Crafting Scholarship: Writing Communities and Personal Ritual
In this article, we'll examine writing communities that are sometimes quite informal and involve establishing writing dates with a colleague or two, and more formal writing groups that meet weekly in concentrated writing sessions. We'll end with a brief nod to the allimportant, and rather quirky, rituals that writers privately embrace.
The Company We Keep: Writing in Groups
In the end, writing is between you, as the writer, and the page, an inherently asocial activity, but it can be helpful to have fellow travelers and to write in a neighborhood of other writers. I recently spoke with a bright assistant professor of family studies who prefers writing in public settings like libraries and coffee shops, and often with a colleague. She said:
I make a date with one other person to set up our computers in the same place (usually a coffee shop) and work on different things while we are in the same space. We usually don't talk to each other very much except when we greet each other and break for a meal or to walk back to our offices. The point is to heighten external pressure to write at a particular time rather than actually share ideas, though sometimes it's nice to ask or answer a quick question!
David Brunsma at Virginia Tech takes the idea of writing in groups to a new level. David organizes weekly writing sessions with an open invitation to faculty to attend. He refers to these sessions as "write-ins," where faculty come together to write for two hours with the expectation that the group atmosphere will enhance everyone's productivity:
I started these [gatherings] I call "writeins" so it's kind of a takeoff on "sitins." I like the political association. The idea behind it is to get a group of people sitting around a table in the same space, kind of feeding off of each other's collective energies. In academia we all have to write.
So I set up this structure so that I could both send the message to the people I was mentoring that writing is fundamental to what we do, fundamental part of scholarship and teaching. . . . Writing has to be a habit, a practice that you get into. [And] I thought about how to construct a space or some sort of approach that would send that message while also allowing me to continue my writing. So I created these things called "write-ins." Right now I'm doing 3 per week [each is 2 hours].
It is just a basic time that anybody can come and we sit down and when 9 o'clock starts we just start working on our projects. We don't really talk—that's not completely fair to say, at times we do—but by and large the goal is to turn off email, and Facebook. You can keep Internet for Google Scholar and other things you might need, but nothing else.
Some people put on headphones to kind of drown out the environment a little bit. But what is really happening is there is kind of collective camaraderie, a kind of a collective energy, even a collective soft, but important, accountability system that is built in there too. The people who have ended up being regulars, because it doesn't work for everybody, say, "This is the way to do it."
The other thing that is as important, if not more important, is simply the idea that one needs to set aside blocks of time to write and sometimes that means that you will sit in front of a blank screen, but at least you are in that good pattern. You are not going to wait for the inspiration. You're going to get in the habit of writing a little bit at a time.
David's approach is unique among social science writers and clearly principled. As a senior faculty member, he understands the importance of writing, the need to establish a routine writing schedule, and pairs that with a sense of social responsibility for the success of his junior colleagues. Rachelle BrunnBevel participated in the weekly writeinsÍ¾ I asked her how she liked writing in a group setting. She told me:
I actually like it quite a bit because [of]—David uses the term—collective energy, but there really is something about seeing other people working that makes you want to write more, especially on days when you may be struggling on a particular piece and you might be tempted to just say: "I'm just not going to write todayÍ¾ I'm going to do something else." But the pressure of being around other people who are also struggling with writing is for me helpful so that is really why I like going to those groups.
We usually talk for a few minutes at the very beginning as we are setting up our computers and plugging in, usually about whatever it is that we are going to work on that day, and then again as we are packing up something about what we accomplished as we were writing.
Some faculty have developed writing groups in which participants share details on their current projects, and perhaps reading material and other resources on productive writing strategies. Often graduate students are included and the sessions become a way for participants to share experiences, to support and mentor one another. Cheryl Logan and Paul Silvia began a writer's group for faculty in which participants share shortterm goals, celebrate accomplishments, and generally provide a forum to discuss writing. Tanya GolashBoza developed the Facebook page "Daily Writing Updates" to use as a platform to support members' writing, by posting shortterm (e.g., daily, weekly) writing goals and pairing those with progress reports. Elizabeth Sharp schedules writing retreats with colleagues, usually in highly desirable settings (e.g., a favored city or rural setting). These are multiday sessions in which participants work on their joint or individual writing projects. In all of these instances, faculty actively seek out ways to support their writing by creating or joining writing communities.
One common strategy for improving a manuscript is to share drafts with colleagues in order to invite feedback. This is certainly a fine tactic. Having a trusted colleague read a draft can help identify areas in need of attention and lead to significant improvements, and it is far better to discover inadequacies, even relatively minor issues like lapses in grammar, typographical errors, or missing references, before submitting an article for review. I recently received an article for review with grammatical errors in the title and abstract. This is not an ideal way to impress your editor or reviewers. In this case, I like to think that a colleague who reviewed the manuscript before submission would have discovered those simple shortcomings, and perhaps added more substantive suggestions as well. I would not recommend asking your former adviser to comment on a new manuscript unless you previously discussed the issue. It is well to recall that reading and editing a manuscript is time consuming, easily a multiplehour session. Consider asking a peer to read your work and offer to reciprocate the favor.
Creating an Institutional Writing Culture
Elizabeth Sharp, with her colleague Caroline Bishop, organized the Women Faculty Writing Group at Texas Tech (bit.ly/TTUWomenWriting). The group comprises women faculty across disciplines and meets for a threehour session each week. The sessions begin with a 30minute discussion of an article all have read, including time to record each participant's writing goals for the session, and 2.5 hours of writing. The intention is to provide a balance of camaraderie and individual focus on writing, elevating the importance of successful writing and publishing in the hurried lives of all academics. The program has some institutional support, rather than an informal and more typical writing group, from the University Writing Center, the Women's Studies Program, and the President's Gender Equity Council, which Elizabeth happens to chair. Having institutional support seems a distinct benefit because it acknowledges the importance of active research and writing, creating a supportive culture of scholarship. Welldesigned writing programs for faculty squarely centered on their productivity are, surprisingly, unusual.
In all these practices, attention to personal preferences and rituals is important for successful writing. Writing often feels chaotic, near impossible, and makes us just plain ornery as we try to wrestle ideas and words into some semblance of meaningful prose. Perhaps for these reasons writers seem to quickly develop rituals in their writing habits, well defined and purposeful. My colleagues easily and immediately responded to my questions about their use of computers, paper, and writing implements. Nearly all have very particular preferences, and some were a bit selfconscious about sharing the details of their preferences, not wanting to appear "silly" or all that peculiar.
On writing mediums, nearly all use large screens or laptops. I have one colleague who writes all her drafts in longhand on lined paper, only later transcribing the draft to a laptop, and in doing so edits her work. Most use laptops, some use large monitors or multiple monitors, but there are the occasional exceptions. One colleague shared: "Recently I had to give a talk to a developmental group and even though it was based on some [of my own] recently published work, I had to write out the talk by hand on a legal pad. For some reason I couldn't do it on a computer." Sometimes it's just a good idea to go with the flow, wherever it takes us.
Faculty use lined or scrap paper to jot down notes or sketch conceptual drawings as they work. Some carry conveniently styled notebooks wherever they go, to quickly record ideas as they come. (My current favorite is the Quo Vadis brand of notebooks.) One colleague uses a smartphone for this purpose, which seems like a great idea. For many, the routine of moving from writing on a screen and sketching notes on paper is an integral part of the process. Paul Amato commented:
Usually I write at a screen. I take notes to myself on paper. It might be outlines or diagrams or sometimes its keywords when I'm trying to think things through. If I'm trying to think through how a series of ideas are logically related, I'll write down a couple of words or a brief idea and draw arrows between them, and make little pictures like a Venn diagram to help my thinking. Those diagrams don't appear in an article but I've used them to help me think through how things are related. I'll have a pad of paper next to my computer screen. I'll write for 15 minutes then stop and scratch on my pad, then go back to writing again.
For Paul, and perhaps other writers, the physical process of moving from one medium to another helps to formulate and organize ideas. Nearly all writers I spoke with take notes as they write, but none used a note-taking software or created an ephemeral digital notes file. Typically, I keep a brief outline and relevant notes within a manuscript and most often immediately following the section I'm working on. As I complete writing on a particular issue or section of a manuscript, I erase the relevant notes. (A separate and permanent file contains summaries of notes on readings.)
On writing implements, nearly all expressed clear preferences for a pencil or pen, but typically not both, and within those generic gatherings, there were some more particular preferences. I've not encountered any especially predictive personality attributes or links to early developmental experiences, but the preferences are clear:
- "I don't use mechanical pencils. We have them lying around [the house] but I prefer lead pencils. I didn't have a lot of pencils until I had kids. With kids you've got like pencils littered all over the place."
- RM: Do you prefer writing with a pen or pencil?
RM: Never a pencil?
RM: Any reason?
"No. I just like pens."
- "I always use a pencil, sharp with a good eraser. My daughter has this whole caddy of pencils so I usually just pick up her pencils and use them."
- "A pen with purple ink. They are the Pilot brand, very fine, rolling ball pens. I buy them by the bunch."
- "Always a pencil."
- "I have a real fondness for fine-point pens, and oddly enough I feel like I can write better and think better if I have the appropriate instrument. I have a distinct preference for these extra-fine point pens. [He'll use others if the preferred type is unavailable, but not for sketching.] I suppose an artist wants a certain kind of brushÍ¾ [with the right pen] I feel comfortable and I feel my mind works better, more relaxed, and the words are more likely to flow or the diagram I'm working on will seem better. When I go to a store, if they have [a pen] on display, I'll go test it out to see if I like it. There have been times when I accidentally bought the wrong one and have been very annoyed."
- "I almost always use a pen. The only reason I might use a pencil is if my pen is missing."
- "I'm very particular about this. It's a pen and I usually have a favorite pen that I have to have and usually it's purple or black, but not always. I don't like fine pointsÍ¾ I like more of a midpoint, a thicker line. I have to have my special pen at the time [when I'm writing in a notebook]. My partner has bought me pens and he knows which ones to get and which ones I like."
And in case you're wondering, I use pencils and not just any old pencil. No, no. I vastly prefer Palomino blues with a white eraser, and nearly as often a Blackwing 602 with black eraser. Both are nominally HB2 pencils, but the Palominos are a bit harder lead and the Blackwings a bit softer but smoother writing, and the erasers are exceptional. Indispensable is a fine sharpener. There you have it. The ultimate truth is revealed.
The key to writing and publishing is to write regularly, establishing clear writing times each week and daily sessions if possible. Writing in groups or having writing dates with a colleague can be inspirational and an effective way to maintain an active and regular writing schedule. To my knowledge, more formalized writing groups where colleagues from neighboring disciplines are invited are not terribly common, the Women Faculty Writing Program at Texas Tech being an exception. Similar programs might be organized differently to suit the needs of potential participants.
Writing groups can also serve as places for faculty to share their personal experiences of writing, where they may find many more similarities in their experiences than not. The rituals we develop as we write are often unacknowledged but I think fun and important to acknowledge. Knowing your particular preferences for writing instruments and venues is important, as it leads us to write mindful of our process and of what is apt to make our writing sessions more productive and successful.
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