“I have to confess something,” Trina said, gazing directly at me. “I haven’t done any writing since the last time we talked.” She’d just finished one of my writing retreats a few weeks earlier, and this was our first time talking since then. “I had these long blocks of time set aside in my calendar to work on my book proposal,” she said, her face pinking up. “But I just didn’t do it.”
When I asked Trina what she’d done instead, I expected to hear she’d gotten distracted by the joys of summer, and had never even made it into her office. Or perhaps her partner had been on vacation and lured her away from work. Instead, she told me she didn’t work on her book proposal because she had to complete a different writing project. “The deadline was pretty short,” she said, the pink in her cheeks blooming from a gentle rose to bright bubble gum. As if she hadn’t done any work at all. As if she’d sat around poolside, sipping Negronis for the last two weeks.
In fact, it turns out that Trina had powered her way through one of the most onerous and essential research tasks on the planet: she’d written, polished, and submitted an IRB protocol for a new research project. She’d done so on a tight deadline. And as a result, had successfully launched a new project on time. To me, it seemed pretty clear she’d been busting her ass on her writing since the last time I saw her.
But in her mind, none of that counted.
One reason it didn’t count is because it wasn’t what she’d planned or wanted to do. This makes sense: it’s frustrating to have an idea of what you’re going to get done, only to watch it go up in flames as the time it actually takes gets longer and longer.
But the other reason it didn’t count, the more pernicious one, the one to which we should pay close attention, is that Trina (like me, and like many scholars) has a bad habit of only valuing the kinds of tasks that look like “real” writing.
Drafting prose, for example, is one such task: that moment when we’ve finally figured out what we want to say (and if we’re lucky, in what order) and we’re drafting new words that at least are beginning to take the general shape of a paragraph.
Revision, similarly, is a moment we tend to see as writing that “counts.” That’s when the bones and the meat of the work are already there, and all we’re doing is making things cleaner, more concise, more lovely. Even when it torments us by taking longer than we’d prefer, we can still see progress while revising. As a result, it seems somehow more valid than formatting the bibliography, or writing the IRB protocol. Or reading, for Pete’s sake, that most fundamental of research tasks.
We wish we had time to do this work thoroughly and systematically. Yet we speed through it, sometimes leaving sloppy work in our wake, because it doesn’t look enough like our pristine vision of “real” writing. Worst of all, when we do finally find the time to do this work, we feel badly about taking it. As if, by putting in all that work, we’ve been sneaking around behind someone’s back. Pretending to get things done.
There are a thousand reasons why we should not just resist, but actively work to undermine this habit of mind: It’s not helpful. It’s not accurate. It’s actually the opposite of what writing is. All of us have to take the time to capture our ideas. To flesh them out. To prod them, or just let them simmer. To nurture them when they don’t amount to many words on the page. And all of us, at one time or another, have to write to secure approval, money, or time for our projects. To get it in the proper shape so we can actually share it with the world. All of that writing is the kind without which the final version—the elegantly expressed answers at the end of the talk, or the single-authored article--cannot exist.
In the hidden corners of our hearts, we know this. We fume at news stories that accuse professors of taking summers off (um, what!?) and only working during the 5 hours per week they spend in the classroom. We know it’s not the final or the most public moments that constitute the bulk of an academic’s work. Yet when we think about writing, we still have the tendency to rob ourselves of the credit we’re due for all that behind-the-scenes, back-of-the-house labor required to make that final piece into something we can be proud of.
But here’s the thing: if you’re a scholar, you already exist in an environment that devalues much of what you do, while continuing to insist that you do it. For example, a faculty member I work with recently told me that his R1’s guidelines state that faculty should spend 40% of their time teaching, 40% of their time on research, and another 20% on service. In other words, that institution suggests that 60% of its faculty members’ time should be devoted to the work that will actively undermine their ability to get tenure. My point is, much of your required work is already both invisible and devalued. So, when you say that the unavoidable, essential parts of your writing “don’t count,” you’re actively reproducing the institutional narrative that says nothing matters but a line on your CV.
You must resist that. Actively, and at all costs.
And really, is there anyone reading this right now who joined a university because they needed that institution to define for them which part of their work mattered and which did not? Certainly, there is much to be learned by those more senior to us, no matter what stage we’re in professionally. But we also must cultivate and act from our own sense of what’s important. The rubrics universities use to measure and reward “what counts” are cramped and narrow. They are based on a set of interests that typically are not aligned with your desire to create and share systematically-researched, clearly expressed ideas. And while your job security might be bound to your institution’s measurement system, your own assessment of the value of your work is not.
So. Go on ahead and attend to the publication requirements your university sets for you. If you are going up for tenure or full, this is both necessary and wise. But please, please don’t forget that while you are going up for tenure, you are also going up for scholar. Which is way more important. And it’s possible for you to meet your institution’s standards without internalizing them.
I don’t care what you wrote today—be it an IRB protocol, a spartan, gap-toothed outline, or a bumbling, inept, five-sentence paragraph that summarizes the relevance of an article for the conclusion of your fifth chapter—you wrote. And it counts.
Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Most especially, yourself.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach