Tag Archives: Writing

Writing Right Now

Earlier this week, I participated in a tweetchat with #VirtualNotViral, a great initiative from Anuja Cabraal and Pat Thomson. On their site, you can find out more about their resources for doing doctoral work during a pandemic, including information on upcoming tweetchats. I was invited to discuss academic writing during these challenging times. I found it helpful to process what I’ve been thinking about writing right now, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.

The key for me during these extraordinary times is that each person ought to be given space to reevaluate what they are able to do. Thinking that you should be able to carry on as usual or, worse, be more productive is to underestimate the effect of everything going on around you. If you need a break from academic work because your caregiving responsibilities have changed, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your financial situation has worsened, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your research plans just fell apart or because the incredibly difficult academic job market just got more dire, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because you are finding the state of the world traumatic, of course you should take that break. If you need more than a break and need support to cope through this time, I hope that support is forthcoming. Each of you is responding to a unique set of personal circumstances, geographic factors, and institutional policies, but nobody should be pressured to be productive during this time. I think this bears repeating: events beyond your control have dramatically altered the conditions under which you are working, and you shouldn’t be required to act as though that weren’t happening.

I’ve now said as many ways as I can that you shouldn’t feel pressured to write right now. But some of you may want to write. Writing may lend normalcy to your otherwise upended routine. Writing may make you feel better about not being able to pursue other elements of a research agenda derailed by self-isolation. Writing may keep you in touch with an important part of your identity that may be threatened by the current disruption of your life. Writing now may actually feel better than dreading the implications of not having written later. Whatever your reasons for wanting to write during this time, I do think it can be a valid choice.

While some of you may be choosing to push ahead with writing right now, I don’t have any great new advice. The new part is that you shouldn’t be pressured to do so. With that caveat in place, I think good writing advice now is pretty much the same as it ever was. Writing support should be, it goes without saying, supportive. Should recognize the full embodied person that is doing the writing. Should recognize that caregiving work is crucial and not always conducive to a consistent writing practice. Should recognize that such caregiving work is often gendered. Should recognize that writing in English is often obligatory, placing additional burdens on those for whom English is a subsequent language. Should recognize how the persistent whiteness of the academy complicates the writing identity of racialized people. Should recognize that academic writing is a source of anxiety for so many. This list could go on, but my point is that anything that I might put on this list now was already there two months ago. On academic Twitter, you are seeing a lot of thoughts that start with the phrase ‘now is not the time’: Now is not the time to be berating people, questioning their commitment, presuming that they are using the crisis to cheat or slack off in some way. But I’ve yet to see something that we shouldn’t be doing now that we should be doing the rest of time.

Now, as always, we should be talking about academic writing productivity as a matter of process. This shift away from a model of pressuring writers to produce and towards one of supporting writers in finding a productive process has two main elements: first, writers need to be exposed to a range of options to see what writing practices will work for them and, second, writers need access to writing instruction because expertise is crucial to productivity. Both of these interventions can move us away from a moralizing treatment of productivity that lays blame on the individual for what they aren’t getting done. If you were a better person, would that solve all your writing woes? That would only make sense if your writing woes were in fact the result of a deficient character. If, instead, your writing woes come from the fact that academic writing is hard and lonely work with high stakes and a pernicious lack of community, you’ll need productivity advice that recognizes those inevitable challenges.

One thing that may be unique to writing in this moment is the variability of your reaction to everything that is going on. At some points, everything may feel close to normal; at other points, you may feel genuine panic about these profound disruptions to the life you know and to the plans you had for the immediate future. In addition to this daily yo-yo, you may also have found that your reactions have shifted as these weeks go by. You may have felt energized through the initial rush of reorganizing your life but now feel a sense of lethargy. You may have been somewhat paralyzed by the shock of everything changing so quickly but have now adjusted to a manageable new routine. If your reactions are shifting, so likely are those of the people that you are responsible for. Parenting may present very different challenges one day than the next. Managing your relationship to loved ones who are now physically distant can shift over time. All of which is to say, as you think about academic writing during this time, expect that you will need to be flexible and gentle with yourself: what might make some sense one day may seem impossible the next.

So I have no particular “how to write now” advice because there is no singular experience of now and because I hope you are already following advice that tells you to be mindful of who you are and what you need. Be kind to yourself; write if you want to; write if you have to; temper your expectations of yourself; if others aren’t tempering their expectations of you, try extra hard to be kind to yourself. And reach out for support. I always tell my students, graduate writing may be done by you alone, but it needn’t be done by you alone. Now, of course, we are all more alone than usual, but I hope you’re finding the virtual writing community that you need.

Here are ten pieces on working through this time that I’ve found helpful:

Aisha S. Ahmad, Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions

Pat Thomson, Getting By and Getting On

Inger Mewburn, Should You Quit (Go Part Time or Pause) Your PhD During COVID-19?

Erin Wunker, Shifting Strategies

Christine Tulley, Resetting Your Research Agenda

Cally Guerin, The Year of Wonders: Doctoral Writing in the Time of COVID-19

Nadirah Farah Foley, Don’t Forget About Graduate Students

Chris Smith, Five Strategies for Writing in Turbulent Times

Fay Lin, What Not To Say to Grad Students During a Pandemic

Anuja Cabraal, When I Write, I Write for Myself

 

Living Without Links

One of the things that I’m confronting as I write this book is my overwhelming desire to use hyperlinks. The link is truly one of the great affordances of blogging: each time I set out to say something new, I can easily point to things that I’ve already said. As I’ve been thinking more about this issue, I realize that links play two slightly different roles in my posts. The first is a straightforward offer of more information. Any time I type the word ‘paragraph’, for instance, I can render it a link. My reader doesn’t necessarily need to know what I think about paragraphs to continue reading; I’m just putting it out there, in case they want more. In the second case, however, I’m using a link precisely because the reader does need to know what I mean by the term, and I don’t presently want to tell them. I often do this with ‘metadiscourse’, a term that I use frequently and that I know to be unfamiliar to many readers. Broadly speaking then, some links offer the reader supplementary information; others offer the reader something that may be essential now. In both cases, the reader is able to choose their own adventure: they can take a byway or, if they wish, just stick with the main path. Links allow me to construct each post to stand alone, but where I think my point will be enhanced by a familiarity with earlier posts, I can indicate that without breaking my stride. Every time I create a link, I take pleasure in the efficacy of these potential digressions: offered but not mandated.

In the process of composing the linear narrative of a physical book manuscript, however, I’m struggling to manage these types of internal references. Like all writers (of non-digital texts), I’m trying to make an accurate estimation about what type of orienting information my readers might need. In the earliest drafts, I found myself writing versions of ‘see above’ and ‘see below’ way too much. No reader wants to be constantly dispatched to a different precinct of a book. We expect the writer to dole out information in the exact right way: enough repetition that we know where we are, enough anticipation that we know where we are going, and never a suspicion that we’ve missed something. As a writer, I’m learning to be more judicious, both in providing reiterations of key points and in trusting the reader’s ability to manage without such reminders. If they’ve been paying attention—and I’ve done a good enough job—they’ll understand abbreviated references to earlier material and they’ll have faith that they’re being given what they need now.

This issue doesn’t just affect someone like me who is making this particular blog-to-book transition. Any academic writer is going to have to puzzle through how to give the reader enough guidance to orient them on their journey through a text. In general, we accomplish this task through the prudent use of signposting and strategic repetition. As we’ve discussed often here, signposting is a particularly crucial type of metadiscourse. A simple ‘as will be discussed below’, to take a common example, lets the reader know that they’re not expected to fully grasp that topic yet. This placeholder allows the writer to raise an idea without explaining it or needing the reader to understand it. If the writer lacked this option, they would have to try to explain everything at once or would have to hope that the perplexed reader sticks around long enough for full edification. We all know that neither of those options is ideal. Prioritization—a determination that a reader needs this now and can wait till later for that—is part of our job as writer. A promise of an elaboration to come is a crucial tool for managing that dynamic.

Similarly, using a device like ‘as discussed above’ prevents the reader from mistaking strategic repetition for inadvertent repetition or for a new idea. If a writer repeats themself and gives no indication that the repetition is strategic, the reader may be annoyed or, worse, may question the acuity of their own reading. That is, they may suspect that they’ve misread something because they thought this idea had already been introduced. Being puzzled about repetition isn’t as deleterious as being puzzled about new information, but both have the capacity to interrupt our forward momentum as readers.

As writers, we all understand the need to deploy appropriate markers of anticipation and summation, of alluding to what is to come and recapping what has already happened. The tricky part comes in the negotiation of what is, in each context, appropriate. As I continue working on this manuscript, my ability to negotiate the appropriate markers—and thus to live without links—is slowly improving. You’ll have to read the eventual book to see if I end up with a well managed flow of information!

This post is the third in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude these book reflections posts with a status update. I am currently even less on schedule than I was in my last update. I still haven’t finished my provisional revision of Part One, and I didn’t get Chapter Four completely drafted by March 1st. I hope to be able to complete these two tasks in the next week and move on to Chapter Five on March 11th. I think my next book reflections post will be on the dynamics of managing an artificial and aspirational writing schedule!

Writing Old Words Into New

As I was working on Chapter Two of my book project in January, I realized that I needed to return to a post that I wrote early in the life of the blog: a treatment of the benefits and hazards of reusing our own writing. These ideas are relevant to me right now, as I am taking the central concerns of this blog and turning them into a book. I’m struggling with exactly the issue that I discussed in that earlier post: what I should reuse and what I should write from scratch. The table of contents for this book was constructed on the basis of the blog; I used the annotated table of contents page to make my original plans. Having done so means that there are posts that roughly correspond with each chapter of the book. That doesn’t mean, however, that the words I need for each chapter are already written; on the contrary, I fully expect to write most of the material anew. My operating assumption is that the posts have given me an articulation of the topics that I want to cover and a rough shape for the manuscript but not the actual words. I’m content with that vision of the manuscript, but I’ve been encountering a consistent hurdle nonetheless.

When I try to write about these familiar topics, my mind keeps going strangely blank. This is weird, obviously. I should have lots to say about things I’ve written about frequently in the past. In Chapter Two, for instance, I’m talking about topics that have been the central recurring themes of this blog. Rather than gaining added fluency from that familiarity, I seem to be gaining added inhibition. Instead of writing freely about topics with which I’m so comfortable, I find myself thinking, ‘surely I’ve said this somewhere already’. This reaction seems to be more than mere laziness: it feels like my brain being unable to move on without having retrieved its previous thoughts. Since fighting against one’s brain is often futile, I decided to find a way to work with my own instincts.

I started by constructing the architecture of the chapter with writing from the blog. This initial construction allowed me to respect my own deep discomfort with starting over and, more practically, allowed me to be sure I hadn’t left anything out. First I put old things together and then I rewrote everything on that basis. It was as though I needed to do the new writing in the literal presence of the old writing. Throughout, I was aware that my attitude to the old writing had to be highly instrumental: my goal wasn’t to use the old material by massaging it into a new form. Instead, my goal was to let the old writing help me do a better job with the new writing. In the end, for me, the debate between using old stuff and simply writing new stuff was mooted by my inability to choose the second option. It ended up as less of an either-or and more of a first-one-then-the-other. That is, I couldn’t start over, but I also knew I couldn’t create a chapter out of previously written words. Neither approach worked for me, and thus I needed to make both work for me.

What does all this mean for someone else, for someone who is not writing a book inspired by a blog? I do think there’s relevance here for the thesis writing process. Think about the role of the proposal in the first draft. Many of the things that will need to be said in the thesis were already said in the proposal. Despite this overlap, the proposal is always a text with manifestly different aims. As a result, sentences borrowed from the proposal often stand out as an awkward fit in a draft thesis chapter. But while this may be true, my experience suggests that it may still make sense to want to use the earlier formulations. Given this inclination, it can be helpful to have a strategy for making that work. I tried to manage this tension by using different fonts. The copy-and-paste stuff was there in a less-pleasing font (Courier, which looks to me like a draft should); the new stuff was written in my preferred font (currently, Calibri). By the time I was done, the text was all Calibri, no Courier. I greatly enjoyed this visual manifestation of the process of building on existing text while crafting new text. I ultimately felt confident that I’d taken all I could from the old text while still deriving the benefits of composing the new words that I need now.

This post is the second in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude these book reflections posts with a status update. My goal is to write approximately one chapter per month. To that end, I’ve created the following schedule:

  • December 2019: Chapter One
  • January 2020: Chapters Two and Three (plus Part One revision)
  • February 2020: Chapter Four
  • March 2020: Chapter Five
  • April 2020: Chapter Six
  • May–June 2020: Chapter Seven (plus Part Two revision)
  • July 2020: Vacation (a viable schedule always includes time off)
  • August 2020: Chapter Eight
  • September–October 2020: Chapter Nine (plus Part Three revision)
  • November 2020: Chapter Ten
  • December 2020–March 2021: Revision

I’ve frontloaded this schedule somewhat, as I have a short break from teaching at the moment. I’ve also given myself a bit more time to complete chapter drafts that coincide with my busiest times. I’m going to do a provisional round of revisions of each part of the book as I complete it. The real work of revision will take place once a full draft is complete, but it will still be beneficial to make each part marginally coherent before moving on to the next. I am currently not quite on schedule: I’ve drafted Chapters One (Introduction), Two (Key Principles), and Three (Identity and Contribution), but I still want to do more revision of Part One before moving ahead. By the end of the week, I should be on to Chapter Four (Structure).

Writing Introductions: First or Last?

There are some questions that I can always count on during a session on graduate writing. Whether or not I had planned to deal with them, these are the topics that invariably come up. The top three perennial questions involve the desirability of the serial comma, the role of the first person in academic writing, and the ideal timing for writing an introduction. I talk about introductions a lot, and it sometimes feels as though the very word will cause someone’s hand to go up. The question will start—as so many do—with ‘I’ve heard that …’ or ‘My supervisor says that …’. Usually they’ve heard along the way that introductions are better written at the end of the writing process; that is, they’ve been led to believe that it is inefficient to write an introduction before knowing what the whole paper is going to say. This sentiment seems so wrongheaded to me that I’m always willing to stop whatever I’m doing to talk about it. Leaving aside whether efficiency is necessarily a good metric for efficacy in writing, I’m pretty sure that delaying introduction writing is actually a false efficiency.

My usual approach to this query is to say, ‘yes, you should write the intro first and, yes, you should write the intro last’. The second part of that formulation is obvious: no introduction is ever going to be adequate until it has been revised to reflect the work it is introducing. The first part is what I want to argue for here. The act of writing the introduction is so valuable that it ought to happen first. Why deny yourself the opportunity to encapsulate what the rest of the paper is going to be about? This early version of the introduction may be provisional, but not so provisional that it should exist only in your mind. Most of us can’t hold an entire introduction in our minds: we have to write it down. Imagining that we could leapfrog that conceptualization and move straight to the body of the paper seems to overlook something crucial about the writing process. When we use writing to clarify our thinking about the introduction, we are giving ourselves a much better chance to write the rest of the paper more effectively. It’s not about writing a good introduction at this stage: that will have to happen later. It’s about writing an introduction that will allow you to write a better paper (before looping back to fix the introduction). Ultimately, if writing the paper is harder without an early stab at the introduction, doing so may not be efficient. Writing the introduction first and last may sound inefficient but is actually a way of improving the overall writing process.

As I’ve been working on the introductory chapter to my book, I’ve been finding that writing an introduction at the outset may be a sound writing practice, but it is also both hard and somewhat terrifying. It’s hard because we are trying to introduce something that doesn’t exist; there’s a lot of guesswork, which is generally unsettling for a writer. It’s terrifying because it can feel deeply presumptuous to promise that you are going to do all the things you raise in an introduction. Even the simple phrase, ‘this book will have three sections’ was unsettling for me to write. How am I going to write a book with three whole sections? And are these even the right sections? The reviewers weren’t sure that they were, and, needless to say, the reviewers have set up camp in my brain where they can comfortably poke holes in all my ideas. I have to keep reminding myself that my plan for these three sections may or may not be exactly right. I can only find that out by giving them life on the page. And I’m only going to be able to give them that life if I formulate a plan. That is what the introduction does: it allows me to plan enough that I can dive in and find out if my conception makes sense.

So while I haven’t changed my answer to this question, I am happy to have been reminded of how psychologically gruelling it is to commit yourself to writing something when you still have no proof that you can in fact write the thing. That, of course, is so often the state of mind of a thesis writer who is writing something unprecedented in their own life. Since I can’t really remember how I felt when writing my own doctoral thesis introduction, I’m glad to be reintroduced to the vertiginous feeling of taking the leap of faith into a new writing project.

This post is the first in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude these book reflections posts with a status update. At some point, that update will include an assessment of whether I’m on track; at this point, however, it’s still too soon to make that estimation accurately. Until I have a more informed sense of how I’m going to write this book, I’m not creating a week-by-week schedule. That sort of honest accounting is crucial, but it’s too early in the process for me to do so. For now, I’m just reporting that I’ve written an eight-page introduction. As I hope this post has made clear, I’m unsure whether this introduction represents the book I’m actually going to write. What I am sure of are two things. One, this introduction represents the book that I’m now going to begin to write. Two, this introduction lays out a slightly different plan than the one I started with; in writing the introduction, I’ve seen new problems and possibilities, both of which have led to an updated chapter plan. I’ll let you know how it works out!

Write Your Way Out

I recently had a request to give a talk to graduate students about writer’s block. This term is frequently mentioned in the context of graduate writing, presumably because of the general sense that something is inhibiting the writing processes of students at this level. While I was explaining why I didn’t want to give a talk on writer’s block, I realized that I spend quite a lot of time telling various people that I’m sceptical about the concept of academic writer’s block. Having recently read two interesting takes on writer’s block in academia in the past year (from Helen Kara and Julia Molinari), I decided that my own disinclination to use this concept might be worth exploring here on the blog.

In general, I am resistant to identifying common graduate writing difficulties as writer’s block. Most graduate writers who are struggling with their writing are actually struggling with their thinking. That isn’t just a semantic quibble: it matters that we grasp exactly what is inhibiting our writing processes. When we diagnose ourselves as having writer’s block, we can start to believe that we aren’t currently able to write. If you find yourself with a sore leg, it may well be that avoiding walking is a sound strategy. If you find yourself unable to write, might it be a sound strategy to avoid writing? The answer to that question is almost always no. Not writing has little-to-no curative power, in my experience. I’m not saying that we don’t need to take breaks; there are many things that we can do away from our desks to clear our minds and loosen up our ideas. But when we are committed to working, the act of writing is often the most immediate way to tackle the problems in our thinking. The risk of identifying inevitable writing challenges as writer’s block is that doing so can lessen the chance that we will use writing to move our ideas forward.

The idea of writer’s block can thus be seen as having the potential to detach writing from its broader intellectual context. When we treat writing challenges as psychological rather than intellectual, we run the risk of minimizing the conceptual work involved in graduate writing. I have, of course, encountered graduate writers who appear to have a disposition towards writing that is so fraught that they may need some sort of psychological shift in order to develop an effective writing routine. But for most graduate writers, writing is being hampered primarily by the challenge of sorting out what they think (or what they think they should think or what others think or what their supervisor thinks about what they think). In other words, they don’t have a psychological block; they simply have the intellectual confusions endemic to the process of communicating sophisticated research. Those intellectual confusions are real, and they can have deleterious consequences for writing. But when we treat these problems as conceptual problems in our thinking, we create the space to use writing as a strategy to solve those problems. Writing can move from being the problematic thing to being a means to solve the problem.

To use writing in this way, I suggest introducing a new font that will signal that you are writing in an exploratory vein for your own benefit. The variant font will remind you that your eventual reader need never see these ruminations, thus lessening your own reticence. Using this new font, try writing something like this: “I’m worried that what I’m saying here …”

“… is inconsistent with what I said on p. 37.”

“… might be confusing the cause with the effect.”

“… may lead the reader to think that my research is less significant than I’ve claimed.”

“… is the sort of thing that annoys my supervisor.”

Staying in this provisional, for-your-own-eyes-only font, try writing a follow-up sentence or passage: “To figure this out, I need to …”

“… re-read the sections on and around p. 37 and decide which formulation works best. Does this shift represent an actual shift in my thinking or just a different way of expressing things?”

“… satisfy myself about the direction of causality in my argument and think of a way to flag all the places where this may have become confused.”

“… revisit my initial claims for significance to see if they are affected by the current line of reasoning.”

“… decide how I feel about that potential reaction, whether that annoyance is something I want to withstand or something that should guide me in a different direction.”

The key, for me, is that this writing is just that: writing. We can’t, arguably, have writer’s block when we are actively writing. Instead, we may have unresolved issues that are making us want to avoid writing. Using writing as the means of addressing these issues  gives us a strategy for inevitable conceptual hurdles. Even in those cases in which writing-about-writing highlights serious problems, we have still made progress by identifying what is wrong. In the end, my concern is simply that the writer’s block label may be further alienating us from our own writing. While it may not be possible to write our way out of all problems, I’m convinced that it is near-impossible to solve writing problems without using writing as our central strategy.

“Yes, you are a writer!”

I recently gave a talk for the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education about the importance of claiming our identity as academic writers. This topic is one that I have returned to repeatedly in this space. I am sharing a revised version of the talk in this post because it covers an aspect of the topic that I haven’t addressed in much detail here: the practical implications of having an incomplete identity as an academic writer. I’m also sharing this talk because it gives me an excuse to include this delightful drawing that an audience member did during my talk.

Cayley-Writing

“Yes, you are a writer” by Giulia Forsythe is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I can’t tell you how much I love this drawing. I spoke for over an hour and the artist, Giulia Forsythe, captured the essence of so much of what I said. Since I’m completely lacking in artistic skill or the capacity to arrange ideas spatially, I’m in awe of Giulia’s talent. I’m grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce it here. Her website explains more about the intersection between her pedagogical work and her artistic work; in particular, I recommend this video describing her process.

It comes as no surprise that writing is intimately connected with identity: writing is obviously one of the ways in which we tell people who we are. At least to some extent, our discomfort with writing is a discomfort with the process of fixing our identity; what we say in writing will endure, meaning that our exposure to critical assessment may also endure. If this is an accurate depiction of the underlying dynamic of writing anxiety, it is easy to believe that this anxiety is exacerbated for graduate writers. If writing fixes identity, we may naturally hesitate to undertake that activity when we are unsure of our identity. Graduate school is many things to many people, but it is almost never a time of fixed and comfortable identity. In fact, it tends to be a time of porous boundaries between work and life and a time of significant scholarly uncertainty.

All of this means that writing in graduate school often becomes something fraught, which in turn means that it is something you may not do enough of and something that you may not share willingly with others. Not feeling able to write or, worse, not feeling able to share what you’ve written is a serious contributing factor for time to completion and attrition challenges. It also makes graduate study way less enjoyable than it might otherwise be. To combat these very real graduate writing challenges, we need to talk about the debilitating impact of an incomplete sense of scholarly identity during graduate school. Raising awareness can make graduate students feel better about the way that writing has become more difficult, just when they need it to be getting easier. But raising awareness only helps in the long-term: it takes considerable time to become comfortable as an academic writer. Most graduate writers also need short-term solutions to their writing challenges.

In my view, those solutions need to involve explicit writing instruction that can tackle specific issues. We know that scholarly discomfort is often instantiated in academic texts in predictable ways, and it makes sense to talk to graduate writers about those potential weaknesses in their writing. In particular, I’d like to highlight three concrete ways in which an incomplete identity can hamper graduate writing: insufficiently explaining the contribution; insufficiently managing the scholarly literature; and insufficiently crafting an authorial voice.

Insufficiently explaining the contribution. One of the things that I most often see in graduate student writing is introductory material that neglects the author’s own research problem and its significance in favour of focusing heavily on the work done by others. This elision may result from a lack of confidence, but it can also result from a lack of familiarity with the generic features of academic writing. Learning the essential moves involved in introducing a research problem can help writers to overcome the tendency to under-emphasize their own contribution.

Insufficiently managing the scholarly literature. Another common issue in graduate student writing is a literature review that lacks a coherent argument about the need for the current research given the existing state of the field. Again, it is easy to see how a lack of confidence in the identity frame of academic writing makes writers hide behind the work done by others. Learning more about structuring a literature review can help writers manage the existing literature in a way that consistently supports their own eventual contribution.

Insufficiently crafting an authorial voice. Finally, I find myself talking frequently with graduate students about the problem of what can be called writer-less texts. Needless to say, being reticent about inserting ourselves into the text is often a by-product of feeling less than confident about our status as writers. It can also reflect deep uncertainty about the question of voice in academic writing. Learning more about metadiscourse and the factors that inhibit its usage can offer us tangible guidance on how to raise our own profile within our texts.

(In all three of these cases, I would recommend using highlighting to come to a better understanding of how visible we are within our own writing.)

These strategies are meant to improve graduate writing while acknowledging the underlying problem of incomplete identity. By offering concrete strategies for improving writing, I am seeking to help graduate writers improve their writing and thereby perhaps improve their sense of self as writers. At the very least, writing instruction can help us pinpoint common problems and help us to produce stronger prose. At a deeper level, however, writing instruction for graduate students can offer a greater sense of efficacy, which then contributes to a feeling of comfort with the role of academic writer. That feeling of belonging can start to strengthen scholarly identity and thus lessen identity-based writing challenges before they take root.

The title given to me for this talk was ‘Yes, you are a writer!’; I was initially hesitant about that level of exuberance but decided to go with it anyway. (One exclamation mark wasn’t going to kill me!) Embracing our writerly identity may be painful at times—it is natural to prefer identities that make us feel competent rather than ones that emphasize our status as novices—but it is ultimately valuable, both for the technical proficiency that can flourish and for the eventual feeling of comfort with the ongoing and crucial demands of academic writing.

Can You Have Too Much Writing Time?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former student, asking for some advice about managing a summer of writing. With her permission, I am sharing her email and my reflections on our conversation.

Dear Rachael:

I’ve taken the summer off teaching with the aim of making considerable progress on my dissertation. I’ve only once had a big block of time for writing during the degree (very early on), and it was terribly unproductive. And terrible. Although I’ve made progress with writing, I’m oddly nervous that I won’t maximize my time and will have forgone a summer of income for nothing. I’ve made a writing schedule for the summer that I believe is ambitious but reasonable, but I would like to have another pair of eyes on the plan. I’m especially interested in your feedback, as someone who thinks extensively about dissertation writing and productivity.

My first thought upon receiving this note was that the student was right to be afraid of too much time. A generous block of writing time is an opportunity, not a solution. As with any opportunity, you need a sound strategy in order to take full advantage. If you find yourself thinking that time itself is the solution, you may not be engaging in the planning necessary to make the most of that time.

At this point, you may be thinking that having too much time is better than having too little: if we simply don’t have enough writing time, all the strategic planning in the world won’t remedy that problem. But just because too much time can be a good problem to have—and I’m sure some of you are desperate for more writing time—doesn’t mean that it can’t still turn into its own productivity challenge. The student’s letter had a telling detail: she had already experienced the perils of having too much time with not enough to show for it. Until we have had that experience, we may think wistfully that more time would be better. Unfortunately, far too many of us are familiar with having failed to take advantage of ample time.

Think of all the conversations that take place among academic writers in late August. “Yes, I had a good summer, but I didn’t get all the writing done that I had hoped.” Sound familiar? This reflection is often followed by one of three different sentiments:

But I needed a break, so I’m okay with how I spent my time.” In other words, there may be times when foregoing writing in favour of recharging is the best decision.

But my goals were unrealistic, and I’m happy with what I did get done.” In other words, if our goals are truly disproportionate to our time, we may fail to meet those goals while still having been productive.

And now the term is about to start and I can’t believe that I let the summer get away from me.” In other words, I needed to write and I had the time to write and still I didn’t meet my goals.

The first two sentiments are good moments for self-reflection. When deciding how to use our time, we should definitely be aware of the need for real breaks and of the tangible limits to what we can accomplish in any given time. The third sentiment requires a deeper kind of self-reckoning. Having had time to write and yet having not taken full advantage is a profoundly frustrating experience. Since it is still April, I thought now would be an apt time to reflect on the process of devising an effective summer workplan.

If you want to make sure that you maximize the benefit of a significant expanse of writing time, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Create a timeline: What needs to be done and by what date? By explicitly defining your goals, you can move from a hope to a commitment. “I’m hoping to finish chapter three … ” can easily lead to “I didn’t get as much done on chapter three as I’d hoped I would.” Starting instead with “I’m going to finish chapter three …” puts us in a much stronger position. Of course, we must be realistic and rational about our timelines; however, once the timeline makes sense, we should endeavour to treat it as a commitment.
  2. Create a realistic breakdown of the task: The next step is to break the task down into composite parts. (This breakdown may show us that our original timeline was flawed; if that is the case, you can tweak that timeline before proceeding with this step.) “Three months should be plenty of time” becomes This number of days means that I’ll have to do that amount of work every day.” At this stage, it is crucial to resist any sort of magical thinking. A summer is never endless and it rarely involves a complete cessation of all other tasks. We need to count the number of weeks, subtracting those weeks that will be spent on crucial, restorative leisure. We need to count the number of days per week that we can realistically write, subtracting those days that need to be spent on other sorts of work or relaxation. Most importantly, we need to count the number of hours per day that we can write, subtracting those hours that need to be used in other ways. Not only do we need to leave time for all the other tasks that comprise our work lives, we also need to account for the fact that we can only consistently write for a certain number of hours per day.
  3. Create concrete interim tasks: With our committed timeline and our realistic breakdown, we are then able to define the constitutive tasks of each working session. Without this third step, it can be way too easy to let our writing time slip away. Let’s say you have four hours a day to write. First, make sure that you also have a couple other work hours in which to do all the writing-adjacent things that will need doing; needless to say, if you have four work hours per day, you won’t actually have four writing hours. If you have an open expanse of time, you can divide it up into writing time, non-writing work time, and leisure time. If you legitimately have four hours for writing, you will need a plan for how to ‘spend’ those hours. You won’t be able to do this all at once, of course. In April, you can’t know how you will use your time on the afternoon of August 16th. But it is a crucial habit to get into, at least for the near future. Its value works in two ways. One, if we have a concrete goal for our writing time, we can’t be satisfied with just having put in the time. And, two, the accomplishment of the concrete goal can give us a sense of satisfaction. If we have general tasks—of the ‘work on chapter three’ variety—we can end up doing very little or we can can end up doing lots while still feeling like we haven’t accomplished something specific. It is crucial to be flexible about these goals: writing is a mysterious process and you may be wrong in what you think you can or should be able to do in a particular time. This flexibility, however, shouldn’t be allowed to turn into imprecision. Precise interim goals are tremendously useful, even when they ultimately need to be revised in the face of the vagaries of the writing process.

This planning process is designed to help those of you with an expanse of writing time in the near future make the most of it. But what if, as is likely for many of you, you are looking at a summer with writing pressures and a lack of writing time? Perhaps you have to teach or work over the summer or perhaps your family responsibilities will ramp up as school ends for the year. As you face this tension, it can be helpful to remember that a shortage of time can be a manageable problem. Just as we sometimes err in thinking of time as a straightforward solution to writing problems, we can err in thinking that a lack of time must be an insurmountable obstacle. To be sure, a complete lack of time is a legitimate obstacle, but a shortage of time need not be fatal to our plans. When writing time is scarce but writing is still essential, it makes sense to think about how you will fit writing in without waiting for stretches of time that may never come. The planning process laid out here can help writers manage long stretches of writing time, but it can also help you maximize scarce writing time within the confines of a full and busy life.