to help them understand what they don’t know about writing. Being expected to be productive without sufficient training or support is one the many challenges graduate writers face.
What if you framed it around the notion of “methods” rather than of “productivity”? I used to struggle to produce prose because I spent time not knowing what to do next. Now I can always move forward because I can always match a “do this next” to whatever state my work is in. So, “equipping your writer’s toolbox” or something catchier.
I think that is great advice, Sam. Often what gets framed as a matter of willpower is actually a matter of technique or expertise. Wanting to make progress and even putting in the time aren’t always sufficient; we often also need experience with, as you say, knowing what to do ‘next’. Thanks for your comment!
For whatever it’s worth, the single work that most helped me was Joseph Williams’ Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. The title misleads: the book is 200 pages that teach non-fiction writers how to construct *paragraphs* (which I see you properly emphasize). In retrospect I seem to have unconsciously absorbed from Williams the meta-method: “to write, follow a specific technique (and if your existing techniques don’t fit your current situation, invent a new one)”. Hence my stumbling across your reverse outlining (which I tweeted about the other day). This conceit suggests labelling writer’s block as the empty meta-method: “I don’t know what to type next, therefore I am stuck.” It’s like saying “No matter how hard I think, I don’t know how to connect these two pieces of wood. Bad case of carpenter’s block!” The category error is obvious: a carpenter connects piece of wood with nails, screws, glue, etc. applied with specific methods. Perhaps writer’s block is a similar error: it mistakes the result of writing for the activity of writing, which is always the application of a specific technique. The irony being that carpenters may have the richer and more effective vocabulary for their techniques. Thanks for your effort to expand ours!
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