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How to write better and more online (essay)

The Living Document

November 9, 2012

It’s easy to think of writing as a task, a verb in its present participle form, something our brain nags at us to do. Better, though, to think of it as a culture, something woven into the fabric of who we are as thinkers and scholars. But how does that happen? How do we make writing a happy habit? In this post we’d like to suggest a number of ways that writing online and with others can nurture and sustain an academic writing practice.

Go Public! Talk openly about your work, where you’re doing it, who you’re working with, and what your goals are. Tell the important people in your life about your projects. AcWriMo, DigiWriMo, and other projects like THATCamp and HASTAC, promote public scholarship by engaging participants in a conversation about the ways that technology and social media are redrawing the boundaries between our professional and personal work. All these projects seek to make academia more open – whether it be providing free access to academic work, demystifying publishing protocol, or inviting larger discussions about what scholarship is and what it does in the world. A great way to be a public scholar is to blog or tweet about your work. The power of these platforms is that they can function less as tools for content delivery and more as places for the exchange of ideas.

During the month of November, folks around the world, academic and otherwise, will participate in a trio of writing challenges: AcWriMo, DigiWriMo, and NaNoWriMo. Academic Writing Month (from Charlotte and PhD2Published) focuses on academic writing in all its varied shapes and sizes. Digital Writing Month (from Jesse and the English & Digital Humanities program at Marylhurst University) is a course-like meta-challenge that has participants experimenting with the various ways that writing changes in digital space. Both AcWriMo and DigiWriMo are, of course, inspired by the inimitable National Novel Writing Month, which gathers hundreds of thousands of participants each year. Rather than being in competition, each of these events draws together a slightly different audience and tends to their respective needs.

Here are some tips:

A) Don’t just broadcast. Social media platforms have a reputation of being full of people mindlessly sharing banal information. The real power is in having conversations. You won’t get anywhere with these tools unless you use them to talk to people. By all means update the world on your work, but listen harder to what everyone else is doing and respond/comment/reply as much as you can.
B) Turn all your working tasks into opportunities to reflect. If you’re going to a conference why not blog about the concept of academic conferences and how (or if) they work for you. Or maybe arrange to interview specific people. A quick chat now might spark a major idea later.
C) Have a plan. Your blog is your space and the schedule is up to you. The timeline is less important than the intentionality. If you want your blog to create an ongoing discussion, you need to publish frequently. But if you're using your blog to archive good ideas, and the conversations those ideas create, then once-in-a-while publishing might be more apropos.

Collaborate! Another way to get that writerly conversation going is to embed discussion within the writing process itself. We wrote this piece together in a Google Doc. We use the chat-box to discuss ideas and then moved into the main document to write. As we’re writing we often make notes for each other in different colors like: “Oooh, I like that idea but I might describe it as ‘public scholarship,’ what do you think?” And as we establish the stakes of the debate and our own positions, we quickly discover we’ve written much of the piece already. Working this way is fun, but it’s also a way to engage in dialogue and think about audience right from the start. There’s also fewer opportunities to stare into space or let your inadequacies eat you up, because you’ve got a living document to attend to.

Here are some tips:

A) Find a good writing partner. Choose someone you communicate well with and/or whose writing style you like. Communicating virtually can be difficult with the wrong person so don’t put pressure on yourself to write with someone whose communication style you’re simply out of kilter with. It should be fun and instructive, not awkward.
B) Have a routine. Meet in your Google Doc regularly -- maybe once a week if you can -- and take turns proposing topics. The more this work becomes a habit the easier it’ll be to just get into it.
C) Start small. You can write all sorts of things this way, but by far the easiest is a blog post or general discussion piece. For example, try reflecting on a conference you both attended. When you know how you write together you can start to tackle bigger things.

(Jesse offers some additional tips in his article “Theorizing Google Docs: 10 Tips for Navigating Online Collaboration.”)

Reflect! Virginia Woolf craved a room of her own to think and write in. Today none of us are short of places to skim our email, but what happens when you get to your chosen writing location? Maybe you surf the net for a bit, tweet and Facebook a while, order a pair of shoes even. Do you find yourself second-guessing your own abilities as a writer? Or just thinking about everything that isn’t your work? Sometimes we need to carve a space for ourselves, both figuratively and also quite practically, a space in which we can slow down, think and put ideas together freely.

Here are some tips:

A) Write to think. Try not to see all writing as moving toward a finished piece of work. Instead, separate out your writing into thinking-writing and doing-writing. The former is where you hash out ideas and the latter is where you demonstrate them. Then, try to do more thinking-writing than doing-writing and the doing-writing will get better and easier.
B) Experiment. There are so many free tools to help you work through your ideas. These range from using an old-school pad and pen-based brain-dump (i.e., putting all your thoughts about a topic/idea onto paper super quick for considered reorganization), to mind-mapping software that helps you organize your ideas as you go, or even deliciously minimal writing platforms like 750Words. Also, check out: Scrivener and Participad. Try a bunch of tools and find the best one(s) for you.
C) Combine methods. While it’s important for each of us to take ownership of our writing practice, it’s important that we keep that practice flexible and our space permeable to allow for collaboration. Different thoughts will occur to us in different places and with different people, so keep mixing it up to refresh your ideas.

(Charlotte has a blog post coming up on PhD2Published about how she uses 750Words as her own personal therapist.)

During the month of November, you can use AcWriMo, DigiWriMo, and NaNoWriMo to build a network of collaborators and a community of support for your writing. These one-month challenges are less about product than process, and help us all expand and reflect on our writing practice together. Friends don’t let friends write alone.

Bio

Charlotte Frost is principal investigator/editor of Arts Future Book and founder/director of PhD2Published. Jesse Stommel is director of the English and digital humanities program at Marylhurst University and editor of Hybrid Pedagogy.

 

 

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