Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics

Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics

by Joli Jensen

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With growing academic responsibilities, family commitments, and inboxes, scholars are struggling to fulfill their writing goals. A finished book—or even steady journal articles—may seem like an impossible dream. But, as Joli Jensen proves, it really is possible to write happily and productively in academe.

Jensen begins by busting the myth that universities are supportive writing environments.  She points out that academia, an arena dedicated to scholarship, offers pressures that actually prevent scholarly writing. She shows how to acknowledge these less-than-ideal conditions, and how to keep these circumstances from draining writing time and energy. Jensen introduces tools and techniques that encourage frequent, low-stress writing. She points out common ways writers stall and offers workarounds that maintain productivity. Her focus is not on content, but on how to overcome whatever stands in the way of academic writing.

Write No Matter What draws on popular and scholarly insights into the writing process and stems from Jensen’s experience designing and directing a faculty writing program. With more than three decades as an academic writer, Jensen knows what really helps and hinders the scholarly writing process for scholars in the humanities, social sciences,and sciences.

Cut down the academic sword of Damocles, Jensen advises. Learn how to write often and effectively, without pressure or shame. With her encouragement, writers of all levels will find ways to create the writing support they need and deserve.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226461847
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/28/2017
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,039,979
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Joli Jensen is the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, where she founded and directs the Henneke Faculty Writing Program. She is the author of Is Art Good For Us? Beliefs about High Culture in American Life; The Nashville Sound: Authenticity and Commercialization in Country Music; and Redeeming Modernity: Contradictions in Media Criticism. Find out more at www.jolijensen.com.

Read an Excerpt

Write No Matter What

Advice for Academics

By Joli Jensen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-46167-0


Letting Go of the Dream

Many of us were drawn to academic life because we yearned to live "the life of the mind." We hoped to spend quiet hours thinking great thoughts while discovering important things. We imagined having creative and supportive colleagues and plenty of time to talk with them about our ideas. The movies show professors having deep conversations in wood-paneled offices or taking contemplative walks between classes down ivy-covered lanes. No wonder outsiders assume that we have plenty of time to write! If only.

Even though we realize that this image is a fantasy, we may still cling to some version of it. We know that our current situation feels writing-deflective, even perhaps writing-hostile. We hope that once we land a tenure-track job, or get tenure, or become a full professor, it will be easier to find ways to write. Or maybe if we get to a "better" university we will find more support for our scholarship. It is easy to keep yearning for an academic utopia, somewhere we can be productive, valued, and supported.

That's certainly what I yearned for. Even though I was surrounded by evidence that universities weren't at all like the dreams in my head or the images in the movies (and I was a media studies scholar, and my father was a professor!), I kept seeking that book-lined study in the company of supportive colleagues, with ample time to read, write and think. Someday I would have just what I needed to write lots, easily and well. The struggle would finally be over, and I would live in an academic arcadia.

Eventually I realized that my actual situation was never going to match my dreams. This allowed me to face reality — if I wanted to write, then I needed to find ways to write productively in the real academic world. Once I stopped blaming my circumstances, I was able to find ways to secure reliable writing time, space, and energy. I learned how to recognize and find ways around the writing myths that kept me anxious and miserable.

For far too many of us, academic writing is a perplexing burden, a source of constant anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion. The entry stakes are very high — publish or perish. But even after tenure the writing stakes continue to be daunting. Our self-respect, as well as the respect of our peers, depends on our ability to keep writing. We know that scholarly productivity is the constant coin of our realm, yet most of us struggle mightily in our efforts to accrue enough of it.

We may have spurts of productivity alternating with excruciating droughts. Or we may dutifully (but resentfully) concoct yet another essay or article in a corner of the field that feels less and less interesting to us. We may apply for grants knowing we have to get them to keep our funding, while half-hoping we won't get them so we don't have to deal with too many projects at once and more rounds of deadlines and revisions.

We come up with avoidance strategies that work all too well until we are faced with professional reviews, and then we crank out what we can, quickly and sullenly. No matter how many lines we add to our CV, we can still feel like we are missing the mark. The tragic truth of academic life is that everyone I know is constantly trying to be more productive while feeling anxiety and shame about not writing "enough."

I spent years wondering what I was doing wrong — why wasn't I writing more, and more happily, while still having time and energy for teaching, service, family, and friends? Why wasn't this working out like it was "supposed" to? I recognized, dimly, that I was in the grip of a fantasy about what academic life can be and that I didn't know how to write effectively in academic reality.

I didn't want to become bitter, and I didn't want to become "deadwood" — a professor who doesn't publish and therefore should be pruned from the departmental tree. This is a cruel but common way to describe tenured colleagues who may still have much to offer but, because they are not actively writing, are treated with disdain.

We are surrounded by cautionary examples of what happens when writing doesn't go well. There are the colleagues who are not publishing anything but refuse to do service because they claim that they still "need time to write." There are the colleagues who do their writing and publishing with grim determination, joylessly. And there are the colleagues who talk confidently about their project's progress even after it has become painfully clear to everyone else that little or no writing is actually being done. In this brackish and judgmental climate, few of us deal realistically with our writing; few of us are able to acknowledge how it is actually going or how we really feel about it.

The less I was able to approximate my academic fantasy, the more betrayed I felt. I was stuck in the gap between what I yearned for and what I was actually experiencing. And that was with a fortunate academic career, begun in a field that was growing just as I received my PhD from a respected graduate program. Thanks to timing as much as ability, I have taught at three good universities and have been tenured and promoted without excessive trauma, all while writing and publishing books, chapters, and articles. From the outside, I'm sure it looked like I was living the academic dream, almost effortlessly.

But I was not. I was blocked for many months before finally finding some helpful productivity techniques that allowed me to write my dissertation. Since then I have started many writing projects that mysteriously stalled and so eventually had to be painfully abandoned. I have tried all kinds of "carrot and stick" schemes to get myself to write, but few of them worked for very long. I have been mired in collaborative writing projects that frustrated and drained me, keeping me from working on what really interested me.

Even when writing was going reasonably well, I agonized over how writing takes precious time away from family, friends, and everything else life has to offer. I felt drawn and quartered as I struggled to find that popular chimera: work-life balance. I was stressed and rushed when writing, and stressed and rushed when not writing. Where was my longed-for "life of the mind"? I questioned the point of it all — was it really worth it?

This book is the outgrowth of my own desire to find ways out of my misery, as well as my desire to be of help to valued colleagues whose careers are at risk because of their unresolved writing issues. My father's scholarly life was shadowed by a long-deflected (and ultimately abandoned) contract for a seminal introductory textbook. Several faculty members in my own small department have been denied tenure because they claimed all was going well until it was too late for them to address or overcome their writing obstacles.

One of the interesting paradoxes of academic life is that the traditional academic schedule offers us tantalizing little slices of our "life of the mind" fantasy. One reason it is hard for us to face the reality of our situation is that we actually have research days, weekends, winter breaks, summers, and sabbaticals. This makes our writing issues even more mystifying and shaming. To our dismay, we discover that even when we have these enviable bits of "time off," we still fail to get writing done.

During breaks, summers, and sabbaticals we find ourselves getting ready to write but never quite getting there; or reading but not actually writing; or writing in circles without much progress; or revising but not submitting or resubmitting. At the end of our guilt-ridden "free" time we may finally force ourselves to write in a frantic binge as deadlines loom and our classes are about to start. This means that we are (once again) doing the very opposite of what works: we are spending infrequent, high-stress, low-reward time on a project that we just want to be rid of.

No wonder it is so hard for us to write! We have learned to produce grudgingly, in fits and starts, under relentless pressure, with an academic sword of Damocles (deadlines or tenure or professional reviews) hanging over our heads. This is both tragic and unnecessary. Our scholarly writing can be done without guilt, pressure, or shame. We can deploy effective writing techniques, bust the myths that keep us from writing, find ways to keep going when our momentum flags, and create the writing support we need and deserve. That is what I cover in the chapters that follow.


Demystifying Academic Writing

For generations we have wrapped academic writing in mystery — keeping quiet about our own writing issues and publicly shaming those who visibly struggle with theirs. This has to change. Our trouble with writing is not evidence of our unfitness for the profession. It is not some secret sign of unworthiness or ineptitude. It is nothing to be ashamed of.

When our writing isn't happening, we need to become willing to admit this and ask for help. Writing involves a particular set of practices that can be mastered and shared. If academic writing is a craft that can be learned, then we need to be doing a much better job of helping ourselves — and each other — learn how to practice our craft. That is the only way we can break through the silence and shame that has kept so many of us from figuring out how to be productive scholars.

Every step of the way we can acknowledge that academic writing is psychologically and emotionally challenging for all of us. It is not "just you" who is having trouble, and it is not "your fault" that it is hard. Each of us can benefit from requesting and using the writing guidance and advice of our colleagues. But sadly, the academic environment rarely offers support for this central, and most challenging, element of our professional life.

Rightly or wrongly, the measure of our professional worth continues to be our ability to write and get published. Writing and publishing is how we gain status and attention as graduate students, how we win postdocs or entry-level positions, how we become eligible for tenure-track positions, and finally — if we are fortunate — how we achieve tenure. And then it remains the way we keep the respect of our colleagues, as well as how we measure our own professional standing and accomplishments.

But the challenge goes beyond this. When we run into writing trouble, we are afraid to ask for the writing guidance that might be out there. Our advisors and mentors, the people who could help us learn how to do academic writing more easily, are also people who might punish us for not knowing how to do it already. As graduate students and untenured faculty members, we can't afford to take the risk. Won't it just make things worse to ask for help?

As our careers progress and we become tenured and potential mentors ourselves, we still don't want to admit that we are often flying blind, muddling through as best we can, becoming disheartened or desperate. Sometimes we manage to find our way around self-created and system-created writing obstacles and into print, but not always, and never "enough." Even the most prolific and successful of us feel that we need to keep our writing struggles under wraps.

Writing issues don't just disappear by themselves, and surrounding them in fear and mystery only makes things worse. It is reprehensible that graduate students are supposed to figure out, apparently by osmosis, how to master the writing process, then submit and publish like a senior professor, or that a postdoc or tenure-track faculty member is expected to already know the writing/publication ropes. Asking for guidance at any juncture risks giving the impression that you don't have the right stuff — "if you need writing advice, then maybe you don't really belong here."

Given this mystification process, a tenured faculty member who runs into writing trouble will disguise it as long as possible. Making it to tenure does not mean that writing issues have been mastered; it just means that writing obstacles haven't yet become overwhelming. In fact, because of the shame we've attached to "being unproductive," few tenured faculty members will admit to experiencing writing problems of any kind. So the academic writing process stays mystified even for many senior faculty members, as well as for the students and junior colleagues they could and should be able to mentor.

Very few of us are lucky enough to have advisors who honestly share what actually goes into most writing: self-doubt, fear, frustration, avoidance, stalling, redrafting, revising, resubmitting, getting rejected, trying again. Even productive colleagues may not be able to tell you how they manage to write in spite of and through their own obstacles. They may not know what techniques are most helpful or what the research says about sustaining academic productivity. They may not have a clue about how to help you when things go awry — as things so often do.

So if you want to become a happy and productive academic writer, you will need to be willing to train yourself. You need to learn and use basic writing-support techniques, and you need to commit to getting past your own self-created obstacles. Two books that have been particularly helpful to me are Robert Boice's Professors as Writers (1990) and Paul J. Silvia's How to Write a Lot (2010); their insights are threaded through the pages that follow.

Make a commitment to taking your writing struggles seriously — take them out of the shadows and into the light. Don't fall for the myth that writing just happens for those lucky few who have the right academic stuff. Pretending that all is well just makes things worse for you and for others. We may not be able to change the extremely high stakes of academic writing, and we may not be able to reduce the nature and number of conflicting demands our jobs put on us. But we can find ways to acknowledge our writing struggles and then discover and use writing productivity techniques that really work.


Craftsman Attitude

Craftsmanship is the concept that can stabilize us when we feel buffeted by academic anxieties. Treating our writing as a craft reminds us that scholarship is always, at least in part, an apprenticeship. It keeps us in touch with the fact that academic writing is something we can learn how to do. Our job (as with any craft) is to gather and deploy effective tools to help us develop from clumsy amateurs into ever-more skilled professionals.

Academics can be uncomfortable with the craftsman metaphor. Perhaps because being a successful student (and professor) requires looking and sounding smart, we learn how to offer impressive intellectual performances while hiding our clumsiness and ineptitude. This means we may see our writing as a test of our ability to impress, rather than express. It may feel humiliating to patiently work on the gradual building of productive writing skills and techniques.

In academic life we live by our wits, a colleague once told me. He meant that we rely almost solely on our mental abilities to succeed. Like con artists and performers, we become experts in appearances, acting like we always know what we are doing, pretending we are better than we are. This is the opposite of the craftsman attitude, which involves instead an honest commitment to learning how to do better and better work. The ethic of craftsmanship involves a willingness to focus, directly and methodically, on what we don't yet know so that we can learn how to work with ever-increasing skill.

Books of writing advice are ambivalent about the craftsman attitude. The majority of these focus on writing fiction, and fiction is considered to be a form of art, not craft. These books can imply that the writing process is imaginative alchemy, done by and for a special class of people. Even nonfiction advice books, designed to help readers produce seemingly less mysterious forms of writing — journalism, magazine articles, and essays — can fuel the unhelpful notion that writing springs from a creative process that needs only to be nurtured and then set free.

The classic argument for applying a craftsman attitude to academic life is "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" by sociologist C. Wright Mills. This essay explicitly advocates treating social science scholarship as a craft. Mills encourages the reader to develop his (and, we must assume, her) own "habits of good workmanship."


Excerpted from Write No Matter What by Joli Jensen. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Preface Part I. Writing in Academe 1. Letting Go of the Dream 2. Demystifying Academic Writing 3. Craftsman Attitude Part II. Using Tools That Work 4. Three Taming Techniques 5. Securing Time 6. Securing Space 7. Securing Energy Part III. Challenging Writing Myths 8. Draining the Drama 9. Demons In for Tea 10. The Magnum Opus Myth 11. The Impostor Syndrome 12. The Cleared-Deck Fantasy 13. The Hostile Reader Fear 14. Compared with X 15. The Perfect First Sentence 16. One More Source Part IV. Maintaining Momentum 17. Follow the Lilt 18. Beginnings and Endings 19. Finding the Lost Trail 20. Effective Feedback 21. Handling Revisions and Rejections 22. Working with Stalls 23. Relinquishing Toxic Projects 24. Back-Burner Projects 25. Breaks, Summers, and Sabbaticals Part V. Building Writing Support 26. Overcoming Isolation 27. Creating Faculty Writing Groups 28. Building Campus Writing Support Conclusion Afterword: Writing for the Public Bibliography Index

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