In the previous post I started with some essential pre-amble, namely what drives me to read about writing. In this post I want to talk about some important takeaways I have from Helen Sword's excellent book Air & Light & Time & Space.
There is a lot to love about this book. The first is that Sword is a great writer, making the reading a delight. Her other books on writing are on my to-read list now. Beyond the great writing, the book is a collection and distillation of many academic voices. As you read this book, you are not simply being fed a single person's mode of operation. Rather, it reflects the variety of successful practices by many academics. Because we are all different people, there is no one-size-fits-all regimen. Reading this and finding a collation of different types of practices to foster writing in the book has been great.
I have a ton of takeaways from the book, with lots of notes made in my reference manager. Below I'll highlight a few concrete actions I am going to take, some important insights I've gleaned, and some recommended books I plan to read in the future.
The Writer's BASE (and my weak pillar)
Sword uses the metaphor of BASE for your house of writing, with BASE representing behavioural habits, artisanal habits, social habits, and emotional habits. The book works through each of these spaces. Before that, though, Sword describes them and has the reader self-diagnose their own base. In my estimation, my biggest weakness is social habits (with none of my pillars being particularly strong).
The social habits issue was actually one of my biggest insights and action items. It made me reflect on my own habits and hang-ups. For someone like me who is an introvert, avoids confrontation, and seeks approval – the idea of someone scrutinizing my writing is difficult. But a bigger issue is that the nature of my PhD (part-time and at a distance) did not give me the type of social interaction around my work like other PhD students. I got comfortable in my own echo chamber.
To try and change this, Sword recommends entering into some sort of social writing efforts. This might be co-authoring, but it can also be social gatherings around writing. She has a number of suggestions, and I have already talked to a few of my colleagues about starting some sort of writing group together. I'm excited about this and if it comes to fruition, I'll make sure I share about the experience here on the blog.
Start With Why
It was a simple suggestion, but it sent me immediately to my computer to pound out a bullet list for myself. Sword suggests that academics really need to wrestle with why you want to write. Your list can and should range from the simple (I like the sound of a keyboard) to the grand (I want to see my books listed on Amazon). Keep these in mind, and perhaps even review them when you are about to begin a writing session. I've started my list already, and will continue to refine it.
Help Your Future Self
This was a simple suggestion that I so wish I had during the dissertation process. As you end a writing session, take 2 minutes to write a note to your future self. Quite often during my dissertation writing, it would take an unruly amount of time just to get my head back into the right space. A note to your future self reminding you where you left off, what you were thinking, and where you are heading can help accelerate the re-entry process.
Play Chicken with Teaching
This was a pretty provocative suggestion in the book, and I'm still mulling it over. I'm not sure I fully agree, but it has at least caused me to think. Essentially, the idea is to prioritize your writing time over everything else. This is not the norm for most of us. The priority as a professor goes to teaching (and all the administration that goes with it). The suggestion is that, because of the automatic deadlines, pressure, and rhythm of class time, you will get the work done in time, so you don't need to prioritize it. I'll need to chew on this one!
In one writer profile featured, the author talks about outlining and how essential it is to his writing. I found this quite intriguing and it is something I need to seriously consider. Basically, the scholar consistently works on a detailed outline for what becomes a book or article. This gives you something very concrete to do during the research, reading, and note-taking process, without the pressure to produce something polished. It removes the pressure to write good-sounding sentences, but builds the detailed skeleton of your work so that when the writing time comes, you are simply adding flesh to the bones.
Sword has a lot of good reading recommendations through the book, and a couple that really caught my eye and that I've put on my reading list are the following:
- Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
- Roy Clark, Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age
Any comments or suggestions? Let me know in the comments