who is ‘an academic writer’?

If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard. 

The words of Kenneth Goldsmith, poet founder of Ubuweb and Penn State University teacher of Uncreative Writing.

Goldsmith’s work Soliloquy is a transcription of every word he spoke for a week. He wanted to see how much someone spoke in a week – and – he wanted to materialise and weigh speech. Soliloquy is an example of Goldsmith’s contrary approach to writing.


Goldsmith argues that we no longer need to make any new words and works – we no longer need to be creative in the conventional sense of the term –  there are enough words and works in the world. Rather, he says, we should work over the words and works that already exist, particularly those that are banal and everyday. The acts of  inauthenticity and insincerity achieved through re-formatting, re-mixing, un-editing and transcribing –  what might be seen as plagiarism – defamiliarise the assumptions and implicit social rules we usually gloss over and ignore. Our sense of order is ruptured, as Susan Sontag put it.



In the academy, only some people are seen as academic writers and researchers. Within this group, some are seen as better than others, more productive, their work of higher quality. But there is another group of people who are designated not-writers and a large number in the middle who are working hard to move into the productive category. The calculation of the corpus of ‘academic writing’ and its value, and ‘academic writers’ and their value, happens regularly in contemporary universities.


With apologies to Kenneth Goldsmith….

I imagine recording every academic word I write – perhaps starting in a week. Emails, to-do lists, notes on reading, feedback on postgraduate writing, reports of activities, perhaps an abstract or two, a couple of blog posts, some drafting of what might normally consider proper writing, minutes of meetings, a bid for funding, a letter of recommendation, score sheet from an interview panel… . Very few of these words count as proper academic writing but I, as an academic writing,  produce them every hour, every day, week in and week out.

I imagine compiling these words into a continuous text and printing them out. This is a big book.

I imagine asking all of my colleagues to do the same exercise. In a week, we have filled several book cases – I work in a large department.

I imagine doing this for an entire year.

There is no more room to store the books of words that we have produced every day for a year. The words occupy all available storage space … we begin to construct new spaces, smaller spaces where we can work, cramped in, our words literally pressing in on us, constraining where we can go and who we can interact with. We continue to turn/churn out more and more words, more and more books of writing each day.

Soon, we have to work elsewhere, as there is no more room for us amid the books of words that we never stop producing.

Well, you get the picture.


You might want to check out Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing. It’s one I dip in and out of periodically to disrupt my own thinking.

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, Kenneth Goldsmith and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to who is ‘an academic writer’?

  1. Jozica Kutin says:

    Just the extra inspiration I needed as I “convert” my research participant’s narratives into biographic poetry. thank you for introducing me to Kenneth.


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