As someone who worked as a writing center administrator and now coaches faculty writers, I’ve consumed more academic writing advice than the average bear. Writing advice books tend to fall into two general categories: books to improve the quality of one’s writing (whether in a specific genre or at the level of the sentence), and books to increase the quantity of one’s writing.
In the second category, the output side, advice books frequently take a regimented, heavily systematic approach, with titles such as How to Write a Lot and The Clockwork Muse.
To be fair, there’s a lot of value in these books, especially for academic writers who’ve been working on a boom-and-bust model that burns them out each term or those transitioning from a deadline-driven model of graduate coursework into the terrifyingly open period of dissertation writing.
However, like lots of academic women, I’ve begun questioning the value of one-size writing advice that doesn’t take context into account.
I have two daughters. The eldest was born in January 2016. Her first birthday was marked by the festivities leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration. I remember sitting in a coffee shop during the early days of the child separation policy trying to write but navigating over to various news sites and social media accounts. Impotent with rage and despair, and exhausted from not sleeping, the words didn’t come, and the ones that did were pretty lousy.
The second baby was born in 2019 and had almost attended year of daycare when everything shut down. We know now that women haven’t kept up with men when it comes to journal submissions over the past COVID years. The book I wrote and submitted during this period is a blurry thing to me, and I’m fearful of my reader reports. During this time, I also served on a university committee charged with accounting for the “differential impacts” of COVID on faculty productivity. When I cited the study about women’s journal submissions and suggested we might consider what was happening to parents as an equity issue, I was told, “Everyone has a family.” This is certainly true, and especially important to LGBTQ+ faculty whose claims on family have often been dismissed and minimized by policies, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how easily a significant gender equity affecting women’s research and publishing was shunted aside.
In the wake of what we might call all the things, two new writing advice books significantly engage the context and the positions from which we write: Michelle R. Boyd’s Becoming the Writer You Already Are and Cathy Mazak’s Making Time to Write. Both authors are faculty writing coaches, which gives them a broad perspective on the challenges academic writers have been facing the last several years. However, rather than more generalized advice, the books ask writers to reflect on the relationship between their particular contexts and their writing as well as highly individualized and personal needs. For example, both authors warn against following the common writing advice to write first thing in the morning if it does not suit. Mazak calls upon her readers to find their most energetic time of day (she calls it “soaring time”) and Boyd asks readers to identify and then lean into their own highly idiosyncratic writing processes. As Boyd writes, “knowing what conditions support your writing makes it easier to avoid the difficult and derailing emotions inherent to the act.”
Indeed, various kinds of difficulty feature significantly in both books. While Mazak’s book specifically names its goal as enabling women to resist what she refers to as the “toxic, racist, sexist, ableist culture of academia,” the structural challenges of racism and sexism inform the advice given in Boyd’s book as well. Boyd notes that because writing always feels risky and challenging, involves being able to take risks and make mistakes, and also includes demonstrating professional belonging, it’s not surprising that “struggle is made harder for some scholars than others because of the way universities reproduce social hierarchies.”
Reading these two new writing books side by side, it becomes clear that the kind of critical analysis feminist scholars are used to applying to the structures they study may also equip them to conduct writing with a keen eye to what it means to write as a woman within the often rigid and frequently challenging structure of the traditional university. While new writing books that name the structures that make the difficulty of writing harder are no panacea, certainly, given the shame academic writers often feel around scholarly output, they are still damn refreshing.
Katherine Fusco is associate professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno. She also works as a coach, helping faculty connect to values and meaningful goals at midcareer. You can learn more about her at KatherineFusco.com.