Various Routes to Getting Writing Done
The past Tuesday, I attended the Faculty Roundtable organized by the Writing Center, along with several FI fellows. An amazing and diverse lineup faculty were carefully curated for this workshop, including Serene Khader (Associate Professor of Philosophy and Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy and Culture), Paul Krugman (Distinguished Professor of Economics), Bianca Williams (Associate Professor of Anthropology), Feisal Mohamed (Professor of English), and Leslie McCall (Professor of Sociology). These rather accomplished faculty members shared their writing strategies and struggle with the audience.
Their varied writing experience reminded me of a writing book I’ve read a while ago, titled Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. For a long time, I believed that I have to develop a writing habit to write at least two hours a day amid the busy and messy life of a graduate student/adjunct lecturer/all the other roles we need to take as a human being, to become a productive academic. Until I read this particular writing book mentioned that such belief we as early-career scholars were taught to believe though “may prove highly beneficial to some writers, their one-size-fits-all prescriptiveness can also lead to feelings of inadequacy and guilt, especially for aspiring authors who, for whatever reason, fail to thrive under the designated regime (4). Instead, this book takes a more holistic and inclusive view to suggest a “BASE habit”:
Behavioral habits. Successful writers carve out time and space for their writing in a striking variety of ways, but they all do it somehow. (Key habits of mind: persistence, determination, passion, pragmatism, “grit.”)
Artisanal habits. Successful writers recognize writing as an artisanal activity that requires ongoing learning, development, and skill. (Key habits of mind: creativity, craft, artistry, patience, practice, perfectionism [but not too much!], a passion for lifelong learning.)
Social habits. Successful writers seldom work entirely in isolation; even in traditionally “sole author” disciplines, they typically rely on other people—colleagues, friends, family, editors, reviewers, audiences, students—to provide them with support and feedback. (Key habits of mind: collegiality, collaboration, generosity, openness to both criticism and praise.)
Emotional habits. Successful writers cultivate modes of thinking that emphasize pleasure, challenge, and growth. (Key habits of mind: positivity, enjoyment, satisfaction, risk taking, resilience, luck.)
I found many accounts shared at the faculty roundtable echoed these BASE habits. Bianca Williams talked about the importance to embrace one’s identity as a writer and recognize the academic writing process as a creative process. Also, she emphasized the importance to be bluntly honest with one’s writing process that might even involve scheduling several hours to cry when staring at a blank page at the beginning of the writing. Paul Krugman, though never having trouble with writing, shared that most of his writing was done in one sitting with a rolling single draft, countering another long-held belief that it always took many drafts to a final product. Feisal Mohamed reminded us that our work is never “done” and we will never have the final words. “Once you acknowledge that to yourself, you might work pass the anxiety of completion. At a certain point, you need to let it go and know that it’s going to be imperfect,” he said, and therefore encouraged scholars to produce more works to correct, contradict, and continue engaging in the intellectual debates. Leslie McCall addressed the anxiety around framing the research in a way to fit in the expectation of the reviewers and editors. Her solution to it was to do more collaborations with other scholars who are better at framing their research and consider it an effective way to get instant feedback for research ideas. Serene Khader brought the responsibility and constraints of being a caregiver and how that affects one’s ability to write. The positive side of that is that she started to develop new writing habits of writing in small slots of time, even five minutes on the phone on the subway. That let to a new revelation of trusting her ability to “come back” to her thoughts: although it sucks to stop in the middle of writing and thinking to pick up a crying baby, you are not going to lose the thought if you do not finish it right then. The ideas are still going to be there.
They also discussed the differences between public and academic writing, including catering to different audience groups and balancing the two types of writing to make one more productive (instant gratification from public writing, and hopefully more shelf-life from academic writing). For scholars working in a more marginalized or emerging field, finding a community of collective writers and later on in the career, academic institution building and organizing works are necessary, such as the works the Futures Initiative and the PublicsLab are doing.
The faculty roundtable also showed the gendered and racialized experiences of different writers in the academy. We need to encourage more conversations like this to let early-career researchers and writers see that there is no one standard way to becoming a “successful” academics, yet various strategies that would work but also are situated with our own lived experiences. Embrace the non-linearity of this process amid our chaotic world!
Sword, Helen. 2017. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Harvard University Press.