Academic Writing: Finding Your Way (4/4)
Full disclaimer: I am just another random researcher. I don’t have any special writing skills. So, why I am leading this workshop on academic writing, actually?
I just really, really enjoy writing. I have found my way. And, also, I love human beings. I believe that how we feel, what we are, what we become, what we grow into, is more essential than ‘being productive (writers)’ in a capitalist world. I believe that not everything we have to share with the world may be communicated with words, and in academic sentences maybe even less so. I want us to feel valued and heard even when we cannot write, I want us to find ways to say what we have to say in any form that works for us, and I want us to feel empowered and creative when we write and don’t write. Oh, and I want feelings, experiences, fears and body reactions to finally become part of our research:
My research was messy, it was emotional and it was not an easily divisible and logical process. So, I decided that I wanted the writing of my thesis to reflect what I felt was the nature of my research: messy, confrontational, emotional and violent. I wanted to write my thesis differently.(Weatherall 2019: 101)
How, then, can we go through the “messy, confrontational, emotional and violent” aspects of our research? What resources can we develop to fully embrace those things we don’t understand, are afraid of, protect ourselves from?
Writing, not (only) academically
When I have been invited to give a workshop on academic writing, the first thing I knew is that I wanted to talk about writing in general, not academic writing specifically. Why? Because I feel that by always talking about academic writing as if it were—inherently, profoundly, automatically—different from other forms of writing, we just want to reassure ourselves by constructing our academic selves as professional writers.
Rather, I would like to invite you to consider academic writing as one of the many forms writing can take. We do write, every day: SMS, emails, to do-lists, etc.
When I’m stuck, I shift my (academic) writing to other platforms. This may sound weird, but sometimes, I’ll just describe my next paper in my family WhatsApp chat… and go from there. Or I’ll do some journaling, write a blog post. I don’t think “this is my next book”, but “I’m going to make some notes on the topic”. And the “notes” gradually become more text.
Being a body (and doing something with it)
What does it mean to write ‘through the body’? How does the materiality of your body, your perceptions and responses, affect who you are as a writer, what is important for you to write about and how you go about writing? And how can you bring more of your embodied knowing—your hunches and gut feel, your tastes and senses—to your research, writing it in ways that are vivid and enlivening for you and your readers?(Sinclair & Ladkin 2018: 415)
My only advice (and I know this may be frustrating to some of you, but this really is the key): you have to find what works for you. And the only way to do it is to listen to yourself.
What works for me (and that I didn’t know about) is: dancing, a lot, close to exhaustion, waiting, a lot, too, writing with a pen and colors and stickers, not eating (when I’m hungry it weirdly motivates me to write quickly), working in cafés with a lot of people around because it makes me feel like I belong, writing about anything but my next paper, dressing up (and sending cute selfies to my mom—I know right), especially when working from home, doing some pseudo artsy collages, numbering my notebooks (I’m very visual and actually remember in which notebook I had which thought, hence the pen question in this blog post)… When I’m doing all that (even in the middle of the day), I’m not procrastinating. I’m allowing my brain to focus on something else before coming back.
When I’m baking or cleaning, on the other hand, I am procrastinating. Here again: knowing the difference is key.
And—now comes the scary part—it may change over time. So, more specifically, you have to find what works for you at a given time.
This has been extremely confusing for me at first, but I have writing cycles that may last a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. They are usually not topic-related but seasonal, which means that I have to pay full attention to my physical reactions and emotions.
[The screenshot/tweet reads: “to everything there is a season. sometimes it’s winter. you have no leaves, nothing to give, the sap of the tree is all drawn up into its trunk. so you just wait through that season until it feels like spring again.”]
Concretely, this means that I never wake up at the same time (I’m an early bird, so I’ll usually be out of bed before 8 am, and the earliest would be 6 am. Still, a lot of variation there), never eat at the same time, and—you got it—never write at the same time (see the section on “tiger time”).
For people with a uterus, writing may be affected by the menstruation. By that, I do not only mean that there might be days when the pain may prevent you from writing, but that there might also be times of your cycle where you feel overconfident in your ability to put things into words, and others where everything is chaotic. (If it resonates with you and want me to write a blog post on this specifically, please reach out!)
Going meta: writing on writing
In her book, Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics, Jensen (2017: 78) talks about the necessity to write on things that matter to us, and suggests talking to colleagues about your writing projects to find out if you truly enjoy them, because “almost everyone’s voice gets more energetic or musical when they are describing something that engages them”:
So when you find yourself bored, stalled, and discouraged in your writing, talk with colleagues who can help you find your lilt. It’s fine— maybe even better— if they don’t know your research area. This means they will be able to stay focused on the tone, not the content, of what you are saying. Talk to them about what first drew you to the field, or what matters most to you about your research area, or what you hope to accomplish with your current choice of possible projects. Let them listen for the lilt so they can help you identify what matters to you. Then do the same for them.(Jensen 2017: 81)
This technique does miracle for me, not only to find out whether I am still connected to a project but to organize my thoughts. The danger, however, is that if the colleague raises some scepticism right away or starts pointing at problems with the idea, you might end up dropping that idea prematurely.
That’s why you don’t necessarily need someone listening to you: you can also speak to yourself for a few minutes in front of a mirror, leave yourself an audio note, or… write.
It felt weird at first, but I keep coming back to writing about how a writing project makes me feel. Why?
First, it makes me write! When I’m getting obsessed about whether I’m writing or not, it grounds me back, shows me I can write, I do have things to say. This is especially useful when I have to get back to writing in one of the languages I haven’t been using lately.
Second, it helps me process my possible resistances and frustrations. I begin with “I don’t feel like writing because…” and go from there.
The power of letting go
There is a story behind it. A grant I got after a first rejection because I let the project soak in for a year, and came back to it when it felt right. But I don’t feel like writing anymore, and I want to acknowledge that I don’t know how to tell you this story. So, this how I conclude:
- Gallop, Jane. 1994. The Teacher’s Breasts. Discourse. Wayne State University Press 17(1). 3–15.
- Irvine, Judith T. 2017. Afterword: Materiality and Language, or Material Language? Dualisms and Embodiments. In Jillian R. Cavanaugh & Shalini Shankar (eds.), Language and Materiality, 277–294. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Narayan, Kirin. 2012. Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Sarnecka, Barbara W. 2019. The Writing Workshop. Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia. [full book downloadable here]
- Sinclair, Amanda & Donna Ladkin. 2018. Writing through the Body: Political, Personal, Practical. In Catherine Cassell, Ann Cunliffe & Gina Grandy (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Business and Management Research Methods: History and Traditions, 415–428. Los Angeles, London, New Dehli, Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne: SAGE.
- Tracy, Brian. 2017. Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
- Weatherall, Ruth. 2019. Writing the doctoral thesis differently. Management Learning 50(1). 100–113. https://doi.org/10/gd8d3d.
For some exercises on how to engage with your body while writing, check Sinclair & Ladkin (2018), who mention freefall writing, stream of consciousness writing, ‘sketchbooks’ and journaling, moving, stretching, walking.
Narayan (2012) also offers some great ideas:
- Beginning with the words “I most hope to write…” write forward for at least 5 minutes.
- Quickly write down a few images that jump out at you as you think of the materials you’re drawing on for this undertaking. Continue for at least 5 minutes.
- Beginning with the words “I’d most want to read…” write for at least 2 minutes.
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Please send me your recommendations, too! And check this list of free/low cost resources for graduate students (rather US-oriented).