the writing is never done – a post for #acwrimo

No matter how fast he went, Fred noticed that the pile of blank scrolls never seemed to get any smaller

No matter how fast he worked, Fred noticed that the pile of blank scrolls in the corner never seemed to get any smaller.

Do you have a list of things that need writing? Do you never actually get to the end of the list? Feel as if you’re on a treadmill? You no sooner finish one thing than you need to start on the next? A paper gets rejected and then you have to work on it some more and send it somewhere else? It all feels never-ending? Writing is relentless?

As #acwrimo kicks off once again, and the list of pledges are made, it’s important, I reckon, to talk about one of the realities of academic life – the writing that is never ever ‘done’.

In a former life, as a headteacher, I was able to manage the writing associated with my work. I could clear my intray/inbox each day. Whenever I had a writing deadline, I could manage it alongside my regular work, and I never seemed to have more than one or two bits of writing on the go at a time. But when I moved over into the university, one of the things I immediately noticed was that the inbox was never empty and there just seemed to be an endless line-up of writing to do – and there was no one but me to get that writing done.

At first, I felt completely overwhelmed. I was habituated to the feeling and practice of completion – getting the writing out there, crossing things off the list. So I tried harder to recreate this situation. I wrote more and I wrote faster. But I learnt that simply going faster didn’t solve the problem. If I wrote more, the list didn’t go away. It remained a seriously long set of writing tasks –  the only thing that had changed was that I was working faster and harder. I was swamped by my list, frustrated at never getting it done, and tired. Very tired. And a bit fearful. How could I solve this seemingly in-soluble never-ending-writing puzzle?

I’m not quite sure how, but I did learn an answer to the treading-water-very-fast-to-get-nowhere feeling. I discovered that I had to accept the fact that the writing would never be done. There would always be writing to do. There would always be a deadline to meet. There would always be something that needed to be written and published. I couldn’t control that – it was and is the nature of scholarly work. But I really needed to take control of something about this agenda. What I could control I realised – if I chose to – were some aspects of the speed and the quantity and type of writing that I did.

It slowly dawned on me that I could make decisions about, for example, how many things to take on at once, how many of the things to be written had to be started off right now and how many could wait, and how fast I expected that I could write something. Of course these decisions were/are within institutional frames – and there isn’t much doubt that institutional requirements have both speeded up and increased in terms of the diversity of writing that is now expected (more about this later). However, it’s still possible to feel more or less anxious about these, more or less able to control the pace and range of what gets written.

The key for me was working out that there would never be a time – well, not until I give up my mouse and computer and academic salary – when I would get through the writing list. There would never be a time when the writing would be done. And, what’s more, there was/is no point seeing this as a treadmill.

Writing was/is the work of scholarship. Like housework, the writing is never completed. You can step back for a moment and enjoy a clean floor, a writing completion, but the work of cleaning/writing is ongoing. Writing is the work. It is not an add-on. it’s integral to being an academic. Choosing to be an ‘academic’ is choosing a writing life. And this means making regular time and space for it.

Sometimes of course I do still find myself fretting about my writing list. When this happens I have to stop and take myself in hand. I have to remind myself … You chose to take on this list of things to write. Yes one or more of them is overdue. But you will get it done, you always do, so there is no point getting in a lather about it.

The monks knew that the abbot would be very surprised when he heard that they had decided to reduce the number of illustrated manuscripts they produced each year

The monks knew that the abbot would be very surprised when he heard that the page illustrators’ guild had decided to reduce the number of manuscripts they produced each year. They just couldn’t wait to see his face when he found out!

Being in the academy, if that’s what you decide to do, does mean facing up to two realities related to writing. First of all, I/you get to choose, within tricky institutional frames, how much writing to do and what to write. And as I said earlier, there’s no doubt that these expectations are increasing – but the way to change these institutional expectations is to organise collectively/politically, there isn’t an individual solution to normative expectations, performance management and audit practices.

Early career academics may well need to talk over what they can control and choose to do with a writing mentor. There is also valuable support and encouragement through peer writing groups and writing retreats and workshops. And let’s not forget sharing academic writing experiences online, through #acwri, #acwrimo and #ecr chat and other self organised groups. It’s not necessary to choose and sustain academic writing regimes in isolation.

Secondly and most importantly I/you have to learn to live with the writing never being over and done with, but always being writings – plural – in progress. And my best advice is not to be like me! I do have to confess that some years I have chosen to take on much too much. Like this year. Far too much indeed. But this year’s writing list was my decision. Nobody forced me to write as much as I am. And my problem this year is not an habituated view that the writing is never done, the problem is me wanting to write too much.

That being said, #acwrimo can be a great boost to writing. I’m certainly hoping to get the last things on my very overambitious 2015 list done so I can make more sensible choices in 2016!  I’ve had to ask my friend and research/writing partner Chris to remind me not to decide to do so much writing ever again.

That’s my #acwrimo pledge. Write less often. Write fewer books. Write on!!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, overwhelmed, pace, speed, writing life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to the writing is never done – a post for #acwrimo

  1. Thank you for offering the middle path, Dr Thomson. When I had taken a look at your writing plans for this year, earlier, I was so shocked that I thought either I was really crazy, or err…I need not listen to your wisdom. This post is so human, and realistic. Much appreciated too.


  2. Pingback: Critical thinking – the hardest doctoral skill of all? | The Thesis Whisperer

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