The Defence Studies Department’s article writing month initiative is now in its third week. Judging by our shared googledocs page, my colleagues appear to be making impressive progress towards their writing goals. Personally, I am working to finish a book manuscript; a process which involves as much deleting as it does new writing. With an introductory chapter still to draft, I hope to make up some ground in word count terms by the end of the month.
My own lagging word total not withstanding, the experience of the last two weeks has led me to reflect more generally upon the process of writing and the role community can play as a source of inspiration and accountability. The benefits of making yourself accountable for your writing are well known and widely remarked upon. Committing to writing for a certain amount of time, producing a set number of words or completing a given section or project is more effective when you can involve your peers, colleagues, friends or family in the process. Shame, it seems, is a powerful motivator. Yet despite regularly encouraging students to study together, share and test their ideas, present their findings to one another and to engage in collaboration and discussion, academic departments are remarkably reticent in extolling the benefits of similar endeavours to their staff. As academic’s progresses from graduate to post-graduate education, to a doctorate and then to a post-doc or teaching position, their research becomes an evermore individualistic endeavour. This can partially be explained by the imperative to produce original research, which encourages specialization and which can make one’s research inaccessible to colleagues. But as the majority of disciplines share common characteristics, methodological basis and lines of enquiry, it need not be so. On a more practical level, tools, techniques and approaches to writing can also all easily be shared and discussed. It is these collegiate aspects of #ArtWriMo that I have found particularly beneficial.
It is an oft-utter aphorism that the best way to improve your writing is to write more words, more often. I myself regularly give this advice to students, but often find it difficult to implement. Having a monthly goal and seeing other people Tweeting, discussing or updating our googledocs page with their progress has been a useful source of impetus to sit down and practice writing. Many of the words you pen will not appear in the final product, but this does not mean they were not important. Tools like Scrivener or other online writing applications that enable you to set a daily word-count can be a real help with this and provide some of the accountability you can also get from colleagues and friends. If you’ve not tried one of these platforms, I thoroughly recommend doing so. The facility to bring colleagues or friends in other departments together into an online community is a potentially powerful means of improving all of your productivity and will certainly be something I continue to do in future.
Part of this month’s initiative has been a series of writing sessions where members of the Department can all come together and work in a shared space. Initially I was quite skeptical about this, as I suspect many of us were. Afterall, one of the luxuries of having one’s own office or working in the library is that one is not interrupted. Yet in practice these shared sessions were great for productivity and for shared discussion. Using scheduled breaks as an opportunity to work through approaches to writing, how best to frame an argument, tips for tailoring work to specific journals or publishers or just to learn what colleagues were writing on was both a beneficial and enjoyable use of time. Rather than being distraction, taking time out of undoubtedly busy schedules to write together was an entirely positive experience.
Another interesting thing to come out of the session was the opportunity to discuss methods of working and writing. We experimented with the Pomodoro technique, which intersperses periods of work (25 minutes) with regular scheduled breaks (5 minutes) in an attempt to improve work capacity and avoid burnout and also discussed storyboarding; a technique which many of us have been using to great effect this month.
All-in-all, #ArtWriMo has provided me with some revealing insights into my own writing; how I write; why I write and how to do it better. Taking the time to reflect on these issues has been of great benefit and has also helped me to have a productive month. There is more to a writing community than the fear of shame, it seems.
Image: storyboarding a chapter and current progress using Scrivener.