In this post I reflect on strategies that help me write. Of course, I still get stuck, distracted or temporarily disheartened, feeling that whatever I write is inadequate. But writing captures, however clumsily, an expression of an idea, an argument, a position, at a moment in time. And it can always be revised.
As I start to write this, I question what I know about writing. My personal history of academic writing stretches back from not too positive experiences at school and as an undergraduate, through to various Master’s courses and a doctorate, to today. Crucially (probably partly because I feel I am always trying to compensate for what I learned – or rather didn’t learn – at school but also because I have an enduring interest in the experiences of others) I am forever looking out for insights from those who have made writing about academic writing their business. So, what follows builds on my experiences and readings, and on the insights gleaned from many conversations with generous colleagues. I hope that they help you to challenge your writing and perhaps make it more enjoyable.
Reflect on your needs
Academic writing month is as good a time as any to reflect on what you think you need to enjoy writing. In recent years, I have challenged most of my own preconceptions about conditions needed for writing. I used to think that long blocks of time – at least a whole day, preferably several consecutive days – were essential. That I needed to be ready (for example, I had ‘finished’ reviewing literature or analysing data). That I had to write in a quiet place, with no distractions. With a deadline very close by. But as I talked with colleagues, read about writing and wrote, I began to approach writing differently. Rowena Murray’s advice on finding time to write provided strategies to try out and Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler’s various texts (and of course Pat’s blog) were always close by, ready to offer support. They are now called on frequently to support doctoral and early career researchers’ writing too (see Lisa McGrath’s recent post on this).
Plan, review, adapt
Be flexible, realistic and kind to yourself. Try out different strategies and reflect on how they work for you. I work best with a schedule, writing in blocks of 60-90 minutes, but using a timer to get me moving and away from my screen for 5 minutes every half hour. I write with music on – background ‘focus music’ that quietens distracting thoughts and signals writing time. Before I start, I set intentions – writing these down (and sharing them in writing groups) and returning to review them. I am getting much better at judging what is feasible in each slot – and maybe just better at setting intentions.
Write in company
Here are just three of the ways I’ve enjoyed writing in company, despite initially thinking that writing was a solitary activity. The first is in the various writing support groups and sessions that I’ve been part of, including the twice weekly ‘Write!’ sessions I co-lead and the SIoE writing days and retreats I’ve organised for several years. These have provided me with opportunities to learn from others about writing challenges and strategies, to feel supported and encouraged as part of a network of writers and to share writing intentions. The second is through dialogue as part of various writing collaborations. I love the excitement in the generative phase of these endeavours, exploring possibilities, mapping ideas, getting carried away and reigning ourselves back in, albeit temporarily. I still find the next phase more challenging, getting these ideas down, revising the writing again and again and again – but doing this in collaboration helps. The third way felt like a gift! Sometimes opportunities arise, an invitation is received, you wonder if you can find the time… but say yes anyway. The gift was participating in a collective biography workshop led by Susanne Gannon and Carol Taylor. Together we shared images, wrote stories, read them aloud to each other, talked about the stories and our experiences of academic life, later producing two papers (Gannon et al. 2019; Taylor et al. 2020) and leaving me with warm memories of collaborative writing.
Have fun with your writing! Try out alternative formats – see what happens when you mess with conventions. Take risks! These imperatives are for me too – to do more of this. When I have experimented with form, it has been some of the most enjoyable writing I’ve done. What different approach(es) might you try today?
I continue to work at this. Because writing can (nearly) always be improved upon and thinking is constantly in flux. My writing is never good enough for my inner critic and that’s ok! Reluctantly I accept the need to learn to settle with ‘good enough for now’ – and what that means varies according to the output. Achievements can be small, related to plans and intentions – sticking to a writing schedule, achieving a goal (composing a blog post), sharing a draft with a colleague, submitting a conference proposal, reading and writing notes on a paper – all these are steps on the way to bigger writing successes.
I’m off for a walk now – movement is another vital writing tool. Ideas flow when I’m outside, helping me think through whatever writing project I’m engaged with.
Gannon, S., Taylor, C., Adams, G., Donaghue, H., Hannam-Swain, S., Harris-Evans, J., … Moore, P. (2019). ‘Working on a rocky shore’: Micro-moments of positive affect in academic work. Emotion, Space and Society, 31, 48-55. doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2019.04.002
Murray, R. (2013). Writing for academic journals. Open University Press.
Taylor, C. A., Gannon, S., Adams, G., Donaghue, H., Hannam-Swain, S., Harris-Evans, J., … Moore, P. (2020). Grim tales: Meetings, matterings and moments of silencing and frustration in everyday academic life. International Journal of Educational Research, 99, 101513. doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2019.101513
Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2013). Writing for peer reviewed journals: strategies for getting published. Routledge.
Dr Gill Adams is a Reader in Education. Her research focuses on mathematics education and on experiences of professional learning. She leads regular writing events for colleagues and doctoral researchers.