If I could just work out that perfect sentence I would start writing. Well, if I had the time to think of the perfect sentence that is, because I have emails to answer, and teaching (and emails) and marking (and emails) and meetings and students to see (and emails). But that’s ok, I’ve got a research day later this week, I’ll start writing then.
With apologies to Jane Austen, it does seem to be a truth universally acknowledged, that there are (at least) 101 reasons why we don’t write. The biggest one perhaps for me, is that fundamentally I find writing hard. That’s not to say I don’t do it. But there is definitely more (and better) that I would like to write if only I had the time. This blogpost itself is something that I may have put off until an absolute deadline, or until I’d worked out perfectly what I wanted to say (I don’t want to show myself up in front of my lovely new colleagues) but I am happily writing the first draft of this, without waiting for that perfect starting point, sat in the library with a couple of friends, who are also writing. So what’s happened?
I have been reading and thinking a lot about writing for quite a while. Indeed for a long time I have really enjoyed thinking about writing; I had a romantic Sartrean ideal of sitting round in a cafe, thinking wise things, smoking, drinking coffee, and producing works of utter brilliance. (That I wasn’t writing like de Beauvoir and friends was also another source of frustration!!). Some of the reading and thinking I did was about style; how could I improve the quality of my writing? I came across this book by Helen Sword which has already been blogged about here. But I was also thinking about my motivation for writing and how I could improve it. I love George Orwell’s Why I Write but I felt he didn’t really give me any practical ‘top tips’
In my previous academic job, my ‘research day’ was often a Thursday. Some Thursdays I was super productive. Fine and good. But some Thursdays I’d start the day listening to the Today programme, with a cup of coffee and mulling over what I was going to do that day. So I’d do my emails. And while doing that the radio would segue into In Our Time, and then of course Woman’s Hour (it should be said these were both programmes I was oblivious too until I had research days). I’d be doing emails, admin, dealing with students etc, so was technically working. I just wasn’t doing any research writing. I would get started maybe late morning, just before lunch. Or maybe I’d have a walk and then start after lunch. Or maybe I’d do a bit more reading first. Now don’t get me wrong, I do have publications, and I do get my writing done, but I’ve never really found it enjoyable. Writing was something I could very easily procrastinate over (a friend sent this amusing video on procrastination) which of course would then mean I’d also then beat myself up at the end of the day. This wasn’t every time I sat down to write, but it certainly did happen more often than I felt comfortable with. And then, during one of my research related procrastination detours, I was on a website when I came across this book called How To Write a Lot. Written by an academic, this book helped me rethink my working practices in respect of writing (and was probably the best £6 I have spent in a long time!).
And then a second stroke of luck. Last week, supported by the Politics Research Group in the Media School, we ran a writing retreat. The first day was run by a facilitator. Now I have been on training sessions where I am feeling I already have too much to do, and that working time (and especially that elusive writing time) is being lost while I am in the session. Yet the beauty of the retreat was that we were encouraged to take along a piece of writing that we were working on. What was important too was that it didn’t matter that in the session we had different research interests or that we were writing on different topics. A colleague produced two book proposals and a grant proposal. In one day! Another colleague wrote 4200 words. And I managed just over 3000 words. And this wasn’t 7 or 8 hours solid writing. This was in less than 3 hours in total. Now these weren’t perfect words, well mine certainly weren’t. And I also didn’t have my perfect opening sentence. But I did have something to work with. And now less than one week later, I have an 8000 or so word chapter that I have sent across to my co-editor. In short we all produced MORE on a training session than we would have done if we had been working in our offices for the day.
I have written everyday since that retreat and am now starting an article and a research proposal. I don’t feel daunted by the prospect; in fact I am really enjoying it. It’s just lovely typing away with my writing friends and I am also happy writing on my own. It’s a great combination. I have discovered that I actually like writing and a whole world has opened up to me. I am not religious (apart from our census form on which all of my family are heavy metal), but it does feel strangely like some kind of Damascene conversion.
Senior lecturer in politics