Write No Matter What

Now seemed like a good time to read this book, which a colleague recommended. And it was. It’s a very easy read. The style is anecdotal, the argument clear, and the evidence is there, but worn lightly – just as well, as the author says this is how academics should write nonfiction for a wider audience.

So Joli Jensen practises what she preaches. This makes Write No Matter What different from many self-help books, and I confess that I felt I was reading in that genre at first, which I didn’t much like. This is a key reason why academics are so reluctant to seek help with their writing – we’re supposed to know how to do it, we’ve done so well, come so far, jumped through all the hoops with apparent ease. What do you mean, we can’t write? Who on earth can we ask about it, without losing face?

Peers. I found Jensen’s chapter on peer review one of the most useful. She emphasized that peer reviewers are “an increasingly rare remnant of the gift economy” – reading your writing for free, and responding to it in detail. They are not attacking you personally: they are people too. Editors struggle to find them, and can overrule their choices. Knowing this, it’s easier to respond to their feedback, and Jensen makes concrete suggestions about how to. She stresses the need for a community of peers, not to critique your content, but to support your writing process. I was very lucky to have this from the first, starting my PhD in a house share with other doctoral students from different disciplines. Jensen didn’t have a peer community then, so she created it when she reached the tenured faculty stage of her career. Now she is helping her entire university – and her readers – to do the same.

One thing is clear: you will never suddenly have time, space, and energy to write. The demands are always there, always heavy, and won’t go away. So you have to fit writing into your life as it is now.

This means writing for 15 minutes a day, every workday. You can do that. Once you do, other things start falling into place. The first half of Jensen’s book covered familiar ground for me about focusing on your writing: techniques she calls brief daily contact (the 15 minutes), a project box, and a ventilation file. In the second half, Jensen outlines recovery strategies for when writing goes wrong. This means looking critically at the stories we tell ourselves about how we should be writing and why we aren’t – she calls it inviting our demons in for tea.

It also means using your energy efficiently. ABC energy isn’t a new idea – A is when you do your best thinking (like working out concepts); B is when you can focus, but not brilliantly (like preparing for a session you’ve taught before) and C is when routine is all you can manage (like whittling down your inbox). My A time is first thing in the morning, and my C time is after lunch if I haven’t had a proper break. To rephrase “translate drunk but edit sober,” I can translate in B if I must, but I have to revise the translation in A.

A reverse calendar imposes order when things are feeling out of control. This means writing down what you actually do all day for at least a week, so you know what can change. I’ve used this, but hadn’t thought of doing it at intervals throughout a long project or sabbatical to keep on track.

A buddy log is the smaller log that keeps the main log on a fire going. It fuels it and sparks energy, but it’s not the heart of the blaze. When you get very excited about a new project that is not related to your key task (which happens to me almost daily) you can do it, but it’s the buddy log. You can use B or C time for it, but keep your A time for the main event. When you have multiple projects on the go, they can move between the A, B, and C slots, depending on what stage they – and you – are at.

Sometimes you try absolutely everything, and the project – even a book you’ve got an advance for – is still not worth writing, or you shouldn’t be writing it, at least not now. This can be the “cracks of doom” moment when Gollum had to bite Frodo’s finger off for him to let go of the Ring. Hopefully it won’t go that far, and letting go of what Jensen calls a “toxic” project will make space for something better. But what? And how do you find it?

Find the lilt. For this you need someone to listen to your voice. I hope I do this as an editor and facilitator; we all need it. When you’re not sure why your writing isn’t working, or where you want to take it, another person can hear when your voice rises and warms because you’re interested in what you’re talking about. This is what you want to work on. This is worth finding out about. This is what you should be doing.

Jensen is realistic to the end, but not pessimistic: “There will always be too many demands, not enough resources, unfair practices, and distressing departmental politics. There will always be reasons to feel that our academic ideals have been betrayed. But whenever we work with each other to recognize writing obstacles and celebrate writing progress, we enact a version of the academic utopia I sought for so long. The suggestions in this book are designed to help you write, but they can also help you embody the most honourable elements of academic life, no matter what.”


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