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What counts as academic writing? #AcWri

TW: On the use of the “binge” word: I disapprove of the actual use as it will be shown in my post, but I would like to acknowledge that the reason it is problematic is that it links a real eating disorder with a writing behavior. This obscures the realities and challenges facing folks with eating disorders and therefore I am uncomfortable using it and moving forward will not use it anymore, instead using “sprint writing” or “writing spree”.

#AcWri on a planeAnybody who reads my research blog and/or follows me on Twitter knows that I have very specific approaches to writing. Because I need a disciplined approach to life, I do things like the following: I schedule my life to the every minute, I organize my office every day, I organize my research notes and books/journal articles almost obsessively. Writing every day has become my mantra and my daily discipline.

Because I need the peace of mind of having accomplished something every day, I write every day, instead of spending extended periods of time cranking out text (what often is called “binge-writing“, though I hasten to add that binging has a very negative connotation associated with eating disorders, and we may need to change the language around that). I write every day because I’ve made writing my priority. Everything can wait but not writing. I can’t leave my house without doing some writing.

My academic writing #AcWri processEvery single researcher (and writer) out there will provide the advice that works best for him or her. A recent piece on Inside Higher Education(which I loved by the way, because she’s such a great writer) by Dr. Jane Ward suggests that you should “binge write” (e.g. write for extended periods of time), instead of writing every day. She also suggests (which I find is one of the most powerful piece of advice anybody can give) to self-identify as a writer.

This is something I do (identify myself as a writer), because in a former life, I wrote PR and marketing copy. Ask me one day over cocktails. Her third piece of advice is also extremely powerful: don’t absorb other people’s anxieties. If somebody else is stressed, don’t let that stress get you down.

But I want to go back to the first piece of advice, because that’s the one I find most people struggle with – should you write every day or should you binge-write (we seriously need a replacement word for this, people). Inspired by Dr. Wendy Laura Belcher (whose 12 weeks to a journal article book is an absolute gem that you should buy this very second, and whose writing advice is stellar), I went on Twitter to rant about this notion of “don’t write every day”.

#AcWri and reflection and highlightingThe truth is: YOU ARE WRITING EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even if you are sending emails to a coauthor about how to craft a specific section, THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. Why? Because you are sharing concept notes. You are shaping how your argument is going to be structured. You are discussing the data. Are you reading and taking notes off of each paper you read? You are WRITING.

Are you drawing tables by hand to decide how you’re going to present them in your paper? YOU ARE WRITING. You are, in fact, WRITING.

Most people who write about academic writing (now that’s writing-ception) will differentiate between “generative text” (words you will end up putting into a paper or grant proposal) and “non-generative text” (bits and pieces of writing here and there). In reality, even if you don’t structure full sentences or write a full paragraph, every time you write something that pushes your work forward, you ARE writing, and you ARE writing “generative text”.

Handwritten notes

One of the problems I have found with recently published papers (and this may be the result of our publish-or-perish attitude) is that their literature reviews are exceedingly poor. Sometimes I find that key citations are absent from papers whose authors should know better. I believe one reason for this is that we don’t take the time to read and write notes about what we read. And we don’t because, WE SHOULD BE WRITING. If we don’t take reading seriously, if we don’t write notes and assemble robust literature reviews, our writing will end up being quite poor.

Our obsession with producing generative text has also led us, I believe, to relegate reflection to a distant second place. We don’t make time for proper reflection and digestion of ideas and thoughts on an every day basis. What is important in my daily academic practice? WRITE. WRITING. I NEED TO BE WRITING. But we don’t make the time to reflect. And the notes you write to yourself while you read and reflect on ideas? THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. That IS, in fact, writing.

I think we owe it to ourselves to recognize that no writing practice is perfect, or ideal, or that every single piece of advice you receive will work for you. You need to build your own writing practice. But to do so, you also need to recognize that many of the activities you don’t reward yourself for doing (like writing notes by hand, like emailing colleagues with ideas and thoughts, like reading, reflecting and taking notes about what you read) are in fact, whether you recognize it or not, writing.

My Twitter rant below:

UPDATE: Dr. Melissa Terras suggested a change in the wording of “binge-writing” that will shape how I write about this topic in the future. As Katrina Firth aptly suggested, the word “binge” suggests some sort of abnormalcy. We usually associate binging with “binge eating” or “binge drinking”, both of which may lead to physical illness.

Melissa Terras suggests “writing sprints” instead of “binge writing”, and I love this idea.

Jo Van Every had already written about the use of “binge writiing” and I didn’t recall until I searched for associated tweets. I also thoroughly agree with Professor Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch that if you want to sprint, you can’t do it unless you’ve trained daily, which is the theme of this post (how every writing you do can actually count as #AcWri).

FURTHER EDITS: Wendy Laura Belcher and Jane Ward had a dialogue in the comments on the Inside Higher Education piece, and also with me.

Furthermore here are a couple of additional thoughts by Pat Thomson who also has written on the idea of binge writing (I’m changing my vocabulary to “sprint writing”).

And the book recommended to me is one I already own in PDF version. “How We Write” edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari. Great read.

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