Last week, Charlotte Frost of the wonderful PhD2Published blog declared November #acwrimo (academic writing month). The concept of #acwirmo comes from NaNoWriMo where the aim is to write a whole book in month.
Crazy? Yes – but that’s the whole idea. #Acwrimo is like a giant, global academic, aerobics session. It’s designed to help you push yourself to produce more than usual, but for a short period of time. You ‘sign up’ by making a public declaration of your goals on Twitter using the #acwrimo hashtag, or by replying to the announcement post.
This is the second year that #acwrimo has been run. To be entirely honest with you, I didn’t do #acwrimo last year on ethical grounds. I consider myself a productive academic and I didn’t see the point in pushing any harder. In part my resistence to the idea stemmed from a suspicion that we academics have become unhealthily obsessed with productivity, which generates what Jo Van Every calls a ‘culture of urgency’. This situation not good for our mental or physcial health.
It’s not really our fault. Governments around the world have, for some time, treated academia as a ‘knowledge factory’ with ‘outputs’ which can be ‘counted’. We have come to be ruled by these performance metrics, counts of journal articles published etc, despite the fact that output on its own does not really tell us much.
A raw count of output is only one indication of that value and impact of academic work – and not necessarily the best one. You can become a widely cited author because your peers think your work is terrible. A blog post might spread an idea more effectively and generate plenty of great debate, but not be counted at all.
Early career researchers (including PhD students) are particularly vulnerable to burnout in the academic performance culture. I think we need a ‘slow academia movement’ where we take time to chew over ideas and only put them out in the world when they are at their most flavoursome.
I was not sure that I should lend my social media clout (which I know is considerable) to #acwrimo last year for all these reasons, but lately I have changed my mind.
In her post Charlotte talks about setting goals that stretch you – whatever those goals might be. It may not be increased word count you want to achieve, but more time to write.
If we put the emphasis on the process, rather than the product, #acwrimo can be framed as a way to resist some of the more pernicious effects of this academic performance culture by giving ourselves more time to enjoy our writing. It can also be used as a way to explore new ways of being a writer in your daily work and stop seeing it as a source of anxiety and guilt.
While preparing a workshop for my visit to QUT next week I reread parts of Paul Silvia’s wonderful book “How to write a lot”. In it Silvia lists four ‘specious barriers’ to writing, which he frames as statements:
1) “I don’t have time”
2) “I need to read / analyse more before I start”
3) “I need a quiet space”
4) “I need to be in the right mood to write well”
Have you heard yourself say any of them? I certainly have! On Silvia’s advice I have, for over a year now, blocked out the first two hours of my work day in my diary for writing. Silvia points out that this time should include all the things that support writing – analysis, reading and so on.
However, as Silvia warns, other people don’t necessarily respect my commitment to my writing. Slowly, but surely, I have let other activities creep into my writing time – meetings, email, administration and so on. I often think to myself “I’ll just get these out of the way then I’ll get on with it”. In reality these activities just sap my writing energy and chew up time.
I’m sure I am not alone in this problem. There are many barriers to achieving your writing goals in academia. In my Getting Things Done workshop I list some of them:
- Teaching activities
- Getting access to research sites
- Experiments / data gathering going wrong
- Ethics processes
- Funding or equipment problems
- Illness / accidents / divorces
- No consistent writing schedule
- Email! (Twitter, facebook, linkedin…)
- Lack of a support network.
Most of these factors are largely beyond our control, but I think the last four are obstacles to writing that we can fight. I suggest to you that #acwrimo might be one of the weapons we can bring to bear in this fight.
Firstly #acwrimo encourages you to make a schedule; to put aside time to work on your writing and declare it a distraction free zone from social media and email. By making a public declaration you, in effect, sign a pledge. Like declaring you will stop smoking or lose weight, a public pledge helps other people to understand that you are taking your commitment seriously.
Consistent writing, such as #acwrimo encourages, is the only cure I know for perfectionism. The more you write the more ideas you generate and the less time you have to pointlessly polish the words you already have. The short time frame – one month – is a slower form of the pomodoro technique; if you are hating it by the end of November you can stop, but until then you have to try. You never know, you might create some better habits along the way.
Finally, by joining a global community and keeping in touch with other writers via #acwrimo on Twitter, or by following the PhD2published blog, you will increase your own personal learning network and connections. This network is important, as Narelle Lemon wrote compellingly some weeks ago, in maintaining your enthusiasm for the task you have set yourself.
So I am choosing to see #acwrimo as a way to resist and give myself the gift of time to write because I genuinely enjoy it, not because I have a specific word count or goal in mind. What about you? Do you think you will join #acwrimo? Or are you still unsure? Love to hear what you think in the comments.
PS: if you like being publicly accountable, add your name to this google spreadsheet and track your progress (thanks @mystudiouslife for putting this together)