Whenever I meet an academic writer and tell them what I do for a living, they tend to have two reactions. First, their eyes glaze over as they imagine the exquisite pleasure of retreating for an entire week, with no other obligation but to write. I share this enthusiasm, and don’t mind the momentary inattention. They eventually rouse themselves and move on to their second reaction—the one I’m much more interested in.
This reaction unfurls more slowly, amid hesitation and apology. They’re sitting down regularly, they say. And they usually get something down on the page. But it takes so long. And by the time their writing session’s over, they’ve deleted a third of what they wrote. The second third is indecipherable. And the final third only partially expresses what they meant to say.
At the end of this description, they eventually wind around to asking what they really want to know: Is this the way it's supposed to go? Am I doing it right?
Does this really count as writing?
Part of the reason they ask this question is that, like most scholars, they’re not clear on what their writing process is. That is, they don’t know what steps they take, in any given stage of a writing project, to go from muddy ideas in their head to clear words on the page. There are certain conditions and environments, habits and behaviors that make it easier for us to write, and they vary from person to person. Putting them in place makes the work easier (not easy) and bypassing them tends to short circuit our thinking. When we don’t know what our process is, it’s harder to know if we’ve veered off course, or if we’re actually doing the slow, painstaking, work required to reach the finished product.
A second reason we question what counts as writing is that, like the profession we’re a part of, we tend to be overly focused on finishing rather than working. Most of us are embedded in institutions that disregard the bulk of our labor, rewarding only its end result. As a result, it’s hard to feel like what we’re doing really counts since it can’t yet be represented by a line on our CV. There is a certain logic to this: it’s hard to make tenure decisions about the ideas swirling about your head. Committees need some concrete way to assess the quality of your work, and publications are how we do that. The problem though, is that we’re so focused on finishing that we use it as the singular indicator of meaningful, valid work. Being done with work becomes our only proof that we’re doing work. But they’re not the same thing. Especially when it comes to writing.
This emphasis on finishing wouldn’t be so bad if it acted simply as a healthy motivator. But for many of us, the time we spend on an unfinished project feels like failure. This is especially the case for graduate students, untenured faculty members, and contingent faculty hoping to transition into tenure line jobs. In the face of a tight labor market and ever increasing requirements for employment, it’s hard for these scholars not to see finishing as the only valid move.
But even among senior scholars, I’ve noticed an inability to develop alternative notions of what counts as writing. Perhaps it’s because by the time you have tenure, the valorization of finishing is so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to rid yourself of the habit. The end result is that writing becomes about, not the writing itself; not about the time required to fully develop an idea. Instead writing becomes about the finishing, the sending, the submitting, the presenting. The being done.
This approach does a wonderful job of creating a strong sense of urgency in a writer. But that sense of urgency is often debilitating. And it does nothing to help scholars clearly assess what’s happening when they sit down to write and whether they’re doing the work they need to be doing. For that, we need a broader vision of what’s happening when we write.
There are three other dimensions to writing besides the glorious act of finishing. In fact, I’d say that these three others count more than finishing, because they are the fundamental actions upon which finishing relies. These three dimensions of writing aren’t hidden, but we often fail to notice them. They’re sometimes painful. And their value goes largely unrecognized until long after they are completed. It’s nevertheless your job, dear writer—your burden and your responsibility—to recognize their worth, engage in them, and then, hardest of all, give yourself credit for all of them.
The first dimension of writing that counts is involvement, by which I mean merely thinking about ideas related to your project. I know, I know. Just hear me out. Involvement is particularly important for those of you who find yourselves frozen—unable to stomach even the idea of opening your manuscript. Involvement does not require that you actually write anything down—only that you roll the ideas around in your head a bit and see what comes of it.
The reason it matters so much—and why you should give yourself serious credit for it—is that involvement in one’s work is how we get motivated to write. It’s tricky, because it doesn’t seem that way. We consistently assume that we must first find some motivation—some inner grit or inspiration—and then we’ll be able to write the day away. But as Robert Boice kindly and repeatedly insists to us, we “solve the problem of motivation by becoming involved first and motivated later.”* Borrowing from Don Murray, he lays out a simple yet substantive way to think about and begin involvement. It consists, he says,
of little more than tuning in on the ongoing conversation in one’s genre, an act that doesn’t seem to demand a lot of immediate energy or decisiveness…by listening and noticing, we can somewhat effortlessly discover the essential themes, who creates them, and how they are best expressed.
When you stop to think about it, this is a sensible and civil way to enter into your writing. When you run into a group of likable folks chatting at a party, do you burst into their midst and announce what you think while waving your hands around? No. You hang about the edges of the circle, quietly listening to what they’re saying. You look to see who has the most to say vs. who speaks the most often. In this way you get a sense of what others are thinking as well as what you’re thinking. Writing is like this.
When defined that way, involvement can include a number of activities that you might not necessarily think of as important, much less as writing: reading related scholarship, listening to the news, going to a talk, telling someone your idea, organizing the information you already have. Wrapping your mind around your ideas. It doesn’t matter what it looks like for you, the point is that sometimes the most significant form of writing doesn’t even show up on the page.
The second form of writing that counts is work. Work is the physical and mental activity you do in order to actually get words down on the page. Read. Take notes. Write bullets and outlines and mindmaps. Freewrite. Work is the most underappreciated aspect of writing because it’s hard, and can be painfully slow. I’m having this experience right now myself. Between coaching clients, leading retreats, and working on this blog, my book only gets 30 minutes of my day. Right now that involves the ridiculously slow process of reading—maybe 3 pages if I’m lucky. Then writing notes in the margins about what the author said, and a few more in my draft about why that matters for my argument. As I told my writing group a few weeks ago, I feel like an ant dragging toothpicks across a lawn to build a house. And I meant a human sized house. But people, this is writing.
Worst of all, I know half of this stuff won’t even make it to the second draft. And this is probably the hardest part of Work. You can do a shit ton of work and it might not lead you anywhere. It might actually lead you down a very long path, whose sole contribution to your manuscript will be to affirm for you that it’s the wrong way to go. But if I told myself that it didn’t matter because it’s slow? I’d never get a damn thing done.
The third dimension of writing we have to make room for is somewhat easier to bear, and that’s progress. Progress happens when the work we’ve done actually takes our manuscript somewhere other than where it was before, but not all the way to the finish line. Your prose is clearer, better organized. You have a new paragraph that articulates another idea. You elaborate and add nuance to your first draft by incorporating a reference that was suggested by a friend or reviewer. Progress does not necessarily mean that there are more words on the page. Progress is about the quality of the ideas. About clarity, precision, beauty.
I can’t see you, but I see you nodding your head. mmmmmhmmmm, you say. Yes. But think back to the last time you sat down to write and pushed your thinking forward on the page. Did you actually feel good about it? Did it give you that little thrill in your chest? Did you amplify your joy by telling somebody about it? If so, you’re in the happy minority of scholars. If you’re consistently moving your work ahead but still dissatisfied, the problem isn’t that what you’re doing doesn’t count. The problem is your expectations for what you should be doing in your writing are out of step with where you actually are.
Here's the thing: You can’t finish if you don’t make progress. You can’t make progress if you don’t work. And you can’t work if you don’t get involved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not down on finishing. I’m just saying it’s the last and least in a long line of labors your writing requires of you. It’s flashy. And sexy. It’s a pair of stilettos you only wear every other New Year’s Eve.
All forms of writing take courage. All of them take grit. All of them move you somewhere other than where you were before, even if the route they take is roundabout. If you want to know if what you’re doing counts, don’t look at your neighbor, or how close you are to being done. Ask yourself if you were intellectually engaged; what activities you actually engaged in; and whether the writing looks stronger to you. When you have a clearer vision of what writing truly entails, you don’t need a coach or anybody else to tell you if what you’re doing counts.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach