I’ve been reading Rowena Murray’s Writing in Social Spaces, and it has helped me articulate something that underpins a lot of my work. Community is important to your ability to do this work. This got long, if what you really want are suggestions for creating writing community, jump here.
When I talk about A Meeting With Your Writing with people who have not participated, people will often focus on how that might help with accountability. I resist this description even though on some level this is true. If accountability is about strategies for ensuring you keep your commitments (to yourself or to others), A Meeting With Your Writing definitely does that. And yet it doesn’t. I don’t nag you if you don’t turn up. You are not required to tell me which sessions you plan to attend and then send apologies/regrets if you don’t make it. It’s not really that kind of meeting.
The Academic Writing Studio is a community of writers, many of whom write regularly at the same time. You know other people are writing at the same time you are. That matters. You also know that other people are making time during their regular working hours to write.
I suspect that when people join the Academic Writing Studio they may do so with this accountability framework in mind, which is, perhaps, why they tell me how surprised they are at what a difference the group makes. It is surprising partly because it is virtual. Participants are each writing in their own space (usually alone, but sometimes in a cafe or library or other space with other people around). They cannot see the other members of the group. They don’t know their names or what they write about. We share a little so first names do come up and maybe a bit about topic, but the focus of the group is on making time for writing.
The work of writing is largely invisible.
As Murray‘s research (and Helen Sword‘s) confirms, writing as a process is not talked about in academic workplaces. You may be held accountable for your outputs, but you are largely left to your own devices as to how you produce those outputs. Your department may be a community, but if you look at what you discuss regularly you are more a community of teachers than a community of writers. And yet you are both teachers and writers. (Talking about how the two connect is probably even more rare.)
So much anxiety about writing comes down to not knowing how your process compares to that of your colleagues. Is it normal to take this long to write an article? Is it normal to have to write this many drafts? Is it normal to struggle with whatever it is you are struggling with right now? Are you approaching this particular writing process in an effective way? What are the options? What is the normal length and detail of comments from reviewers? What comments from reviewers are reasonable and what can you do with the unreasonable ones?
Even fairly simple things like how much time it is reasonable to take for writing when you also have teaching commitments are often unknown. Is what you’ve allocated reasonable? Too much? Too little? You probably have very little idea how much time your colleagues allocate or how they use it. Do you talk about the legitimacy of a research day? Or do you mostly talk about how impossible it is to actually do research on your research day?
It’s not so much that you lack discipline and need someone to hold you accountable to your commitments. You lack confidence that your approach is sensible, or that there isn’t a better approach out there. Or you lack confidence in how you are balancing your various commitments. Not only is “excellence” vague, there is no collective attempt to create a working definition amongst your colleagues. There is a role for things like deadlines and accountability, but it may not be as great as you think.
Create or find a community of academic writers
You know you can join the Academic Writing Studio. You are welcome. Participants tell me that it transforms their lives. (Really, that’s their word.) And it might help you build your confidence to start doing some of the other things I am going to suggest here.
If you are on social media, you can find or build academic writing communities there. Twitter hashtags like #acwri and #sciwri are definitely for academics; and hashtags used by a wider community of writers are also used by academic writers — #madwriting, #amwriting. Folks definitely organize writing sprints there, checking in to say they are starting at [specified time] and asking for company, then checking in after the sprint to encourage and cheer. Also, there are virtual Shut Up And Write sessions in Australian, North American, and UK time zones. You could organize a closed or secret Facebook group of your academic friends to talk about writing, check in for sprints or whatever. I’ve also heard that users of the app Habitica organize writing challenges you can join, if gamification works for you.
In your own institution, you can form or join groups of writers to write in community at organized times. I’ve talked about 3 kinds of writing time. You can organize group writing for any of these types. (See this post for an example of how one doctoral student did this: What’s the best way to get writing done?) You decide whether this is part of an existing structure like a department, or an ad hoc group, or something in between. Someone needs to be in charge of organizing and letting people know/inviting people. If you have an academic writing centre that supports student writing, ask if they also support faculty/academic staff and if organizing writing groups (or retreats) is something they’d be willing to help with or take a lead on.
The easiest to organize are probably the medium sessions (60 – 90 minutes). Book a room. Bring a timer. Start with some stretches, set the timer, write until the timer goes off. Stretch, take some notes, maybe chat about your writing. Other resources for how the session might work:
- Appendix A of Murray’s book has a brief outline of one structure.
- Inger Mewburn has written a couple of posts about how to organize a Shut Up and Write session (and on general principles).
- Jonathon O’Donnell has also described this process.
You can go with short Pomodoro-style (perhaps 2 or 3 with short breaks in between), or try longer depending on who is involved and what works for you. A Meeting With Your Writing is 90 minutes, and I encourage participants to divide that time in whatever way works for them. So some do 3 x 25 minute Pomodoros with 5 minute breaks; some get into flow for the full 90 minutes; some learn that 60 or 75 minutes seems to be their limit and then do smaller tasks for the remainder of the time; and everyone changes it up depending on how they are feeling that day and what they are working on.
You can also organize a 15 minute Academic Writing Challenge group. You may decide to meet together for this (at lunch?) or just support each other in your own experiments. Getting together to talk about how 15 minutes of writing before work is going could be remarkably helpful. I’ve got a series of linked pages with tips and downloadable resources, including tips for how to ask for support from other colleagues and how to support colleagues. Even if you do have a writing practice, you can still benefit from learning how to use short snatches of time and this challenge could be a way to start developing a community of writers.
Writing retreats, such as those organized by Murray (see also her resources for self-organization), are a way to use the longer stretches of time in community. They may be organized by a group of friends or colleagues, by your institution, or by external organizations. In addition to providing structure and time to get writing done, they also provide a context in which talking about the writing process happens. This builds writing community, whether through participants choosing to continue relationships beyond the retreat (virtually or face to face), or by modelling how those conversations and community writing spaces work.
Writing together in community is only one way to use community in your writing. Helen Sword, in her book Air and Light and Time and Space talks about craft as one of the pillars of writing. Her research (along with Murray‘s) shows that very few academics have received formal instruction in writing, but even if you have, all writers improve their craft over time. Having a group with whom you can discuss questions of style, language, and so on is a good way to do this. Your group might talk about the writing itself, provide feedback, and collectively support each other in improving your skills. Again, the academic writing centre or staff development unit might support such initiatives. And you can organize this kind of group virtually as well.
At a really basic level, you might start talking about writing with your colleagues in ways that are not about counting outputs. When you have that departmental meeting about workloads, ask what the assumptions are about writing time. Discuss how you can support each other in ensuring writing happens even when things are busy. Find ways to make writing more visible to each other and to students as part of your workload. (There is a downloadable door sign on the 15-minute challenge page.) Small steps may make a big difference.
If you are in a position of leadership
When I say leadership, I mean formal things like head of department or associate dean for research, but also more informal leadership like just being a more senior person in your department or being seen as someone who does write and publish a lot. In any of these positions how you talk about writing can have a major influence on the culture of your department or unit. If you have responsibility for ensuring your unit meets particular targets for outputs, there is a real danger that you will primarily talk about outputs and milestones towards outputs more than about process. This can feel like bullying to colleagues even if that is not your intention. (And it can morph into things that might actually qualify as bullying or harassment.)
How can you support a more writing-friendly culture? Can you start a discussion about assumptions of where and when people write in workload discussions? How can you support boundaries your colleagues have set to enable them to get writing done? And how can you do these things in ways that recognize that your colleagues may write differently than you do and benefit from different kinds of support?
Given that many academics report that finding time for writing is what is really tough, it is worth considering how the way you talk about teaching, service, office hours, and other demands on everyone’s time may be more important than talking about writing itself.
These posts are from a few years ago before I had this insight about community: